Robin Bouchard
Robin Bouchard – The Great Undrafted

Although it’s common for a hockey team to be associated with just one rink, many teams in Saguenay, Quebec, don’t have a home rink to call their own. The games and practices for the Predateurs of Jonquière, for example, are spread out among four different rinks; often they’re held at Le Foyer de Loisirs et de la Culture in Arvida, one of the many neighbourhoods that make up Saguenay.

Like many municipal arenas, “Le Foyer” is a multiplex. A stone’s throw from the mile-long Rio Tinto Alcan Arvida aluminum smelter,  housing a music school and swimming pool in addition to the ice. The walls around the main arena, with seating capacity for 1,300 spectators, have displays of events important to the community. There’s a photo exhibit that depicts the development of the mini-city of Arvida, where more than 250 company houses were constructed in an amazing 135 days back in 1926 to support the smelter’s demand for workers.  And there’s a display in honour of one of the hometown hockey players, Robin Bouchard, who’s number, 32, is hanging from the rafters.

Both displays are important. If aluminum is considered the economic lifeline of Saguenay, hockey is certainly the blood pumping through her veins. Here, in the land of hockey, there are few arenas that don’t have some kind of dedication to a local player who did well. This particular player, an undrafted journeyman slugging it out in the minor leagues, wracked up some amazing records, but two, in particular, are nothing short of great.

He Shoots, He Scores

Growing up, Bouchard’s parents never pressured him to play hockey, he just signed up again with each new season. So did pretty well all the boys in his neighbourhood. In their unfinished basement in Arvida, his dad hung strips of carpet on the walls so he could practice his shots. He spent his lunch hours and free time there, where, with a large collection of pucks, he practiced his shots with a stick with a curve his dad helped him shape, heated up in their oven. During wintertime, they’d be on the outdoor rinks. Hockey was always present.

When, as a player on a Pee-Wee AA travel team, the coach moved Bouchard from being a forward to defence, there was no argument from his parents. Bouchard’s dad told him: if he wants you at defence, you’ll play defence. Being a defender didn’t slow him down one bit: by the end of that season, he lead the league in goals scored. As a defenceman.

“Maybe I should have stayed as a defenceman,” Bouchard quipped, years later. “I might have played in the NHL.”

Bouchard had a knack for netting the puck

Bouchard had a knack for netting the puck. The right winger had spent his last junior year playing for the Shawinigan Cataracts in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League where he had 52 goals and 54 assists in 70 games for a total of 106 points. To put that into perspective, that same season – 1993-94 – the Los Angeles King, Wayne Gretzky, was the NHL point leader with 130 – just 24 more than Bouchard; last year, Pittsburgh Penguin Sidney Crosby was the point leader, with 108 points – just two more than Bouchard.

Despite Bouchard’s scoring prowess, the scouts weren’t knocking on his door and he wasn’t considered for the NHL draft. That didn’t stop him from pursuing a career as a professional hockey player, though. Bouchard found work for the French-Canadian owned Roanoke Express out of Roanoke, Virginia in the East Coast Hockey League. His very first game threatened to prove his scoring skills, bagging a goal off a wayward slap shot.

And then, nothing.

Bouchard’s stick went cold.

For the next nine games, the former scoring hotshot was in the freezer. Express Coach Frank Anzalone responded to this lacklustre performance by trading him to the Columbus Chill. There, in Columbus, Bouchard’s stick went hot once again. In the remaining 46 games of the Chill’s season, Bouchard posted 30 goals and 33 assists.

In all, Bouchard played in nine different leagues in his 16-year career as a professional hockey player, but most of those years were spent in Muskegon, Michigan, playing for the Muskegon Fury of the International Hockey League and, later, the Muskegon Lumberjacks. With the Lumberjacks, on March 21, 2010, Bouchard made the biggest milestone of his career.

All-time Scoring Record — with an Ironic Twist

Bouchard’s jerseys on display in Arvida, Quebec

That milestone happened during a home game, against the Quad City Mallards, coached by none other than Frank Anzalone. Off a pass from teammate Todd Robinson with 5:50 left in the first period, the 36-year old Bouchard scored his 683rd goal as a professional player. That smashed a modern-day record set the year before by Boston-born Don Parsons of the Bloomington Prairie Thunder. The fans went wild and play was stopped. Bouchard’s teammates cleared the bench and gathered around him on the ice to celebrate. Skaters came on the ice and skated around the rink waving celebration banners. Then 683 pucks were dropped from the rafters onto center ice to honour the achievement. Bouchard thanked the fans, teammates and the Lumberjacks organization for their support and a banner was raised to the rafters in commemoration.

The script couldn’t have been imagined better than what real life delivered. Both men, Bouchard and Anzalone, had been there when, as a rookie, Bouchard made his scoring debut as a professional hockey player — and the 9-game drought that followed that lead to the rookie’s trade. And, ironically, both were there, 16 years and 682 goals later when, as a veteran, Bouchard shattered the scoring record.

Robin Bouchard, celebrating his 682nd goal

If the truth be told, the odds were against him ever breaking the record. For one thing, the Muskegon Lumberjacks were going to be dismantled at the end of that 2009-2010 season, so the clock was against him. And, to increase sales and build the hype, a banner was hung up in the arena showing the record-breaking countdown – which had to be modified when it was discovered that 18 goals he’d scored when playing for a team in Italy couldn’t be considered. With the countdown publicly on, players from other teams were always shadowing him even more than usual, trying to prevent him from putting another one, or two, pucks in the net.

Bouchard, as it turned out, prevailed.

At the end of that season, with 687 goals under his belt, Robin Bouchard retired from playing professional hockey.

Scoring Streak

Bouchard’s 17-game scoring streak is a professional hockey record.

This plaque at the Foyer de Loisirs in Arvida honours Robin Bouchard’s 17-game scoring streak, a professional hockey record. Bouchard, despite being a prolific scorer, went undrafted by the NHL.

The word “streak” conjures up something that is short and limited. Bouchard had a scoring streak that was neither quick, or unsubstantial, scoring at least one goal in 17 consecutive games. That’s another professional hockey record that Bouchard proudly holds. There are many more milestones, like how he broke the 60 goal barrier in his final season, and the the five Colonial Cup championships he helped win, four of those with Muskegon.

In 2012, the Muskegon Lumberjacks retired Bouchard’s #32 both on behalf of both the the Lumberjacks and the Fury. As his wife Lisa and their two children looked on, Ryan and Emily, Bouchard looked back at his playing career.

“Growing up, I played four years of junior hockey. I was thinking I was going to make millions of dollars playing hockey. I did not.”

“Scoring goals is one thing you just can’t teach a kid,” Bouchard says. “You can teach him how to skate, how to stickhandle, how to play defence. But being in the right place at the right time — you can’t teach that.”

And in hockey, says “Bouch” as he’s known to his fans, there’s no better feeling than scoring goals.

After hanging up his skates, Bouchard stayed in Muskegon and now works as the assistant sales manager for a Chevrolet dealership. But his roots back to his hometown are still deep. During the 50th Tournoi Pee-Wee de Jonquière in 2014 –  one of the oldest Pee-Wee tournaments – Bouchard was honoured and that’s when his number, 32, was sent to the rafters at Le Foyer de Loisirs. Bouchard played in the Jonquiere Pee-Wee Tournament three times – with the Éclairs of Arvida (1984-1985), the Marquis of Jonquière (1985-1986) and, finally, with the Orioles of Arvida (1986-1987).

The 51st edition of the Tournament begins in just over a week from now, and the Predateurs de Jonquière will play its second tournament match at Le Foyer, underneath the banner that bears Bouchard’s #32. Before they play that game, I will tell the coaches this story – not that they won’t already know it as he’s a legend in this town – but I will show them that banner hanging high above Le Foyer’s center ice and I will ask them to tell our boys how great a player that Robin Bouchard was. Perhaps, like him, they will have the courage to play well and his story might inspire them to play well enough to win.

After all, as Bouchard proved, every game can mean a goal. And with every goal, there can be a win.