By Marc-André Breault – I present to you Alain Charbonneau, a big left winger who went through the Charles-Lemoyne College Midget AAA before playing 208 games in the QMJHL.
After your time in the Midget AAA, you were drafted by the Chicoutimi Saguenéens. How did it go and what was your reaction?
It is obvious that compared to the central scouting, I came out later than where they had me on their list. So, for sure, draft day was a pretty special day. According to central scouting, I was the 15th prospect and in those years, there were 12 teams. I finally came out 51st. So, for sure, it was a pretty tough day. After my team interviews during the summer, before the draft, I had the feeling that it would be Chicoutimi. When the fourth round came, I told my father that the only place I would be happy to go to was Chicoutimi. I have no idea why, it’s a feeling that I had. When it was Chicoutimi’s turn, they called my name. I was happy at the time, that’s for sure. But I was still as disappointed with the rank where I was drafted.
You played 2 seasons in Chicoutimi temporarily moving to Sherbrooke for half a season. How did your first two seasons go?
My junior career was still quite special. When I was 16, I arrived in Chicoutimi. We still had a big team, a good team. Only two of us were 16. I still had a respectable season. I was able to play 56 games, which is very good for a 16-year-old player. I was used a lot on the power play, surprisingly. I would position myself in front of the net, which was always my role in my junior years.
The second year, I arrived at the camp and I had a good meeting with the coach. He had given me the role of protecting two young players of small stature. Unfortunately, in the first exhibition game, I suffered a shoulder injury. Serious injury, right shoulder dislocation which caused me to miss about three or three and a half months. I had the choice to have surgery and solve the problem completely or rest a month and a half without playing. So I decided not to have the surgery. It was my draft year and at 17, you still have hope of being drafted. There was a Quebec prospect list and I was 28th or something like that. So I didn’t want to miss 6 months, I just wanted to miss three months or so. That’s why I decided not to have the surgery.
Then, when I came back during the holidays, Chicoutimi made a big trade with Sherbrooke. They went out and got Suchy, who was the best defender in Canada, Bruce Richardson and David Gosselin and traded 5 or 6 young players. It’s been a really miserable year. The team was very young. It went lukewarm with the coach. He was an old school coach named Robert Mongrain. School for him was not really important and I didn’t have too much trouble. For my parents, there was no way that I would put school aside for hockey. It created a cold with the coach and I had a fairly difficult half-season both with hockey and on a personal level. There was no connection with the coach, we did not win. It was a weird situation, I would say.
How was it away from home?
Of course, for me, my brother Patrick came before me. He played junior 4 years before I arrived. We didn’t play against each other. When I arrived at 16, he left when he was 20. He was drafted professional and went to play in the Ottawa Senators’ farm system. I knew what to expect, I knew what it was. For us, the Charbonneau, hockey was and still is the center of our lives. So making that sacrifice for me was not something special. Playing hockey was my goal. I used hockey to get an education at the same time. I knew I probably wouldn’t have the opportunity, like Pat, to play professional. I didn’t have that talent. I wanted to go as far as possible and use hockey to go to university. Which I achieved since I went to Concordia University. I have a bachelor’s degree in finance and it was really hockey that allowed me to go there. I had financial and support in regards to school and hockey.
With Chicoutimi, you had the chance to play with Marc Denis. How was he at that time? What kind of goaltender and person was he?
I didn’t just play with him, he was my boarding partner. He was a great person. It was amazing. Personally, by far, by far the smartest hockey player I have ever known. He was a machine; it was amazing. At school, in grade 12 (secondary 5 in Quebec), without exaggerating, he had a general average of 98%. When you have 99% or 100% in religion, it is something special. He really is an amazing individual. We were playing cards, he’s a guy who was at pro camp, he was going to Colorado and he was missing a month and a half of school. He was coming back and going to the World Junior Championship. He was going to school about 6-7 lessons a session and he had great marks.
I remember an anecdote… we were playing card together. We were five guys, four of us were hockey players and he is doing homework at the same time. When I asked him what he was doing, he said he was doing Philosophy homework. Two or three months later, I asked him how his homework was and he replies that he got 100% or 98% something like that. The following year, I was in the same Philosophy class and the teacher made us study the text of Marc Denis. The one he wrote while playing cards with us. His own text was the example that the teacher wanted us to do. He did it without concentrating too much. He was a truly special individual.
What freaked me out about him is that when he spoke with people in English, he changed his voice. When he came back in French, he spoke with us as usual. He’s a really nice, super nice guy. When he met his wife, Marie-Josée, with whom he is still with, I was boarding with him and they really are two great people.
In Val d’Or, you rubbed shoulders with players like Jean-Pierre Dumont, Steve Bégin and even Roberto Luongo. Tell us about these players.
Yeah ! It was special. Val d’Or for me was a bit like the year after. The first year we won the cup. The following year, I returned to Val d’Or after what happened in Chicoutimi and Sherbrooke. I was traded during the draft to Val d’Or. I was once again injured during a fight and I had a dislocated my shoulder again. There, I had no choice but to have surgery. I had such loose ligaments that as soon as I lifted my arm, my shoulder would pop out. I returned only in January with them. We had the big team. We went looking for players in Drummond and everywhere. I didn’t have a big role and I was the 13th forward. Just being around these guys was really amazing.
Jean-Pierre Dumont was a really quiet guy. He was a very, very talented guy. He scored goals in the playoffs, he surpassed Guy Lafleur’s record with 31 goals. I learned a lot from his way of playing in front of the net. He was a guy who played well at the net, he always positioned his stick to be available. He was really a guy who played in the crease, a bit like I played. So, watching him play, I learned a lot. How to position myself well, how to stand out and how to free up my stick. My game really went up a notch watching Jean-Pierre Dumont play.
Steve Bégin was simply incredible. He was a character. Everything that he did was always 200% even in practice. What we saw with the Canadians was exactly that Steve Bégin in junior. There were never half measures with him. He wasn’t a guy who talked a lot or took up space. He was quiet. But, when he got up and said, “Let’s go boys, let’s go” and he looked you in the eye, you had no choice but to follow. He was like a little Maurice Richard. His face spoke. He was truly a warrior. He didn’t have the talent to play in the NHL. He wasn’t even close. He didn’t have a big shot, great skating or good hands, but he worked so hard. What we saw of him in Montreal, eating the boards, he was like that in junior and he is like that in his life too. I still talk to him because his daughter is in my boy’s class and he’s still the same person. He knows no half measures and when he does something, it’s still 200%.
Roberto Luongo was, for me, the hockey player who made me win my two championships, the President’s Cup, both in Val d’Or and in Bathurst. I could tell he was just too strong for the league. When he decided he was playing goal, he was playing goal. In the finals in Rimouski, the shots were 40 to 8 for Rimouski and we were leading 2-0. When Roberto decided it was over, it was over. He was tall, he took up space, he was so focused, he was in his bubble. For me, he’s really by far the best I’ve played with and even against whom I’ve played. I even played against Lecavalier and Daniel Brière, but Luongo was really special.
By ending your career in Acadie-Bathurst with the Titan, you were able to play with François Beauchemin. Was he already dominant on the ice?
The last year in Val d’Or, most players had left and I played on the first line. Before Christmas, I had 24 goals in 24 games with the Foreurs. Then there was the big trade of Roberto Luongo with Léo-Guy Morissette which was in the media everywhere. It was like cheating, he sold Luongo and I was in that trade. I found myself in Bathurst with a very, very good team. We had François Beauchemin on defense and there was Jonathan Girard too. A player who went under the radar a bit because he played little with the Bruins and he had a car accident and never made it afterwards. He would have played 25 years in the NHL. He was our dominant player. He was one of the smoothest skaters I have ever seen. He did everything on the ice. He was fast, he was physical and had an incredible shot. He was better at hockey than François Beauchemin.
To come back to François, he was a bit like Steve Bégin, he was a guy who had a lot of character. I had known him for a long time. He was a little guy from Sorel and I played against him a lot in my minor hockey. He was a year younger than me. Back then, I was in the big and tall players and François was very strong physically, so we had a good rivalry on the ice. I knew him as a person. He was a really good leader. He was our leader. He was much more vocal. When you dragged your feet, he didn’t hesitate to tell you. He would have serious fits in the dressing room when we didn’t show up. He was a serious guy and all business. He was an example to follow on the ice and off the ice by his excellent work ethics.
Are there other players who have impressed you during your career in the QMJHL? Which one stood out the most?
Daniel Brière for sure. When he took the puck, it was very difficult to take it away. He was very fast. He was playing with two big guys, Gordie Dwyer and Bartanus. Me, I played during the Granby Predators Memorial Cup run when I was 16 years old.
Also, Francis Bouillon, was quite a defender. At that time, I didn’t think he would make the pros because back then, size was more important than it is today.
Georges Laraque was Georges Laraque. I played against him when I was 16 too. He’s quite the character. He was skating, it was making noise. He was big, he was strong, he was powerful, he was sick.
Vincent Lecavalier was quite the skater. He and (Brad) Richards were more frail physically but very fast and they generated a lot of attack. Richards had a very good “hockey sense”. The two together, it was beautiful to see them play. They found each other on the ice.
You have completed your Junior career with the Knights of St. John in Junior AAA. Why did you come back to your hometown?
At 20, it was following a season in which we won the President’s Cup and that we went to the Memorial Cup. The following season, several 19-year-olds left and the team was rebuilding. We started the year with three 20-year-old players, including 2 defensemen and me at forward. In November, Mathieu Benoit, a former 60 goals scorer, had difficulty in the AHL and in the ECHL. He decided to return to junior. With our defense, they couldn’t afford to cut one of our 20-year-old defensemen and I had a bad start to the season, so I just got cut. For a 20-year-old, you have to produce, and since we had an average team and I’m a player who completes plays more than he generates them, things were not going so well for me. Mathieu Benoit, who took my place, scored nine goals in a game just two weeks after his return. First time in 20 years that a player scored more than eight goals in a game. When Mathieu arrived, I knew it was me who would leave. I tried to be traded hoping to return to Val d’Or because I had been there, but with Les Morissette, nothing was ever easy, so I finished my junior career with the Knights.
I was the timekeeper for Les Chevaliers during the team’s 4 seasons in St-Jean. The pleasure of the timekeeper is to be well located to hear many things. When you replied to the other players that your shoulders were finished, did you have something else or is it always the same injuries?
Nope ! Even today, I can’t really work. If I force at arm’s length with my hand at 90 degrees, it’s not perfect. When I played senior a few games, as soon as I tried to hold a jersey or anything, my shoulder had a tendency to want to pop out.
You became head scout with the Sherbrooke Phoenix in the QMJHL. What was the process for becoming a head recruiter?
After my junior career, I went to Concordia University and played there for a year. I was there for school and the team recruited me afterwards. It was more or less good. Mario Pouliot was the coach in St-Hyacinthe in Midget AAA and my father worked for them as a scout and he needed an assistant. I was an assistant for a season. Kristopher Letang was one of our players and I went to the QMJHL draft to see him get drafted. I met a gentleman from central scouting who was looking for people from my region and asked me if I wanted to be a scout. I accepted and I was a recruiter for eight years with the central scouting.
At some point, my brother Pat retired and I took him with me to central scouting and he was in charge of the goaltenders, because the one who was there before had just left. Quickly, me and Pat were passionate and we were doing a lot and we got pretty high up in central scouting. Mr. Pierre Leduc, director of central scouting, became Mr. Courteau’s right-hand man and the position of director became available. Pat got the job. He spoke French and English better than me, he had a more vocal and amicable personality than me. I was his right-hand man for 3-4 years. We met Jocelyn Thibault and we went to the Canada game.
When you work for Central Scouting, we are the ones who take care of making the under-16 team in Canada. We were in Halifax, Jonathan Drouin and Anthony Duclair, we had a good team. Donald Audette was the coach and Jocelyn Thibault was the goalie coach. The whole team was in a hotel and we and Jocelyn were in another hotel. So we bonded. Then Jocelyn created the Sherbrooke Phoenix and he thought of my brother and appointed him general manager. When it came time to look for a head scout, they immediately thought of me.
If I’m not mistaken, your father was also a recruiter.
My dad was a Midget AAA scout for 25 years. When we played junior, my father had been approached to be a scout, but he didn’t want to do it while we were in the league. When I left the league, he was a scout for three different teams. He won the Memorial Cup with Bathurst. The three of us have been in scouting at the same time for a few years. We brought him with us to Phoenix. My father was one of the scouts who saw the most games in Quebec. Weekends of 4-5 games were not uncommon. There were no more children at home, so he took advantage of it. He was really passionate.
Can you describe the work that a head scout does for a QMJHL team?
We always work as a team because we cannot have eyes everywhere in Quebec. It’s finding guys you can trust, guys who see a lot of hockey. We don’t have huge payrolls at the junior level, so you have to find passionate people. It is certain that having been at central scouting for 6-7 years, I had the chance to meet several people. I already knew who to go to for support. We created a good team with good people with whom we had fun. Because you have to have fun. We’re not doing this for money, that’s for sure. I had five scouts below me. Until the day before the repechage, we worked as a team. We made our lists together, we persisted, we presented our points… We created a list of players we wanted according to what the GM asked us.
Every year, it’s a little different. For years he has asked for more “grit”, character, sometimes it’s more speed depending on the holes you have in your team. In the NHL, you have 5-6 years to develop them. You can take the best player available. Whereas in the junior, in the first round and second round, you can go with the best available but then you go with your needs. Because in junior, it’s 3-year cycles, you can’t develop players for 5-6 years. So my role is to work as a team until the draft. The day of the draft, it’s me who makes the decisions, it’s my “Show”. I was talking about it with Pat, my CEO, and if I had any hesitations, I could talk about it with my colleagues too.
You are now a school-level coach in high school. How did the idea of being a coach come about?
When I played hockey, I was not a talented player. I had a big frame, I was a scorer with a good shot. But, I had no speed and no explosion. I was a player who had an excellent understanding of the game, however. Often the coach wanted to match the lines and sometimes the coach relied on me. I saw things that others did not see. I liked coaching and everything that is done behind the bench. It was always in me. My last years of scouting, my children were a little older. Zakary was in school hockey, Lucas in the AAA structure and my youngest in minor hockey. Being a head coach requires a lot of time. I had made a lot of family sacrifice, I have a great wife who loves hockey too.
I questioned myself after my career in Sherbrooke. There, here in St-Jean-Sur-Richelieu, at the Polyvalente Marcel-Landry, there is the school program that Zak would like to participate in. They opened a junior category, secondary 1. Before, there was a juvenile and a cadet. They were looking for a coach and I thought it was near my house. I’m a night shift worker in distribution, practices are at 7:30 am or 4:30 pm, no travel, I’m home by 6 pm and weekends home too. It was a perfect fit in my schedule and I wanted to try coaching one day. Mario Pouliot is a coach who influenced me a lot. Then the Oursons option arrived and it was perfect for my schedule. I met Stéphane Fogues who is the manager of Les Oursons and I sold my salad telling him that I knew very well that I had a strong personality and that I wanted to try. He gave me the job five years ago and I’m still here.
Is being a coach something you would like to continue doing in the future?
At the moment, I have a bachelor’s degree in finance. I work in distribution, which has nothing to do with my baccalaureate in finance. Why do I work in distribution? Because I work in the distribution of frozen, ice cream. Ice cream works in summer and in winter it’s quiet. So, in the summer I work like crazy and in the winter I can play hockey. So, I have a job that I am not passionate about, but which allows me to pursue my passion. It’s a dream to play hockey full time. I currently live from hockey almost full time. But, I don’t have the salary that goes with it. When my children are gone, am I going to try? It is very likely. Because it is really a passion for me. I’ve been a coach for just 5 years. Every year I learn a lot and I still have a lot to learn. I really, really like that. If one day it allows me to be in hockey full time, I will definitely do it.
Do you think that the school level, which is growing more and more, should be even more put forward so that young people evolve as much in sport as in school?
School hockey is the future for sure, but we have to find a way for the best to play against the best at a more reasonable cost than at present. If we look at the American development program, the state decided to take the top 25 17-year-old players from all over the country and they invented a development program with incredible coaching and all for free. My oldest, Zak, just finished high school playing five seasons for the PML Oursons. It’s incredible the friendships he has made, the bond of belonging and above all the pride of having worn this jersey. Hockey is a school of life and for me, school hockey is really the path that hockey should take and especially not only in private establishments. The public is able to do the same if the school board and the government help them.
Thank you very much, Mr. Charbonneau, for giving us all this time. We wish you every success in your future endeavours.
En français sur Le Hockey Herald.