Maria Surilas goes behind the bench

The Quebec Major Junior Hockey League (QMJHL) was founded in 1969 and consists of four divisions. The Montreal Juniors are part of the Telus West Division and are currently ranked twelfth out of the 18 teams.

The team ranges in age from 16 to 20. Some players live with host families and all of them have to balance school, hockey, and maintaining a sense of self despite constantly being in the spotlight.

The Montreal Juniors game on Sunday against the Victoriaville Tigres was, as I embarrassingly blurted out to forward Nicolas Chouinard, the first hockey game I have ever attended. As I walked into the empty arena, proudly but self-consciously wearing my media pass, it seemed to me like a sleepy cavern of ice and bleachers. I quickly rushed to a corner of the general section, hunkered into my seat, waited for the spectators to arrive, and hoped no one would notice that I wasn’t a die hard hockey fan or – even worse – an American. In a split second, my eyes snapped from the stands to the ice, where the teams had rushed on and started doing drills, accompanied by the melodic, pounding beats of David Guetta and the Black Eyed Peas.

Junior league hockey players do not play for the money; they don’t make any amount worth mentioning. When asked how they stay motivated, Coach Pascal Vincent placed a clear emphasis on the lives of the boys off the ice and their development as individuals. “They dream of playing pro hockey [and] to be successful, on and off the ice, they know what they have to do. They are learning what it takes to become a better hockey player and a better person,” he explained.

According to the booklet The Fast Track to the NHL, put together by QMJHL Commissioner Gilles Courteau, “a pre-university diploma (college or high school) will give players more options as they search for promising post-playing careers.”

Despite the booklet’s title, some teams prepare for the possibility of a life outside the NHL more than others. Montreal Juniors players have two separate lives to plan, yet they somehow have a clearer image of their futures than I do. Both forward Trevor Parks and Chouinard had concrete plans about what they intended to pursue outside of hockey.

In addition to not attending conventional schools, many players live with host families. At 19, Quebec-born Chouinard has already lived with five different host families, despite his young age. He spoke about how there is a different relationship with every host family, and how he didn’t get along with some, while others he still called every week. In reference to some of his more positive experiences, he revealed: “They feed you, first of all…. When I was younger they would just give us really bad food. But now they really take care of us and they are always there for you. When I was younger, some [families] did it for the money, so [they] didn’t really treat you well…. Now it’s different – they do it because they like you and they want to support you,” Chouinard told me. Here was someone, only a little older than I am, who has been able to adjust to an astonishing diversity of environments in order to do something he is passionate about. This concept seemed a common theme for the Montreal Juniors.

According to Vincent, “ninety-five per cent of the time the guys are going all out…. I’m not saying the people in the NHL don’t work hard…but kids make mistakes [and] it’s more fun in the sense that there are more mistakes so there are more scoring chances.”

Juniors goalie Jean Francois Bérubé phrased this sentiment a bit more strongly when he said, “All the players here are striving to get to the next level…. Pros sometimes…they know [that] they don’t really [have to] try too much but here it’s all people that give it their all every day [and] people like to see that.”

Sometimes the passion of the QMJHL can have devastating consequences. On January 18, Patrice Cormier of the QMJHL’s Rouyn-Noranda Huskies launched an unprovoked elbow on open ice to the head of Quebec Ramparts defenseman Mikael Tam, leaving Tam with severe head trauma and broken teeth. The incident has fuelled much debate within the hockey world about the implications of the league’s no-holds-barred play. Ramparts Coach Patrick Roy has called for a criminal investigation into the hit, and Cormier has been suspended indefinitely pending an internal investigation.

It is clear, however, that the QMJHL’s unrefined character attracts a powerful following. The people in the stands supporting Montreal’s Juniors were exuberant. I was tense the entire game, leaning forward and following the puck with my eyes as if I could somehow help them score if I squinted hard enough. The game on Sunday ended in a win for the Victoriaville Tigres, with a final score of 5-1. Despite the loss, Chouinard explained, “We play because we like it. We want to play hockey, it’s our life. It feels great to see that the fans are there for you.”

16-year-old defenseman Dillon Donnelly confessed that, “here they are pretty serious about school. When I was with [the Moncton Wildcats], they were not as serious about school. Here they really watch you.” Donnelly is interested in sciences and languages and says that he works on academics an average of three hours a day.

Trevor Parks, an 18-year-old Ontario native, talked of his own plan outside of hockey. “Other than hockey, right now I’m taking two online courses in business, so I’d like to get into business, maybe own my own sporting business.”

18-year-old goalie Jean Francois Bérubé, however, confessed that he is completely focused on his hockey career, and is directing all his efforts into pursuing it, taking it as far as he can before dealing with an alternative future.

Of the players I spoke with, Nicolas Chouinard, at age 19, was the most certain of a future beyond hockey: he hopes to become a police officer.