From France to the NHL
I find it mind-boggling that it's possible for a player to grow up in St. Martin D'Heres, France, in the shadow of the French Alps, and less than eight years later, lead hockey's most historic franchise, the Montreal Canadiens, into the playoffs.
What a journey. What a story Cristobal Huet's must be.
Here in Toronto, even with all of the mounds of hockey-related text I read, I've yet to fully learn Huet's story — although from what I hear, it's been told countless times since the 30-year-old goaltender joined the Canadiens last year.
Hockey Night in Canada mentioned a few weeks ago that more than one Montreal-based newspaper had sent a reporter to France to interview Huet's relatives and friends, something that sounds like an intriguing read. My search for any of the resulting articles has turned up nothing, however, so I'm curious if anyone else has seen them.
Anyway, here's what I do know about the man the hockey blogosphere is affectionately calling Crystal Ball.
First of all, while France is far from a hockey power, Huet's actually the fifth French-born NHLer, following the likes of Paul MacLean, Philippe Bozon, Pat Daley and Andre Peloffy.
All of the above, however, were Canadian trained and played in Canada's major junior system in the QMJHL. Not so for Huet, who began playing hockey at 16 and joined the pro ranks four years later with his hometown team, the Grenoble Wolf Burners. He graduated to Lugano of the Swiss league two years later in 1998, but even then, the leap from there to where he is now is a pretty ridiculous one.
Based on that pedigree, has there been a more unlikely candidate to play in the NHL? I can't really think of one off the top of my head, although recent draft picks like Anze Kopitar (from Slovenia) and Yutaka Fukufuji (Japan) come to mind. (Even more interesting still is the fact the Los Angeles Kings drafted all three players.)
Huet's basically France's Gretzky (Fretzky?), as big a hockey star as the French have (funny, that), and has played for his country at the Winter Olympics (1998, 2002) and the World Championship (1999, 2000, 2002, 2004). Ranked 17th in the world, however, France is often battling for qualification position instead of a medal position.
On the ice, it's clear Huet's athleticism is fantastic, and this season he's really looked like he's capable of being a fulltime No. 1 goaltender in the NHL. In postgame interviews, he comes across as a very humble, shy man.
That's what I know. But surely there's more.