Vilgrain inspired, instilled pride in Haiti ball hockey team

LAVAL, Quebec — Claude Vilgrain first stepped into the locker room of the Haitian men’s ball hockey team as an advisor for the 2022 International Street and Ball Hockey Federation World Ball Hockey Championships and saw something he had never seen in his 51 years of playing ice hockey.

The 59-year-old former NHL forward, who was drafted by the Detroit Red Wings and played 89 games for the Vancouver Canucks, New Jersey Devils and Philadelphia Flyers, faced a locker room filled only with black players.

It was a special moment for Vigrain, who said he’s usually the only black player on a team. It was also special for the players as he is the only NHL player who was born in Haiti.

After his family moved to Quebec, Vigrain was introduced to the sport at the age of 8 through a game of table hockey he received as a birthday present from an uncle. He recalls watching a game between the Montreal Canadiens and the Chicago Blackhawks in March – he says he originally thought the “CH” on the Canadiens jersey stood for Chicago – and he told his parents he wanted to play . He played ball hockey that summer, signed up for ice hockey in the fall, and the rest, he said, is history.

Vigrain grew up wanting to be Canadian legend Guy Lafleur. Ainslie Bien-Aime grew up in Montreal and dreamed of becoming a vigrain.

“Claude is very humble,” said Bien-Aime, a former Haiti captain and current general manager. “Claude was in the NHL. He’s been through a lot off the rink [in hockey]so he brings that energy, that experience in the locker room and the fact that he’s played in the NHL, [he brings] much respect in the room.”

Vigrain knows a thing or two about playing in a short tournament like the World Cup. He played fourth-place Canada at the 1988 Calgary Olympics, won back-to-back championships with Canada in 1996 and 1997 at the Spengler Cup, and coached youth hockey teams at the Alberta Cup. He also drew on his playing history at Laval, where the tournament was held. He played three seasons with the Voisins of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, including 126 points (46 goals, 80 assists) in 69 games in 1982-83. He was named a second-team All-Star alongside teammates Mario Lemieux and Bobby Dollas.

During Haiti’s Group A game against the Czech Republic at Place Bell, Vigrain stood on the bench with his arms crossed and didn’t seem to say much. Bien-Aime called him a reassuring presence. Assistant captain Steven Jean-Denis said he brought that along with strategy and tactical tips.

“There is no message [I give them]. It’s performance on demand,” Vigrain told NHL.com. “I’m telling you, the first shift can cost you the tournament. Be disciplined, stay away from penalties, leave your ego at the door and play as a team and every shift counts.”

The tournament did not go as expected for Haiti, finishing last of eight teams in Group A while some players and staff were lost to coronavirus concerns. Expectations were high after the team won the Group B championship in 2015 with former NHL forward Georges Laraque as an assistant coach.

“[Representation is] very important,” Vigrain said of Haiti having a ball hockey team. “I know when they went to Switzerland [in 2015]They thought they were the halftime show. But they have a chip on their shoulder and they won the tournament, so it matters. I look at the crest, I look at the flag with the hockey sticks and these guys, these guys are proud. They want to do well. They want to be well represented.”

When the thought of building a national team for the 2015 competition came up, more than 75 Haitian players showed up for the training camp. It was a pivotal moment for Bien-Aime, who had played for Canada and won the 2007 ISBHF Worlds.

“I had never played with so many black people,” said Bien-Aime.

The turnout sealed the deal to create the team and reinforced his belief that hockey truly is a sport for everyone.

Today, the Haitian team consists primarily of Canada-based heritage players, meaning they are the descendants of a native-born parent or grandparent; However, they received approval from the Haitian embassy to compete under the flag. The hope is that one day the team will consist of players who live in Haiti. According to Bien-Aime, the goal is that by 2023 they will be able to bring ball hockey clinics and workshops to the Caribbean nation and that there will be roster-building programs in place by 2026.

Vigrain lives in Calgary where he designs parks and playgrounds alongside coaching and skill development work. Although this may have been his first world championship working with the Haiti ball hockey team, he helped lay the foundation for those players and future generations to play the sport.

“He’s a model, he’s an inspiration,” said Jean-Denis. “The fact that he did that [and made it to the NHL], it makes us believe, makes us believe that we can do something, we can do something great, and we have the heart to do it. He is like us. He’s one of us. He started it, so we’re going to continue the movement.”

Photo Courtesy: ISBHF

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