Val-d’Or built up a juggernaut last season, one that captured the Quebec League title and reached the Memorial Cup. But after losing key stars, the Foreurs needed start over. Good thing for them they know how to create a winner.
The Val-d’Or Foreurs had only been in the Quebec League two years when a young goaltender named Roberto Luongo moved up from Montreal for the 1995-96 season. By his third year in the small mining town, Luongo hoisted a championship trophy.
“We won in four straight against Rimouski, and the fourth game was at home,” Luongo said. “It was just craziness. It was unreal. The city was going nuts. You can’t top that as the best moment there.”
Three seasons after that, the Foreurs would once again climb to the top of the ‘Q’ thanks in part to defenseman Alexandre Rouleau. And while the Pittsburgh draft pick never played in the NHL, he has already brought glory back to the town he played junior in, delivering Val-d’Or its third league championship last season as a 30-year-old GM.
Rouleau was part of a group that bought the Foreurs in 2012. Still playing pro in France at the time, he was building a summer residence in Val-d’Or when the opportunity arose. Despite all his experience in hockey being on-ice, he was installed as GM.
“It was mixed feelings,” Rouleau said. “I played here from 1999-2002 and won the Cup in 2001, so that was the logo and vision I was living with.”
Despite his green management skills, Rouleau constructed a good team last season that became great once he traded for goalie Antoine Bibeau (Toronto, 172nd overall in 2013) and defenseman Ryan Graves (Rangers, 110th in ’13), among others. With all-world sniper Anthony Mantha (Detroit, 20th in ’13) already in the fold, the Foreurs took off. Mantha has left for the pro ranks now, but his 230 points in 189 games won’t be the only thing Rouleau remembers about him.
“Anthony was a great ambassador,” he said. “He was really dedicated to the fans, the jersey and the kids in the community…and he was a great player on the ice.”
Bibeau was named MVP of the playoffs and had several signature games at the Memorial Cup. The Foreurs were eliminated in the semifinal by the eventual champs from Edmonton in excruciating triple-overtime.
Picking up the mantle this season is Nicolas Aube-Kubel, a Philadelphia pick (48th in ’14) who played behind Mantha on the right wing. He doesn’t have Mantha’s pure scoring punch, but he’s a dogged puck pursuer who will get a chance to flourish in his third junior campaign.
“Definitely a leader,” Rouleau said. “He’s going to have a great opportunity to produce here. We lost our whole power play from last year, so we’re going to need him big-time.”
Val-d’Or’s chances of repeating in the ‘Q’ are slim. Along with Mantha and Bibeau, the team lost star defenseman Guillaume Gelinas, a free agent signing by Minnesota.
The team’s top draft hope this season is rugged blueliner Olivier Galipeau, who will likely go in the early to middle rounds thanks to his crease-clearing abilities and size. So while the rebuild is on, Rouleau is confident in his ability to attract players, despite the fact Val-d’Or is a community of a little more than 30,000 people located many hours west of all but one other team in the league (Rouyn-Noranda).
“It’s a great outdoor town,” Rouleau said. “Fishing and hunting, plus there’s cool nightlife for players who are 18 and older. The players are such heroes here.”
“That six-hour drive was a long ways from home,” Luongo said. “But once we finally got there, the transition went really well. Seamlessly, I think. They put me with another Italian family, which was great, and there were no issues. It was a small town, but the people were very warm and other than the fact it was really cold, it was great.”