Laval, Quebec – Claude Felgrain walked into the locker room of the Haiti men’s hockey team for the first time as a consultant for the 2022 International Hockey League and Street Hockey and saw something never seen before in his 51 years of playing hockey.
The 59-year-old former NHL striker, who was recruited by the Detroit Red Wings and played 89 games for the Vancouver Canucks, New Jersey Devils and Philadelphia Flyers, stood in front of a locker room filled with only black players.
It was a special moment for Fellgren, who said he is usually the only black player on the team. It was special for the players too, as he is the only NHL player who was born in Haiti.
After his family moved to Quebec, Fellegrin was first introduced to the sport at the age of eight through a game of table hockey which he received as a birthday present from his uncle. He remembers watching a game between the Montreal Canadiens and the Chicago Blackhawks in March — he said he originally thought the “CH” on the Canadians’ shirt represented Chicago — and told his parents he wanted to play. He spent the summer playing ball hockey, signed up for ice hockey in the fall, and, as he said, the rest is history.
Fellgreen grew up wanting to be Canadian legend Guy LaFleur. Growing up in Montreal, Ainslie Bien-Aime dreamed of being a Vilgrain.
“Claude is very humble,” said Ben-Aime, a former Haitian captain and current general manager. “Claude was in the NHL. Outside the rink, he’s been through a lot [in hockey]so he brings that energy, he brings that locker room experience, and the fact that he played in the NHL, [he brings] Lots of respect in the room.”
Vilgrain knows a thing or two about playing in a short tournament like the World Championship. He played for Canada in fourth place at the 1988 Calgary Olympics, won back-to-back championships with Canada in the Spengler Cup in 1996 and 1997 and coached youth hockey teams in the Alberta Cup. It also drew on his playing history at Laval, where the tournament was held. He played three seasons with the Voisins of the Major League Hockey League in Quebec, including scoring 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 Dulles.
During Haiti’s Group A match against the Czech Republic at Place Belle, Fellgren stood on the bench with his arms folded and didn’t seem to say much. Bien-Aime described it as a calming presence. Assistant Captain Stephen Jean-Denis said he brought that, along with strategic and tactical advice.
“There is no message [I give them]. It’s performance on demand, Fellgreen told NHL.com. “I tell them the first shift can cost you the championship. 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 out of eight teams in Group A while losing some players and staff due to fears of the Corona virus. Expectations were high after the team won the Group B Championship in 2015 with former NHL striker George Larracci as assistant coach.
“[Representation is] “Very important,” Fellgren said of Haiti having a hockey team. “I know when they went to Switzerland [in 2015], they thought they were the halftime show. But they got a chip on the shoulder and won the championship, so that counts. Look at the logo, look at the flag with hockey sticks, and these guys, these guys are proud. They want to do well. They want to act well.”
When he started thinking about building a national team for competition in 2015, more than 75 Haitian players showed up at the training camp. It was a defining moment for Bien-Aime, who played for Canada and won the 2007 ISBHF Worlds title.
“I’ve never played with so many blacks,” Amy’s statement said.
Attendees struck a deal to create the team and reaffirmed their belief that hockey truly is a sport for everyone.
Today, the Haitian team is mostly made up of heritage players residing in Canada, which means that they are the offspring of a parent or grandparent born in the country; However, they have obtained permission from the Haitian Embassy to compete under the flag. The hope is that one day the team will be made up 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 by 2026 there will be roster building programs.
Fellgreen lives in Calgary, where he designs parks and playgrounds, as well as coaches and does skill development work. Although this was probably his first world championship by working with the Haiti ball hockey team, he helped build the foundation for these players and future generations to practice the sport.
“He’s a model, he’s an inspiration,” said Jean-Denis. “The fact that he did it [and made it to the NHL]It makes us believe, it makes us believe we can do something, we can do something big, and we have the heart to do it. He is like us. He is one of us. He started it, so we’ll keep moving.”
Image Courtesy: ISBHF