Success isn’t something Felix Girard takes lightly.
It’s also something the captain of the Baie-Comeau Drakkar is somewhat oblivious towards. Months after his team equaled a franchise mark for longest regulation unbeaten streak at 15 games, Girard first heard the news when asked by a reporter.
"I didn’t know," he said, deadpanned. "When was that?"
The Drakkar’s success this season has been so quiet, even their players aren’t aware just how much they’ve brought to the small city on the north shore of the St. Lawrence River.
It is, however, understandable how the game that would tie the record could go unnoticed and without celebration. After all, the Drakkar actually lost that night, on Nov. 18, in a 5-4 overtime defeat against their rivals from the south shore of the river, the Rimouski Oceanic. The streak would end in their next game a few days later with a 6-2 loss in Halifax.
No matter. The Drakkar are on the verge of equaling history once more with an 11-game regulation unbeaten streak. With three of their next four games against sub-.500 teams, they could twice tie the mark set by the 2002-2003 edition in the same season. Should the streak remain alive, they will once again need to beat it by beating the league’s top team, the Halifax Mooseheads.
Streaks aren’t something the Drakkar talk much about these days. Winning isn’t even something on the team’s daily topic of conversations. The process trumps the results where head coach Eric Veilleux is concerned and his team is overcoming talent with hard work.
"Work ethic has been our number one asset," he says. "We’re good on defence. We’re good offensively. But we’re not the best anywhere. For us to have success, we need to preach on our work ethic and that’s what we’re doing."
It’s been a season filled with learning lessons for the Drakkar. Veilleux, the erstwhile head coach of last year’s MasterCard Memorial Cup champion Shawinigan Cataractes, is teaching his new group how to succeed and much of what he preaches revolves around hard work and conditioning.
"We just pushed them to their limit," he said. "It took probably about 10 games for them to know and notice they were better than what they were giving at the beginning of the year."
The message isn’t lost in translation. Many of the Drakkar veterans, Girard among them, are seeing the team surpassing expectations the franchise never previously had during their tenure. The Drakkar are, for the first time in a long while, a team with realistic championship aspirations. And now with a coach who reached the pinnacle just a year earlier, the players are willing to pay the price for success.
"He’s not negative," Girard notes. "He’s not pushing us negatively. He’s telling us what we did well and what we need to be better at and when we listen to him, we have good results. So we keep listening to him."
Ask any player who won the national championship with the Cataractes last May and they’ll give a glowing endorsement of their head coach, who guided them through a second training camp after a disappointing second round loss to Chicoutimi. The Cats were heavy underdogs, and their rigorous conditioning helped them prepare for what wound up being four games in five days en route to capturing the MasterCard Memorial Cup.
Girard heard about Veilleux through the grapevine and was thrilled with his addition once he was named head coach in the summer.
But winning didn’t come easy. The Mooseheads snapped their streak in mid-November during a disastrous trip through the Maritimes where the Drakkar would lose three of four games.
Here came another lesson.
"Sometimes, it tests your character," Veilleux said. "We did have a tendency sometimes to get down on ourselves a little bit and there’s no room for this in hockey. You need to learn from what you do well but also learn from what you don’t do as good as well."
"It was our first time facing adversity," Girard added. "If we start losing control of our body, we’re going to lose control of our mind and everybody in the rink will see that. If you get a goal scored on you and you get pissed off, everybody knows that you’re pissed off and it’s hard to come back after that."
The mood is positive in Baie-Comeau, even if Veilleux still needs to give his players a metaphoric kick in the butt once in a while.
Their work ethic, though, won’t be questioned.
"These guys are workaholics," Veilleux said. "They’re pretty special, to be honest."
So special they don’t even know it.