VANCOUVER – Picture this: Antoine Roussel, halfway through his $12-million NHL contract with the Vancouver Canucks, driving home to Quebec in an RV. Wife Alexandra is in the back with their toddlers, Theodore and Raphaelle. Roussel is probably wearing a farmer’s cap and a plaid shirt as they roll through the Prairies.
Can you picture that?
You should. Roussel might be the most “Canadian” guy on the Canucks.
He moved to Canada from France to play hockey when he was 15, played junior in Chicoutimi, Que., married a Canadian girl and became a citizen. His dream is to be a maple syrup farmer when he retires.
So, yeah, a big, honking RV made perfect sense to Roussel when he was trying to get his family home across the heartland after the NHL closed in March.
“It was really fun,” Roussel, 30, told Sportsnet this week of the 5,000-kilometre journey. “You want to drive across Canada and see everything, but we didn’t do it like that. First day we drove through B.C. and it was beautiful. The Prairies were beautiful as well, but they’re so long and vast. It’s crazy to see. But we didn’t do it like a vacation. I rented the RV for one week, and we did (the trip) in three-and-a-half days. That thing can drink a lot of gas.
“It was a little bit more expensive than just flying, but we figured it was safer. First night we stopped in Lake Louise in the parking lot. In the morning, there was still some ice on the lake, and we skated on the lake, my son and I and my daughter. That was the nicest moment of the trip. We just grinded it out (on the highway) for two-and-a-half days after that. My son kept telling me: ‘Quebec is very far, Papa. Very far.’”
The trip home must have seemed as long to Roussel as his trip back to the Canucks lineup this season after he missed nine months with an anterior cruciate knee injury.
The veteran winger starting playing again on Dec. 3 but only began to look like the effective, two-way player he was last season in the final couple of weeks before the NHL stopped for the coronavirus on March 12.
After three months of inactivity, now Roussel is trying to start again as the league inches towards an ambitious summer return, beginning with a scheduled training camp opening of July 10. COVID-19, however, showed Friday it’s still in charge and at the moment Stanley Cup playoff games in August feel about as plausible as Roussel racing a Winnebago in the Daytona 500.
Of course, he would love to play NHL games this summer. But he’s also worried, not about himself, but his family.
The Roussels are expecting their third child at the end of June. Or any day now.
News that the Tampa Bay Lightning closed their training facilities on Friday due to a potential COVID outbreak among players and staff affects Roussel on more than just a professional level.
“So many Dads are in the same situation I am,” Roussel said. “They don’t want to be away from their family. And who knows how long the bubble thing is going to last (if the NHL restarts). You could be there three months, who knows?
“I’m not really concerned about my health and everything. The sad part is to be away for so long. They say in the bubble, they might have some families there. Maybe at the end, but I don’t see my wife and kids coming in and being in the bubble. It doesn’t make sense. The family part is the hard part for sure.”
Roussel noted that there are still a pile of issues to be resolved in negotiations between the NHL and players, who are expected to have the right to opt out of summer hockey.
Roussel and his family spent the last three months on the farm he has bought in Quebec, south of Chicoutimi where Alexandra’s family has long run a maple syrup business, Erabliere au Sucre d’Or.
While he was rehabbing from his reconstructive knee surgery, Roussel took a university course online to learn more about farming sugar maples.
The spring shutdown allowed him to experience a full “sugar season” — the short period at the end of winter when warming causes sap to flow through trees — in Quebec for the first time in his hockey career.
“It made me realize how hard it is to, like, work actually,” Roussel said. “Sometimes in the NHL, you take some things for granted. It’s very nice, and I knew that. I’m a very humble guy. It kind of makes me want to even play more. Sometimes you (have) in your career ups and downs, and it’s a roller-coaster a little bit. But this was another eye-opener. Let’s keep playing for a couple of more years. That’s way more exciting than any work you do.”