MONTREAL — Francis Bouillon’s career was unbelievable.
As in, it is literally impossible to believe that he made it to the NHL and lasted there for 14 seasons.
If you had told an 18-year-old Bouillon he’d be announcing his retirement from the league nearly 22 years later, even he would’ve thought you were certifiable.
This is a guy who, after being passed over twice at the NHL draft, figured the closest he’d ever come to the top professional rank would be as a roller hockey player.
Who could blame him? Generously listed at five-foot-eight, weighing a buck-98 soaking wet, Bouillon hardly fit the profile of a typical defenceman from the NHL of the late ‘90s.
But for as far-fetched as his dream was, he never gave up on it.
His roller hockey career started then ended abruptly just a few months after captaining Michel Therrien’s Granby Predators of the QMJHL to a Memorial Cup win in 1996. Bouillon then paid his dues in the ECHL for a season before moving on to the now-defunct IHL for another.
It was in the summer of 1998 that Therrien picked up the phone and offered Bouillon a chance to prove himself in the AHL with the Montreal Canadiens‘ affiliate in Fredericton, N.B. And it was in 1999 that Bouillion made his NHL debut with Montreal.
"I owe my career to Michel," said Bouillon. "It was in junior that he took an interest in helping me, staying on the ice with me after practice to help me develop. He believed in me. He gave me every chance, and I’m sure he helped convince Alain Vigneault to give me my first chance in the NHL."
He’d go on to score 36 goals and 124 assists in 831 regular season and Stanley Cup playoff games combined, but Bouillon’s production was merely a footnote in a career defined by his relentless tenacity and a willingness to play a fearless brand of hockey. He had a knack for laying players out with punishing hits, and despite being at an obvious disadvantage he never shied away from shielding his teammates from the NHL’s toughest fighters.
"I played hard, my work ethic was strong," said Bouillon. "I always wanted to stand up for my teammates."
Bouillon was well appreciated by those he defended.
"He was so [expletive] tough, some guys refused to fight him," said Canadiens assistant captain Tomas Plekanec Thursday morning.
And Therrien interrupted Bouillon’s press gathering Thursday evening to remind everyone that the player he always believed in was a "true warrior."
Bouillon also made as big of an impression on his opponents.
"As a smaller player you have to be able to defend yourself and I thought he did an outstanding job of that throughout his career," long-time foe Darcy Tucker told Sportsnet. "He was adored by the fans in Montreal for a reason."
If Bouillon had won over Montreal’s fans, it had never been more apparent than when he dropped Tucker with a punch after a sequence of events from a 2006-portion of the Canadiens’ longstanding rivalry with the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Everything started with a devastating hit by Bouillon on Leafs forward Kyle Wellwood. Tucker replied by blindsiding Bouillon with a hit of his own.
But it was Bouillon’s response to Tucker’s hit that will stand as the lasting image of his career.
"We had an ongoing battle, it wasn’t just one night," said Tucker. "I was playing with Kyle and he was a pretty big key to my success. If he had gotten hurt, it would’ve really hurt me.
"Of course, my hit was probably not the cleanest of hits [laughs], but your instincts take over in the heat of the moment. Frankie didn’t like it. He got up and hit me real hard in the nose—it sure hurt like hell."
These are the memories hockey players hold dear. Bouillon will share his version of the story with his sons Michael and Anthony for years to come.
"People come up to me all the time in the streets just to talk to me about that incident," said Bouillon. "I got frustrated. It was a clean hit that I threw on Wellwood and when I see that once again it was that guy—Darcy Tucker—who gave me a cheap hit, I was like oh my god, I want to do something for me, for the fans, for my teammates and destroy that guy."
But like Tucker, Bouillon doesn’t harbour any resentment.
"We didn’t like each other on the ice, but if I saw Darcy now, I’d tell him I really respected how tough he was to play against."
Bouillon’s career was also marked by his benevolence. He considers winning the Jean Beliveau award in 2007 for his involvement with the community to be his most cherished NHL memory.
"What guys don’t see unless you’re behind the scenes is that he’s such a great human being," said Canadiens forward Lars Eller. "He was someone that was easy to look up to as a young guy. He treated everyone with respect. And he deserves everyone’s respect for the career he had."
Bouillon will now spend the majority of his time with his family and focus on his role on the board of the Canadiens alumni association.