VANCOUVER – To keep his mind from wandering during the final months of his recovery from reconstructive knee surgery, Antoine Roussel took a university course for the first time since he played junior hockey in Chicoutimi.
Just turned 30, the Vancouver Canucks winger plans to play a while yet, but is already thinking about what he might do after hockey. A lot of players take business or finance classes to get ready for civilian life.
Roussel’s field of study is a little different.
“Maple syrup,” he said.
We waited for laughter. None came.
Roussel moved to Quebec from France when he was 15 years old to pursue his hockey dream.
Now he’s got hockey and maple syrup. Dude couldn’t be more Canadian if he washed down his bacon with beer between bonspiels.
“My family has a maple-syrup factory,” he explains. “I just wanted to understand the process. It was like one class. It stops almost today.
“All the machinery and all the process, I knew it. But this went into more detail. It kept me busy. Rather than sitting around (waiting to recover) and twisting the mind, getting pissed off, this kept me busy and it was fun.”
Nothing says fun like pure Canadian maple syrup.
Ask Roussel if he likes pancakes and he starts listing maple-syrup uses like he’s Benjamin Buford Blue – “Bubba” – talking to Forrest Gump about shrimp.
“You can do a lot of stuff,” Roussel said, eyes lighting up. “Pancakes, on yogurt, on strawberries. I even make a drink with it.”
Roussel met his wife, Alexandra, when he was playing junior. Her father bought land that contained 6,000 maple trees. As a summer job, Roussel worked on the farm tapping the trees by hand.
But the business has grown, he says. The farm is now automated, and the family bottles and sells its syrup on site, where there is also a restaurant operating during “sugar time” in spring.
The final online assignments from Laval University for Maple Syrup 101 are due this week, so Roussel is under a lot of pressure.
On Tuesday, after missing eight-and-a-half months with torn anterior and medical collateral ligaments in his knee, Roussel returned to the Canucks lineup and scored on his first shift.
In celebration, he tapped his heart and pointed up into the corner of Rogers Arena where the name and image of his friend and mentor, “big brother” Alex Burrows, had been unveiled in the Canucks’ Ring of Honour during a pre-game ceremony.
“I was kind of dreaming about it … but I didn’t think that could be doable and it just happened,” he said Wednesday of his celebration. “It was perfect.”
Did he think about shooting an arrow to the heavens, as Burrows did after special goals to acknowledge the loss of former Canuck Luc Bourdon, killed in a 2008 motorcycle accident when he was only 21 years old?
“That’s not my place,” Roussel said. “That’s his connection to Luc Bourdon; that’s not mine. It’s his move, but there’s more to that. I didn’t know Luc, so I didn’t want to take that away.”
Roussel, at least, delivered a shot of adrenaline to a Canucks team staggering out November. Vancouver beat the Ottawa Senators 5-2.
“First of all, he’s a leader in the room,” coach Travis Green said during Wednesday’s non-practice day. “I think he’s got a strong understanding of the game in itself. Winning. Roo brings a lot of compete in our game, and it’s not negotiable. He competes all the time.”
Before joining Adam Gaudette on the two-on-one rush that led to his backhand goal at 1:50 of the first period, Roussel tried to hit Senators’ Colin White but fell over.
“I don’t know what I was trying to do,” Roussel said. “I just get up and then I saw Gauds leaving with the puck and I felt he was lonely, so I might as well go with him.”
The Canucks have missed Roussel.
They’ve missed his intensity and under-rated skill on the ice, missed his humour and leadership in the dressing room.
“I think people underestimate his skill,” captain Bo Horvat said. “They always see him as a grinder, a pest out there, I guess you would say. But he’s got a lot of skill. It takes more (than you realize) to score that backhander goal. He had to put it up there in a hurry. People underestimate his shot and his skill in this league. I saw it first hand last year.”
Roussel had a career-high 31 points last season in just 65 games before shredding his knee in a March 13 game against the New York Rangers.
“It was challenging because it was long,” he said of the recovery. “But I didn’t think too much about it. I knew it was going to be a process. I think the harder (part) starts almost now, to go back into the league, go back into the pace. It isn’t going to be easy. The league’s better and better every year. I’ve just got to keep up to it.
“Scoring early is one thing, feeling really good about my game is another thing.”
How did he feel the morning after?
“A little sore, a little tired,” he said. “I told my wife it’s been a while since I felt like this. It’s awesome. I play hockey for a living; there are worse things in life.”