Yohann Auvitu was the best hockey player in his city, a Parisian suburb of around 60,000 people called Ivry-sur-Seine. By a country mile.
The only problem?
“I was the only one,” chuckled Auvitu (pronounced oh-VEE-too). “In five generations, probably.”
OK, so Ivry-sur-Seine isn’t exactly Markham, Ont., or St. Albert, Alta., where every kid on every block wants to be the next Steven Stamkos or Jarome Iginla. Auvitu just wanted to be like his uncle, Laurent, a French national teamer as a junior, and that path takes him to Edmonton this fall, where he has a genuine shot at an NHL job.
With defenceman Andrej Sekera still recovering a his torn ACL suffered in last spring’s playoffs, there is a job open for a defenceman who can skate, shoot the puck a bit and help on the second power play. Auvitu got into 25 games with the New Jersey Devils last season, and with the NHL game moving in his direction, at 28 he may still have a chance to get some NHL games in.
“I can bring a good skating ability, a good puck movement here,” he said. “Is it outstanding in the league? I don’t think so. Can it help me here to make the team? I believe it can.”
Well, wait until you hear this guy’s tale, a story about a Parisian who married a Russian girl, lives in Helsinki and is hoping to raise his 18-month-old daughter in Canada. Auvitu speaks five languages, and his story begins in Ivry-sur-Seine, where he grew up as the son of a stay-at-home mom and a father who worked in human resources for the electrical giant GE.
He always dreamed of playing in the NHL, right?
“It has never been an objective for me to be here, or come to North America,” he said plainly. “But you have to go back 15 years ago. There was no Internet. There was no 120 channels on TV. There was only one hockey magazine where you could check up on hockey in French. There was one game a week on TV a 4 a.m., so as a kid you had no chance to watch it.
“But, here I am anyway.”
So how does a hockey player end up speaking five languages?
“When I went to Finland at age 17 (to play pro), I thought I spoke English, but I didn’t,” laughed our polyglot pointman. “So, in one year I got English. After that, I picked up Finnish. And my wife is Russian, so I read and write in Russian so I can communicate with her family, because no one in Russia is speaking English. I learned German for 10 years at school, so I have good basics there.”
His wife and daughter are here with him in Edmonton, even though it’s still a 40-60 bet he ends up in AHL Bakersfield. But they’re raising a multilingual daughter, of course.
“My wife is speaking Russian to her and I am speaking French. She has two passports. The goal is that she stays here a couple of years so she has better English than me.”
Raised in France, schooled in Helsinki, playing hockey in North America, it seems the Finns have had the greatest influence on Auvitu. He didn’t like New Jersey so much because of the culture shock, which leaves him feeling at home in Northern Alberta.
“Being in Finland eight years, I guess I got used to the peace in life that is there. That was the hardest part for me (in New Jersey),” he said. “I live in Helsinki in the summer. (Edmonton) is pretty much the same. More familiar for me. Really similar.”
Can he stick around? In Friday’s 5-3 win over Vancouver he played 19:22, less ice time only than the Oilers’ top pairing of Adam Larsson and Oscar Klefbom. He plays like a poor man’s Sekera, if you will, the type of player who could well stick here as a No. 7, with Eric Gryba as the No. 6.
“We think he can challenge for that,” said head coach Todd McLellan, who wouldn’t give a to-do list on how Auvitu needs to play. “If I gave the reporters, or the public, a list of the things I’m looking for, well then he goes to play towards that and he doesn’t play his game.
“Play your game, and if we think it can fit our environment and our team, and we think that you can help, you’ll just be fine.”
The good news? Fitting into new environments is a strong point for Auvitu.
He’ll learn to speak the Oilers language.