ALLEN, TX – One of my goals before the start of training camp was to sit down with team captain Joel Chouinard and get to know him better both personally and professionally. I had the opportunity to do that a couple of days ago and came away very impressed.
Open, honest, caring, introspective, engaging, humble, continuous improvement and driven are some of the words that come to mind when describing the leader of the Americans.
We talked about everything from his family growing up in a Montreal suburb, his start in hockey, moving away from home at a young age, his junior career, his professional career, how he met his wife, his time in Allen, his leadership style, thoughts on his captaincy and his plans for the future.
I hope you enjoy reading this as much as I enjoyed chatting with Joel. Life experiences play a big part in who we all turn out to be and that is certainly the case with Joel.
Growing up in a suburb of Montreal you would think Joel grew up in a hockey-crazed household. Not the case at all. As Joel said with a slight chuckle, “My immediate family does not come from a hockey background, my uncles all played but my dad never played and doesn’t even really know how to skate. The Canadiens are a religion back home but my parents never followed them.”
Education was important to the Chouinard family. Joel’s dad (Jocelyn) is a retired neuropsychologist and his mom (Mary) was a school principal. Joel has one brother (Jacob) who is two years younger and also played hockey. After a junior career in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League (QMJHL) Jacob went on to play four years at McGill University. Jacob is still at McGill pursuing a masters degree in economics.
By the way, Jacob was a goalie and the brothers did get to play against each other a few times back in their amateur days. Joel did bring up that he had scored a goal on his brother and that was “pretty cool.”
Joel started playing hockey at the age of five, drawn to the game because all of his friends were playing. His earliest hockey memory is the first time he put on skates. Joel’s mom put his skates on the wrong feet and he ended up skating like a penguin. As he said, “That was my first time, and it went horribly.”
When I asked Joel about how he ended up playing defense, it was an early life lesson. He played more forward up until he was 11. It was his first year in the age group and his coach told him if he wanted to make the team he would have to go and play defense. As Joel said, “I think that worked out pretty good.”
Who were Joel’s favorite players growing up?
“I grew up idolizing Mario Lemieux; he was always my favorite player. When he retired the first time, I was crushed. After that, I started idolizing Scott Niedermayer. I don’t compare my game to his by any means, but I always thought he was such a smooth skater who was smart and could see the ice well. That is what influenced me as I got into playing defense. I never wanted to be a one-dimensional player, I always wanted to bring different aspects to the game and that is the type of defenseman I have tried to be.”
Like many young hockey players, Joel left home to follow his dream when he was 15. While Joel was only 30 minutes from home, he was required by the team to stay with a billet family. He would see his family on weekends when they would attend games.
In 2006, he was drafted in the fourth round of the QMJHL draft by the Victoriaville Tigres which was 45 minutes from home so again he was away from home but close enough he would see his family most weekends.
“It was good I got used to living apart from my family when I was younger. The big adjustment was when I turned pro and moved to Cleveland which was 12 hours away from home. So I didn’t see my parents as much during those years. I think it was a good thing I got used to living a part from my family when I was younger but it is still hard not to see my family. I am really close to them and we talk on a daily basis, it just that the face to face time isn’t there and that is the hard part.”
For any young hockey player to get drafted by the NHL is a dream come true. Joel was still early in his junior career with Victoriaville when he was drafted by the Colorado Avalanche in the sixth round of the 2008 NHL draft. I asked Joel about that experience and here is the story in his own words:
“The draft in 2008 happened to be in Ottawa which is four hours from my hometown. My family had a family reunion at my uncle’s house that weekend and he lives in Ottawa. I wanted to live the experience so I went to the draft on that Friday night. I wasn’t wearing a suit or anything; I was just sitting up with the fans taking it all in (Steven Stamkos was the #1 pick).” the Allen captain said. “I wanted to be drafted, of course, and on Saturday I wasn’t nervous until they got to the fourth, fifth and six rounds. I had a feeling when Colorado was up in the sixth round that I would get drafted. My longtime mentor is Sylvain Lefebvre who played in the NHL for 17 years. I am best buddies with his son (Djan). We are from the same hometown, and we grew up together. At the time Sylvain was a coach in the Colorado organization.”
“My entire family was at the arena because of the family reunion, and when Colorado selected me in the sixth round, it was surreal. I remember right after being selected I had to give an interview in English and at that time (18 years old) my English was not very good as I was just learning it in school. I was interviewed on TSN, and it was an awesome moment for me just wearing the jersey and taking all of the pictures. After that, with the family reunion going on, I was wearing my jersey, and everyone was so excited for me.”
Joel returned to Victoriaville for his last two years of junior hockey. I mentioned “humble’ was one of the adjectives I would use to describe him. While he talked about how much he enjoyed his time playing for Victoriaville he never once mentioned his accomplishments which I found while researching this story. Check out this list for his final junior season in 2009-10:
– Led the QMJHL in goals by defensemen (23)
– Second in scoring for his team with 68 points in 65 games
– Assistant captain
– QMJHL first all-star team
– Finalist for the Emile “Butch” Bouchard Trophy as QMJHL’s best defenseman
– Led his team in plus/minus (+23)
– Finalist for the Marcel-Robert Trophy as the QMJHL Scholastic Player of the Year
– Winner of the QMJHL’s Paul Dumont Trophy as the “Personality of the Year” for his ambassador work in the community.
After his final junior season Joel signed his first professional contract in May 2010, a three-year entry-level deal with Colorado. He played for their AHL affiliate in Cleveland (Lake Erie Monsters) for the next three seasons. That experience was another life lesson for Joel. Here is how he explains it:
“At first I was so focused on doing everything the coaches were telling me to do I ended up forgetting who I was as a hockey player. I forgot myself and forgot my game. I was always an offensive defenseman, and my first two pro seasons my coach turned me into a defensive defenseman. I was told you are not going to make it to the NHL if you don’t know how to play defense. I forgot my way those first two years, and it wasn’t until I got sent down to the Denver Cutthroats (CHL) in my third season (2012-13) that things started back up and I found the player I have always been. Ever since that experience in Denver I have gotten better every year. Last season was my best year ever, and it is fun to keep growing. I have grown as a person, not just a hockey player.”
How did Joel end up playing for the Allen Americans? The story goes back to when he met Courtney when he was playing in Cleveland for the Lake Erie Monsters (AHL) and one of his teammates was Justin Mercier. As Joel tells the story, “Justin’s sister, Courtney, went to school at Michigan and over spring break she came and visited her brother. Their parents are from Erie, Pennsylvania and Cleveland is a midpoint between Erie and Ann Arbor so Cleveland was the perfect spot for the whole family to meet. They would come to watch Justin play and after I met them to watch me as well. That is how I met Courtney and it has been great ever since.” Allen fans can thank Courtney for recruiting Joel for the Americans. After she graduated from college she took a position in Dallas and Steve Martinson was the benefactor of the move.
I think anyone that observed Joel play last season could see him take more and more of a leadership role as the season progressed. I asked him about that and this was his response:
“I have always taken a leadership role on my teams and have enjoyed helping younger players and also helping with the systems. There was such a big group of leaders on the Americans team when I arrived, they had all won championships and knew how to win. At first I didn’t want to step on anyone’s toes but at the same time, I wanted to stay true to myself. I am a veteran in this league and have lots of experience (over 200 AHL games) so I wanted to share my opinion. The guys on the team really welcomed me in, they didn’t block me out because I wasn’t one of them or hadn’t won a championship in Allen. I appreciated how they trusted me and valued my opinion. That gave me more confidence to take on a bigger role. We don’t have an assistant coach to help with the defense and after Gensy (Aaron Gens) got hurt I stepped up especially on the road when Marty is the only coach on the bench. Marty knows everything and he is good at who is going out next but sometimes I can be of some help. The guys were great and respected me when I was helping out with the defense and I got to really enjoy it.”
Was Joel surprised when coach Martinson asked him to be captain? “I’m not going to lie, when Costy (Chad Costello) signed to play in Germany it came to my head of course. I have never been a captain in my pro career but have worn the “A” before. Being a captain is something I have always wanted to do so it did cross my mind but I knew we had a lot of guys coming back that were good leaders so I didn’t want to put my expectations too high. When coach gave me a call I was thrilled.”
How does Joel see his role as the captain of the team?
“I don’t believe one person needs to do all of the leadership duties. Of course, the captain talks to the referee on the ice and there are certain times when the captain is called on to speak on behalf of the team” Chouinard said. “I feel strongly it doesn’t matter who wears the letters, a good team has many leaders on the ice and in the locker room. I think it is important to have everyone take ownership of different roles and responsibilities so everyone feels part of the team. I look at our team as a big family and communication is a key and we need everyone to make that work. I can tell you the guys wearing the letter don’t have all the answers and Marty doesn’t have all the answers. I think one of the secrets to Martinson’s success is he brings the right people together, he puts the right systems in place and he lets the players figure out a lot of things so they take responsibility. Marty provides the structure but it is the team that takes responsibility for success”
What are your thoughts on the roster thus far? “I was looking at the lineup the other day and we will have a lot of toughness and I don’t mean just fighting toughness. There are a lot of smart players that know how to play the game the right way. Lot’s of guys that are leaders from their previous teams. I like our roster because we will have plenty of depth.”
The Americans might have five french players this season with yourself, Aubin, Archambault, Arseneau, and Lessard. Does that present any unique issues for you as captain? “It is something I have thought about because it can lead to teams having different groups or cliques. I have seen that before in my career. I have to admit it is strange to talk English to someone whose native language is French. Just imagine being in Mexico and speaking to your friend or relative in Spanish when English is your first language. I have gotten used to it but it feels weird. My goal is to have a cohesive group which would mean if two french guys are talking to each other in the locker room or on the bus they might speak French but if they are having a discussion on the ice that includes their English speaking linemate they speak in English. It is not about which language you are speaking, but making sure everyone is included and cliques don’t develop.
Joel has been working on degree in management and is already planning for life after hockey. He has an internship lined up for next summer after hockey season is over.
Joel Chouinard will be a great leader for the Allen Americans and will represent the team in an exemplary fashion on the ice, in the locker room, and in the community. It will be enjoyable to watch.