French-born Ouellet making good impression with Wings
DETROIT — Xavier Ouellet is a bit of an anomaly in the NHL.
Ouellet obviously has a French name and there are plenty of French Canadians who have played in the league, but Ouellet is a little different.
Ouellet, 21, was born in Bayonne, France.
"My dad was playing hockey in Europe," Ouellet said. "He’s Canadian, so all my family is from Montreal. He just played in France and Germany for a little bit. Had his whole career over there."
Ouellet’s father, Robert, was a center with St. Jean Castors of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League from 1985-89.
Robert then played for Angers, Grenoble and Anglet Hormadi of the French League, which is why Xavier was born in France.
Xavier is the only member of the Ouellet family that was born there.
"All my family is from Canada, everybody is from Montreal," Ouellet said. "My dad went over there to play hockey, so my parents are Canadian, my brother and sister are Canadian. I’m the only French kid in the family. We would go for the season and then come back."
Robert also played for Krefeld of the German League, so Xavier began playing the sport in Germany.
"I was five years old, and I actually started in Germany because we lived three years in Germany and seven years in France," Ouellet said. "I started in Germany, then continued in France and my minor league hockey after that was all in Canada."
Robert also played for France in five world championships and in the Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan in 1998.
"I especially remember the second time in France, because I was a little older," Ouellet said. "We were in the southwest of France, so I remember the beach being right there and the rink being right by the beach so that was a little special."
Because Robert was a hockey player, it was natural that Xavier would follow in his footsteps.
There was much less pressure in the hockey community in Europe.
"Obviously my dad was playing so it was easy for me to start," Ouellet said. "I enjoyed it, I had a lot of fun doing it. Then I got to Canada and it became really big competition. It’s such a huge sport in Canada."
Xavier was 10 when his family returned to Canada for good.
"I had my French passport and then just got my Canadian," Ouellet said. "I have just the Canadian passport now, but it would be easy for me to get my French one since I was born over there."
Since Ouellet was born in France, he could compete for that country like his father did but he’s made a different decision.
"I’m going to give it a shot for Canada, that’s for sure and we’ll see where that’s going to bring me," Ouellet said.
According to hockey-reference.com, there have been only eight other NHL players born in France.
"There’s been a couple," Ouellet said. "I don’t know all the names. Philippe Bozon was a really good friend of my dad, so that’s a name I can remember. Now, Antoine Roussel was maybe born in France or just has French nationality. There was another one in Ottawa, I just can’t remember his name right now (Stephane Da Costa). There’s Tim Bozon coming, Philippe’s son. Cristobal Huet played."
Roussel, 25, is currently a forward with the Dallas Stars. Roussel was born in Roubaix, France.
Of the eight other players, not one is a defenseman.
Despite his family’s strong connections to Montreal, Ouellet said he always had a soft spot for the Wings.
"It’s pretty amazing," Ouellet said. "Growing up I was a huge fan of (Nick) Lidstrom, so the Red Wings have been a little somewhere in me since I was a little kid.
"To me he was the best defenseman that played the game. As a young kid I watched him play a lot and I just loved the way he played."
Now Ouellet is getting a chance to play on the same ice that Lidstrom dominated for so many years.
Ouellet played in four games with the Wings last season, plus Game 5 against the Boston Bruins in the first round of the playoffs.
This season, Ouellet has played in 11 games with the Wings.
"I’m still very excited every time I get called up," Ouellet said. "That’s for sure. But I’m a little more used to it, that’s for sure, too. I feel good, I feel part of the guys. It’s easier and easier every time I get called back up."
Every time Ouellet returns to Detroit, coach Mike Babcock puts him in the lineup.
"It feels good for sure," Ouellet said. "I don’t think they would call me up to put me in the stands. Every time they call me up I get ready to play and then they make their decisions. All I can do is play."
Ouellet has a goal and an assist and is plus-3 this season with the Wings.
Despite his youth, Ouellet has earned Babcock’s trust.
"I think it’s really good for him and it’s good for us because you know what you have," Babcock said of Ouellet’s time with the Wings.
"He’s an NHL defenseman, no question about it."