Stu Cowan: Laval Rocket has taken on coach JF Houle’s personality

“Kind of like him, they play the game the right way and with a great work ethic,” says Houle’s former head coach at Clarkson University.

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George Roll was an assistant coach at Clarkson University when he helped recruit Jean-François Houle to play for the school in Potsdam, NY

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Houle was part of the Lac St. Louis Lions team that won the Air Canada Cup national midget championship in 1992. Houle posted 32-43-75 totals in 40 games that season before going to Northwood School in Lake Placid, NY, for one year and getting selected by the Canadiens in the fourth round (99th overall) of the 1993 NHL Draft.

Houle joined Clarkson for the 1993-94 season and spent four years at the university, majoring in business.

“JF was our captain, just a great leader,” Roll said about Houle, who had 49-81-130 totals in 143 games with Clarkson. “His work ethic was second to none. I’ve been in coaching for 30-some years … honestly, one of my favorite players to ever coach and just be around. His personality was infectious. Always had a smile on his face. He was an extremely hard worker. Not overly talented, but just wanted himself to be a good player. I can’t say enough about him not only as a player but, more importantly, as a person.”

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After leaving Clarkson, Houle bounced around the minor leagues for five years, including one full season with the AHL’s Fredericton Canadiens. He never played a game in the NHL.

By the time Houle’s playing career was over, Roll had become head coach at Clarkson and he recruited Houle again, this time as an assistant coach. Houle joined Roll behind the bench for the 2003-04 season and would spend seven years as his assistant at Clarkson.

Houle left Clarkson in 2009 to become head coach of the QMJHL’s Lewiston Maineiacs for two seasons, followed by three seasons as head coach of the Blainville-Boisbriand Armada. He then spent one season as head coach of the ECHL’s Bakersfield Condors, followed by six seasons as an assistant with the AHL Condors, an Edmonton Oilers’ farm team.

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Last summer, the Laval Rocket hired Houle as head coach. On Wednesday night, the Rocket beat the Rochester Americans 6-5 in triple-overtime to sweep their best-of-five AHL North Division final.

The Rocket will play the Springfield Thunderbirds or Charlotte Checkers in the best-of seven Eastern Conference final with the winner of that series advancing to the Calder Cup final.

“I couldn’t be more pleased that he decided to make the move into coaching,” Roll, who just completed his 10th season as head coach at Nazareth College in Pittsford, NY, said about Houle. “For him, I think it’s just a natural thing to be a coach. So much of coaching is establishing relationships and it was easy for him — it was a seamless transition.”

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Roll has kept in touch with Houle and they had dinner together when the Rocket were in Rochester in March. Roll watched the Rocket beat the Americans 7-2 the next night.

Roll said he isn’t surprised Houle has had success with Laval.

“When I went and watched them play, you could just tell the guys worked hard for him and I think that’s so much of it,” Roll said. “Kind of like him, they play the game the right way and with a great work ethic. I was really impressed with how disciplined the team was and how good they were in their systems and just how hard they worked. That’s what JF was. Don’t get me wrong — he had ability — but he just out-competed everybody. To me, the times I’ve watched his team play, it just seems like they’ve taken on his personality.”

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The Rocket is a team that won’t give up — similar to the way the Canadiens played after Martin St. Louis took over as head coach this season.

The Rocket was facing elimination in Game 5 of the North Division semifinal against the Syracuse Crunch when Cédric Paquette scored with only 39 seconds left in the third period and goalie Cayden Primeau on the bench for an extra attacker to tie the score 2-2. Gabriel Bourque scored in OT to win the series.

On Wednesday, the Rocket was trailing 5-4 when Jesse Ylönen scored a power-play goal with 1:07 left in the third period and Primeau on the bench to create a six-on-four situation. Jean-Sébastien Dea scored the winner in triple OT.

“We were down 2-0 (in the first period) and there was no panic,” Houle said after the game. “We knew we’d come back.”

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When asked what he said to his players before the start of the third OT period, Houle said: “I opened the door and said: ‘Let’s get a goal.’ They aren’t thinking too much at that point.”

Roll said he is extremely proud of Houle and will be cheering for the Rocket to become the first Canadiens farm team to win the Calder Cup since the Hamilton Bulldogs in 2007 with Carey Price in net.

“Like I said, he’s one of my favorites in my 30 years of coaching — if not my favourite,” Roll said about Houle. “Great guy.”

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