Using a combination of raw talent and good old-fashioned hockey smarts that go beyond his 18 years, rookie Pierre-Marc Bouchard takes the fast track to the NHL.
AHEAD OF THE GAME
Standing down on the blue line in total darkness during the National Anthem, Pierre-Marc Bouchard stared at the ice, nervously shifting his feet. His NHL career was just minutes from beginning, and the knot in his stomach was growing. I really had to battle my nerves, recalls Bouchard. There was a lot of emotion because it was a dream come true. I worked my whole life for this moment, and it was both very special and a little overwhelming.
Bouchard has shown his hockey smarts in another way. From day one, he's actively sought out the counsel of veteran players like Pascal Dupuis. The young center says his fellow Quebec native gets a big assist for teaching him the nuances of the pro game. Pascal has been the biggest help to me in getting adjusted to the NHL. He's helped me get used to everybody at the rink. He's taught me how to interact with the veterans, and how to act both on the ice and off. Good advice like that.
Dupuis, five years older than Bouchard, but just a year removed from his own rookie season, down plays his mentorship role. I haven't really done anything special. I just tell him the basics; that we are a team, and you always want to do your best for your team. I tell him that there will be many peaks and valleys, but you need to hang tough and keep on working hard and good things will come.
One of the valleys Bouchard had to deal with early in the season, while trying to gain the trust of head coach Jacques Lemaire and fully grasp his system, was not being in the lineup every night. Sitting up in the press box was tough, admits Bouchard. But in retrospect, being able to watch the games from above allowed me to get a feel for how other teams play us, and it ended up helping me a lot.
BEYOND HIS YEARS
Instead of moping about his lack of ice time, Bouchard concentrated on working hard in practice and building up his leg strength to get faster so when his number was called, he'd be ready. His preparation paid off. As the season has gone on, Lemaire's confidence in the teenager has grown, so much so, that Bouchard has been a steady contributor during the Wild's surprising push toward their first post season berth.
Bouchard blushes slightly when some of Walz's praise is relayed his way. But it does confirm something the youngster has long felt. This is a great bunch of guys who take good care of me. I feel like I'm a real part of this team now.
While nothing much has surprised this heady teenager, Bouchard concedes the amazement he first felt at reaching the NHL has not fully abated. I'll be talking with my friends back home, and they'll ask me 'What's it like to be playing in the NHL?' And I'll think, 'wow, this isn't a dream. I really am here.' It's an incredible feeling.