By MIKE ASHMORE
Special to ECHL.com
It was hard for Francis Bouillon to imagine that things could get any better. The year was 1996, and he was just 20 years old at the time, fresh off of winning the Memorial Cup with the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League’s Granby Predateurs.
Regarded as a gritty defenseman with offensive upside at the time, Bouillon was never drafted, despite his point totals climbing steadily with each junior season. But as it turns out, he also put himself on the map during his championship-winning year, and ended up signing a deal to play in the ECHL with the Wheeling Nailers for the 1996-97 season.
“When you come out from juniors, it was a pro league with a lot of guys who’ve played in the American Hockey League or the NHL,” Bouillon recently recalled to ECHL.com.
“It’s a good league, so you never give up. I learned some good things when I played there. I was in a good city too, so that helped. I was young, and for young guys, it’s nice to play in this league.”
Bouillon played well for the Nailers, tallying 10 goals and 32 assists in 69 games, as well as enjoying his first playoff experience at the pro level. However, the now-38-year-old joked that his experience in Wheeling helped him in other ways that were less tangible.
“It was good for my English, because I’m from Montreal, and back then my English was pretty sad,” he said. “We had a great year, and our fan club was really nice after every game too. But for me, the year before, I won the Memorial Cup in juniors. To get a chance to play in a pro league, it was a big step for me, so I really enjoyed it that year.”
After two more years in the minors – one each in the IHL and AHL – Bouillon made the opening night roster of his hometown Montreal Canadiens and debuted during the 1999-00 season.
“I think you always appreciate it more when you take the long road,” he said. “It’s not easy to make it in the NHL, I never got drafted. My way to get there was pretty long, but when you get there, especially for a guy from Montreal like me to play my first game with the Canadiens, it was really special. That was a big achievement for me.”
Since then, the 5-foot-8 blueliner has become an NHL mainstay, alternating stints between the Canadiens and Nashville Predators. In 749 NHL games over the course of 14 seasons, Bouillon has 30 goals and 115 assists to his name, and has also participated in the Stanley Cup Playoffs on seven separate occasions.