The minors were a nice place to visit for Philippe Dupuis. He’s just glad he doesn’t live there.
"I feel grateful to have what I have right now, I worked really hard for it," Dupuis told ECHL.com. "I know what I have to do to stay here. I never want to go back to the minors. It’s so different, I just want to stay here."
"Here" is the NHL, and the journey there started when, two seasons into a five year run in juniors that saw him win three QMJHL championships, Dupuis was selected by the Columbus Blue Jackets with their third round pick in the 2003 NHL Draft.
"It was probably one of my best moments, it was a big moment for me and my family," Dupuis said. "We were in Nashville, it was pretty nice to see my family out there for that big moment. It was my dream to play in the NHL, and the draft is just one step, so I couldn’t get too excited. I had to focus and work even harder even after."
Dupuis had no idea how hard he’d have to work. He turned pro prior to the start of the 2006-07 season, and the adjustment to pro hockey was a difficult one. The Laval, Quebec native began the year with the Blue Jackets AHL affiliate at the time, the Syracuse Crunch, but things weren’t going the way he’d envisioned.
"It was a pretty tough season for me, mentally. I wasn’t playing very much in Syracuse, I was getting scratched a few games and I had a fourth line role," Dupuis said. "I didn’t really get a chance to play that much, so they sent me down to Dayton."
The Bombers gladly took the talented centerman, who was coming off a 108-point season in his final year of junior eligibility with the Moncton Wildcats. The confidence he showed there came back in Dayton, when he scored three goals in an eight game regular season stay in the ECHL.
"I went over there, got my confidence back and played a little better and got some more minutes. I came back to Syracuse after Christmas. I think I was a better player."
After the Crunch didn’t reach the postseason, Dupuis was returned to Dayton to play for the Kelly Cup. And the Bombers got much further than many had predicted. Led by long-time ECHL scoring standout Yannick Tifu and backstopped by former Atlanta Thrashers goalie Adam Berkhoel, the Bombers went on a magical run all the way to the finals, stopped just short of the league’s biggest prize by the Idaho Steelheads.
Even for a player four years removed from that season and two games shy of his 100th in the NHL, the memories are quite vivid for Dupuis.
"It was key for sure," he said. "If you look at it, since I’ve been a pro, I haven’t made the playoffs once except when I was in Dayton. For some reason, in junior, I won three championships, but as a pro I can’t get a crack at a postseason game. So for me, it was huge.
"It’s always fun when you get a playoff run and all the guys are excited and you become a real team. It was a lot of fun and we surprised a lot of people. We didn’t have the greatest team, but just good chemistry and we worked really hard."
But, for all the progress he’d been making in their system, it seemed that Dupuis just wasn’t in Columbus’ future plans. So it’s certainly fair to say he welcomed the Jan. 22, 2008 trade that shipped him and Darcy Campbell to the Colorado Avalanche in exchange for Mark Rycroft.
"It changed my whole career, to be honest with you," Dupuis admitted.
"I came from a team that…I wasn’t even playing ten minutes a game to come into Lake Erie, and Joe (Sacco) was the coach there and they gave me a lot of confidence. They put me out there with some really good players, I was playing with (Chris) Stewart on the first line right away. I got my chance, I took it. The year after, I finished as the top scorer on the team and from then, it went all uphill."
Dupuis was given much better opportunities in Colorado, and eventually made his National Hockey League debut during the 2008-09 season. All the bus rides, all the struggles, all the self-doubt…it was all finally worth it to the personable centerman.
"It’s just a dream come true," Dupuis said. "When you’re a kid, that’s what you want, you want to play in the NHL. You want to score your first goal. With all the battles and all the baggage I had from the minors, it was so huge."
Last season, Dupuis made an NHL team out of training camp for the first time in his career, cracking the Avalanche’s roster as their fourth line center. He stayed in the NHL all season, and established a new career high in games played with 74. The magnitude of the year was not lost on him.
"You think about it, the past few years, I played a few games in the NHL here and there, but I never really got a taste of being on the team and being a part of the boys and stuff. It’s so much fun. Being in the NHL, it’s the best thing in the world. I just want to be a part of it."
After three and a half seasons in the Avalanche organization, Dupuis had established himself as a valuable commodity in the NHL. He signed with the Toronto Maple Leafs in the off-season, and has played in 12 of their first 14 games.