ECHL.com Note – Five of the six winners from “Bell Making the Cut” are playing in the ECHL: Florida defenseman Kevin Lavallee, Pensacola forward Dominic Noel, Bakersfield defenseman Jordan Little, Columbia forward Matt Hubbauer and Phoenix goaltender Michael Mole.
By Chris Umpierre
ESTERO, Fla. – Kevin Lavallee lives in relative obscurity as a member of the Florida Everblades. People don’t recognize him when he enters a Fort Myers restaurant. They don’t stop him on the street, shriek and stammer as they ask for an autograph.
Lavallee’s life is different in Montreal, his hometown.
“People know him in Montreal, they know his face,” said Scott McWilliam, a Calgary resident. “He’s like an ‘American Idol’ star in Canada.”
Lavallee, a Blades defenseman, was one of six winners on the 2004 Canadian reality-TV show, “Bell Making the Cut”, hockey’s version of “American Idol.” A 13-episode show on CBC-TV, “Making The Cut” searched Canada for the best unsigned players older than 19.
The program, which was Canada’s top-ranked show in the fall of 2004, aimed to find players who slipped through the cracks. About 4,500 players tried out, the largest pro hockey tryout in Canada. The six winners earned an invite to a 2005 NHL training camp and a new car.
“It’s the best thing that’s ever happened to me,” said Lavallee, who was invited to the Montreal Canadiens’ 2005 training camp and won a black 2005 Mazda RX8. “It’s definitely helped me progress hockey-wise. I’m really thankful for it.”
The show didn’t just turn Lavallee, 23, into a popular figure. It reshaped his life.
Before his father, George, signed him up for “Making The Cut,” Lavallee was playing in Germany, struggling to get a shot in North America. Lavallee moved to Germany when he was 19 and played three seasons there.
He moved up to a higher league each season. In 2004-05, Lavallee earned a contract in DEL, Germany’s highest pro league.
And then his father told him about some TV show called “Making The Cut.” Lavallee had never heard of it but he obliged his father and went to an open tryout in Montreal.
He was selected as one of the 68 players to attend the show’s two-week NHL-style training camp in July 2004 in Vernon, British Columbia. Renowned NHL coaches Scotty Bowman and Mike Keenan led the camp.
“Kevin blew us away,” said McWilliam, who was the show’s director of hockey operations. “All of the scouts were, ‘Who is this guy?’ He had incredibly raw talent and he could skate like the wind. Every day, he got better and better.
“He disappeared from the NHL radar screen when he went to Germany. Most people didn’t realize he was a Canadian citizen.”
“Making The Cut” showed the behind the scenes of an NHL training camp. It showed the guys playing cards in their hotel room. It showed NHL scouts debating who to cut. It filmed the players going to the hospital after injuries.
“I’m not somebody who looks for that kind of attention,” Lavallee said. “I tried to stay out of being on TV as much as I could because that wasn’t my goal. My goal was to play hockey.”
At first, Lavallee didn’t think about winning the competition but that changed as he survived cut after cut.
Lavallee was one of the 18 finalists invited in December 2004 to Toronto for the show’s finale, a live two-hour episode. The six NHL Canadian teams were represented by former general managers, coaches or players. They each drafted one player.
“We all felt any one of us could have won,” said Blade forward Anders Strome, who was one of the 18 finalists.
The Canadiens, Lavallee’s boyhood team, selected him fifth. Lavallee was stunned when former Montreal great Bob Gainey, a Hockey Hall-of-Famer, called his name.
Things only got better when Lavallee went to Canadiens training camp. Lavallee grew up watching Montreal and now he was wearing the team’s jersey, practicing in its arena and dressing in its locker room.
Lavallee survived two Canadiens cuts and earned a right to play in an exhibition game against the Tampa Bay Lightning, the defending Stanley Cup champs. About 20,000 people showed up for that game at Montreal’s Bell Centre.
“Unbelievable,” Lavallee said about playing for Montreal.
The Canadiens, who had 17 defensemen under contract, reassigned him to their American Hockey League affiliate, which demoted him to the ECHL’s Long Beach (Calif.) Ice Dogs. Long Beach traded him to Florida on Oct. 17.
Lavallee isn’t done with “Making The Cut.” The show’s producers will visit Fort Myers in mid-December and film Lavallee playing for the Blades, McWilliam said. They’ll interview Blades coach Gerry Fleming and general manager Craig Brush. The interviews will air during the show’s “epilogue,” which will air in the spring of 2006 on Canada’s CBC-TV.
The people at “Making The Cut” keep in touch with Lavallee and continue to promote his career.
Lavallee isn’t alone. The show found pro teams for 41 of the 68 finalists, McWilliam said. Seventeen of them are playing in the ECHL.
“We changed a lot of lives. It’s pretty cool,” McWilliam said. “It’s all for the right reasons. Everyone deserves a second chance.”