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Monday, June 6, 2005
Updated: April 15, 11:39 AM ET
Change Of Heart

By Gare Joyce

"I have to know."

It was a Christmas phone call in 2003 that Sylvain Pouliot desperately didn't want to make. Sylvain had coached dozens of teams in the village of St. Isidore, an hour's drive from Ottawa on the way to Montreal. He knew a call from a parent was the last thing a team executive wanted. Sylvain had cut the sons of neighbors, the best friends of his own sons. He hated asking for personal favors.

But now he was talking to Oscar Clouthier, a friend and assistant general manager for the Sudbury (Ontario) Wolves.

"Am I going to live long enough to see Benoit play with the Wolves?"

Sylvain wasn't being overdramatic. He was losing a fight with leukemia. That October, his doctors had given him the worst possible news, in words that haunt: untreatable, terminal, weeks to live, months at the outside. Clouthier knew all this. He had gone to see Benoit play in Hawkesbury earlier that season and had seen Sylvain wasting away.

The Wolves had cut Benoit from their past two training camps, but Sylvain kept assuring his son that he had talent. That wasn't personal, a father talking. It was the opinion of a coach who spent years of his life in the arena around the corner from home. And it was the dream of an ex-player who didn't have the chance to go as far as his talent would take him.

Clouthier could tell Sylvain only that the Wolves would do their best.

FLASH FORWARD to a little more than a year after that call, to March 2005. The Wolves are on the road against the Brampton Battalion, in the first round of the Ontario Hockey League playoffs. Dozens of NHL scouts are there, tracking Benoit Pouliot's every move. In 67 regular-season games, he's scored 29 goals and racked up 38 assists. He's soared up the NHL Central Scouting Service's rankings: by midwinter, he is the second-ranked 18-yearold in North America. One look at him in warmups tells you why. At 6'2", the left wing's long, powerful stride eats up ice. Some rangy kids handle the puck like they're using chopsticks, but Pouliot has the deft touch of a master chef.

When the game begins, Pouliot proves too much for Brampton's defense. He uses his speed to blow by blueliners, and when they try to hold or tackle him, Benoit's too strong to be knocked off the puck, never mind his feet. Still, through almost 50 minutes, Benoit isn't on the score sheet. His coach, Mike Foligno, says he's "squeezing the stick a little tight," anxious in front of the scouts. The Wolves fall behind 2-1.

But then, late in the third period, Benoit skates to the front of the net, fights through a slash and a hook and deflects a chest-high shot from the point past the goalie. It's a big goal, and not just because it sets up a 3-2 overtime win. For all his skill, the one question scouts have is about Pouliot's intensity. "His teammates aren't looking for him just to be a good player," Foligno says after the game. "We're looking for him to be a leader and a game-breaker. And we're starting to see that happen."

The Wolves see it for sure this night. The scouts too. And, maybe, so does Sylvain.

THERE'S NO telling when the NHL will reopen for business, or what it will look like when Zambonis start smoothing league rinks. Gary Bettman has said there will be an entry draft for eligible juniors before NHL play resumes. The 2005 draft was set for Ottawa on June 25-26, and Rimouski's Sidney Crosby, a once-in-a-generation wonder kid, was set to be the headline star. But the draft was canceled by the league in March, and Crosby's star turn was suddenly another lockout casualty.

If the draft hadn't been canceled, it would have been held at the Corel Centre, down the road from St. Isidore. The night before the draft, Benoit Pouliot could have slept in his own bed and his would have been one of the first names called after Crosby's, possibly as high as No. 2 overall. So whenever the draft is held--likely by conference call this fall--Benoit will be the consolation prize for a team that misses in the Sidney Crosby Sweepstakes.

Time and fate will do that to a hockey career. Back when Sylvain Pouliot called the Wolves, in December 2003, Benoit was nobody's idea of a hot NHL prospect. He'd been the Wolves' 11th-round pick in the 2002 OHL draft; more than 200 players were selected ahead of him. Even teams in his backyard missed him. "I don't remember seeing him," says Ottawa 67's coach Brian Kilrea.

When Crosby was 15, playing at Shattuck-St. Mary's in Minnesota, Wayne Gretzky anointed him the next Great One, and his high school AD, former NHLer J.P. Parise, said Sidney could step into the NHL right then. At the same age, Benoit Pouliot was cut by Sudbury two days into the Wolves' training camp. A few weeks later, the tall but skinny (155 pounds) wing was cut by the Hawkesbury Hawks, the local team in Provincial A, a full step down from major juniors.

By then, most Canadian prospects for the 2005 draft-many of whom Benoit had skated againstwere already playing major juniors in Ontario, Quebec and western Canada. "I never thought about the draft," Pouliot says. "I was behind lots of guys. But my father was sure that I would make it. He was always more confident in me than I was."

Sylvain Pouliot was born in the small town of Alfred, Ontario, and raised there by his grandmother. He didn't get serious about hockey until his midteens; his grandmother was worried he'd get hurt. Sylvain was asked to try out for a few junior teams, but he didn't go because he wanted to look after his grandmother. He had to be happy playing for the Junior B team in nearby St. Isidore.

And he was happy: he captained the St. Isidore Eagles to the Eastern Ontario championship in 1978. The kids from a little blink-and-you'll-miss-it village beat teams from Ottawa and the other big cities. Old-timers still talk about the rickety arena-colder inside than outside-and the victory parade through the village with Sylvain and his teammates riding in the back of pickups.

There's one famous name in the Eagles' team photo, another man who knew the demands of family: backup goaltender Bob Hartley, who later coached the Avs to a Stanley Cup. "A lot of guys had to stay home instead of going off to play major juniors," Hartley says. "Sylvain had to stay to be with his grandmother. When my father died, I had to quit school and work in a factory. Other guys worked on their family farms. But Sylvain was a powerful guy, a skilled defenseman. He could have played somewhere."

Sylvain lived with his grandmother until the day he married Diane Sabourin. The young couple moved down the road to St. Isidore and raised three sons: David, Benoit and Hugo. The Pouliot boys got an earlier start in hockey than Sylvain did. As soon as they were old enough, they joined organized leagues, and often the guy behind their bench was Sylvain. He coached their teams down at the St. Isidore Arena, putting in long hours after coming home from his job as an office manager for a maker of storm windows and doors.

Right from the start, Sylvain sensed that his shy middle child had a special gift, despite his frail build and tentative play. Sylvain dedicated himself to developing that gift, talking to him about love of the game, encouraging his son and criticizing him, even scrimmaging with him, right up until his leukemia was first diagnosed, in 2002. "He still wanted to show us that he could play," David says.

Benoit was devastated when Sylvain told him the news, but he also became more determined to step up his game. "My father always said I had something in my game I never used," Benoit says. "He said I'd have to put heart in it. He said everything would come all at once when I did that."

As Sylvain grew sicker, Benoit spent his time either working on his game or tending to his father. Benoit had made the Hawks a year after being cut, and he pushed himself harder than ever, lighting it up on the ice, busting it at the gym, practicing his skating and shot late at night in an empty rink. Hawkesbury's coaches sent reports of his dramatic improvement to Sudbury. It was then, a few weeks after Sylvain had called, that Clouthier pulled Coach Foligno aside. "It's time," he said. "It's something we should do."

Foligno phoned the Pouliot home on a Tuesday night in February 2004. The Wolves were feeling the wear and tear of a long season, with several players out with injuries. "We need you for a couple of games against Mississauga and Belleville this weekend," the coach told Benoit. He'd fly out to Sudbury on Thursday, then back to Ottawa on Monday.

Benoit knew his father didn't have much time. A few days earlier, Sylvain had told Diane to stop letting friends come to the house; just family. Most of the time he couldn't even speak. Benoit and his brothers had to carry him up the stairs to bed. A healthy Sylvain would have driven the 347 miles to Sudbury for those two games, but he was going to have to settle for listening to them on the radio.

There was never a question about Benoit making the trip. "My father wanted me to go so bad," Benoit says. "He would have forced me to go. I knew that. Don't worry about me.' That's what he said."

That first game, against Mississauga on Friday night, it came together all at once, just as Sylvain had said it would. Sudbury won 4-3, and Benoit played his heart out. Best of all, Sylvain heard precious words over the radio: Pouliot shoots-he scores!

Benoit called home after the game. He wanted to talk to his father, but Diane said Sylvain was too weak. "I told him everything that Benoit said, and he could understand everything," Diane says. "He was happy. He was at peace. He could let go."

Hours after the Mississauga game, Sylvain Pouliot did just that. "He died on his own terms," Diane says, "the way he wanted. In his home, not a hospital. With his family, not around strangers. Knowing that Benoit had made it to major juniors and done well." He was 44.

Diane didn't call Sudbury with the news, thinking Sylvain wouldn't have wanted her to. Benoit was called up for two games, and her husband had worked and hoped so hard for him to get there. He'd have wanted his son to play those games with an easy mind, with no grief about his father's passing, no guilt about not being home.

Wolves officials, who got word anyway, called the Pouliots at home. David told them not to tell Benoit.

Two nights later, against Belleville, Benoit had an assist in a 4-2 win. After the game, Foligno told him there was a change of plans, that he'd be going home on an earlier flight. The coach drove him to the airport. He told Benoit to work hard. Told him he'd be back. "It wasn't a situation they teach about at coaching clinics," Foligno says.

At the airport back home, Benoit found Diane waiting for him. "I think he knew," she says. "Something told him. The change in the flight. Mike driving him to the airport. The way people spoke. But when I told him, I broke down.

"Benoit, his expression didn't change."

MORE THAN 1,000 people turned out for Sylvain's funeral. His teammates from the 1978 championship team. Young men with families, whom he'd coached as kids. Those kids' parents. Coworkers. Neighbors. Family.

"He had touched so many lives," Diane says. "More than he knew."

Sylvain's sons were among his pallbearers. When they carried him out the front door of the church, they could see the arena where their father had taught them the game. And when the hearse pulled away, it followed the route of the Eagles' victory parade.

The Wolves kept their promise. A month after Sylvain's death, they called Benoit up. They waited, Clouthier explains, until Hawkesbury's regular season had ended: "He needed to grieve. That was time he needed with his family." Now, Sudbury was in the playoffs, and the team needed Benoit. He picked up where he left off, scoring two goals in four games. If there had been any lingering doubt about Benoit having the heart to play major juniors, he eliminated it.

This season, despite Benoit's strong play, Sudbury finished the regular season fourth in its division. But in the playoffs, the Wolves knocked off favored Brampton in six games, earning the right to face the second-place Ottawa 67's this past April.

It was as if the team had three extra home games. For each of the games in Ottawa, Diane bought 150 tickets in Section 4, beside the Sudbury bench. "I could have bought 400 tickets for each game," she says. "That's how many people in St. Isidore wanted to go."

Every time Benoit touched the puck, his cheering section whooped and hollered. But each night, the cheers faded by the third period. The Wolves lost all three games in Ottawa on their way to getting knocked out of the playoffs in six. For Benoit, the postseason was a mixed bag—he scored six goals with eight assists in 12 games, but he knows he didn't dominate play the way he could have, knows that there are still questions about whether his heart is truly in the game. "It's like he'd rather be someplace else," says one scout.

Maybe so. It's the end of the season, time to move on. David, now 20, is studying law enforcement at La Cité Collégiale in Ottawa. Hugo, 16, will probably be playing away from home in major juniors. Diane will be listing the house for sale in St. Isidore. She figures she'll move to the city—Ottawa, Montreal, she's not sure. Benoit knows where he'll be this summer—in Montreal, working out with Vincent Lecavalier and other NHLers. After that, nothing is certain. If there is a draft, he'll get picked by an NHL team. If there isn't, maybe he'll go back to Sudbury.

The draft would have been a send-off for Benoit, but the games against the 67's turned out to be a way for friends in St. Isidore to say au revoir to the Pouliots. Outside the locker room, Diane was all smiles and hugs, at peace with the moment, but Benoit—in jacket and tie, hands in his pockets, hair still wet from a shower—had a faraway look in his eyes. It wasn't just a loss to the 67's, not just the end of a hockey season, not just the uncertainty of his future. He could only give a teenager's shrug when asked what's wrong.

"He won't talk about it," Diane said, looking at her son. "But he must think of times when he came to this arena with Sylvain. He would have liked the chance to play here in front of his father."

Sometimes, it's harder to play with a heavy heart than with none at all.