By Will Stos
For most hockey players, scoring goals is routine. But not for 14-year-old Kevin Gillot.
When he scored his first goal ever it caused a minor sensation among teammates, fans and even opposing players.
No one seemed more surprised about the goal than Gillot himself.
A French exchange student from a small town outside of Paris, Gillot barely knew how to skate, let alone stickhandle, when he first set foot on Canadian soil two months earlier.
“When he first got on the ice he could skate forward, he just couldn’t stop,” remembers Jack Hanna, the father of Gillot’s 13-year-old exchange partner Kyle.
But following some private skating lessons and intensive immersion in hockey’s rules, game strategy and trivia from Kyle, Gillot laced up his skates and donned a Hurricanes jersey to become a full-fledged member of the team.
The kid who only weeks earlier could barely stand on the ice was now set to compete against players who had almost 10 years of experience.
The older Hanna, who volunteers as one of the team’s trainers, says he was impressed Gillot could keep up with his teammates.
He says he was astounded a kid from the French countryside could hold his own against a bunch of Canadian kids who spent their lives living and breathing hockey.
Gillot arrived in Canada in September as a part of a small exchange program called En Famille.
It gives French children a chance to learn English by living with families in several English-speaking countries around the world, including Canada, Britain, Australia and the United States.
But Gillot gained more than improved language skills. Soon after landing in Ottawa, he discovered he had an interest in Canada’s favourite sport and began digesting as much trade news, player statistics and history as he could.
“Kevin had an endless appetite for all of this,” says Hanna.
“He read the sports page with his Shreddies every morning. He spent all his spare time watching hockey or playing.”
Gillot became an avid fan of the Ottawa 67’s when he saw his first game three days after landing.
“They were fighting all the time and I was laughing when they fell down,” says Gillot.
Through Kyle’s influence, he gained an appreciation of all of the game’s many facets, long-standing traditions and intense rivalries.
“I remember we were at a relative’s house to celebrate a birthday a few weeks after he came to Canada,” says Hanna.
“Kevin came in just as we were sitting down for dinner and asked if he could watch Hockey Night in Canada. I told him in our family we don’t usually watch television while eating dinner, but he protested, ‘it’s Montreal and Toronto.’ He understood the rivalry after being here for such a short period of time.”
Gillot used every opportunity to learn more about the sport. Hanna says Gillot did a hockey time line for a school project and did essays on the history of the game.
Despite having a strong foundation in the theory behind the game, putting his knowledge and insight into practice was not as easy as scoring on a wide-open net.
“The first time was a practice,” remembers Gillot. “I was only going forward. It was really hard.”
Kyle says the other team members joked that just being able to stand on the ice made him a qualified candidate for the French national team.
But persistence and love of the game started to pay off after a few practices.
By the time Gillot left for France on March 23, team captain Darryl McNiece says he fit right in on the ice.
“Kevin worked so hard to get his level up,” says McNiece. “It was pretty surprising. He was great at stickhandling, shooting and skating.”
Team coach Don Stewart says he never saw Gillot as a liability on the team, in fact, he was “quite an asset by the end of the season.”
In the En Famille program each exchange partner spends six months with his partner’s family, but an exception had to be arranged for Gillot on his own orders.
Hanna says in December when the Hurricanes looked as though they would definitely make the playoffs, Gillot and Kyle asked if they could stay in Canada for an extra month to compete in the district championships.
After some hard lobbying from the boys, their parents and the program manager agreed. One day before he and Kyle boarded a plane for Paris, Gillot was able to play in the district championship where the Hurricanes won 4-1.
Regardless of their success on the ice, both Stewart and McNiece say Gillot brought something even more special to the team in the locker room.
“He provided the initial glue that connected the team,” says Stewart. “He’s a fine ambassador for the program and the team.”
McNiece says although Gillot was not the strongest or best player on the team, his attitude in the dressing room was positive and he inspired the other players.
“I think a lot of the players saw if a little hard work and determination can bring so much improvement to one person’s game, it can bring so much more in the way of goals and wins if the rest of the team takes that to heart,” he adds.
Hanna says a big part of Gillot’s successful experience in Canada was the exchange program’s personal touch.
He says the program’s director personally meets every family and matches each participant with someone who shares similar interests and personality traits.
Gillot says he and Kyle get along very easily, and he was instantly welcomed into Kyle’s circle of friends.
He also became close with many of his teammates. He credits the game as being the ultimate icebreaker when he first tried to make friends here.
The informal nature of a game of street hockey allowed Gillot to get to know other kids in the neighbourhood, without being pressured to engage in a full conversation at a time when he was not incredibly comfortable using English.
Gillot says playing hockey outdoors even trumps a visit to Niagara Falls as his favourite memory in Canada.
Although Gillot says he probably won’t have the opportunity to play hockey in France to the extent he did here due to his year-round commitment to competitive sailing, he will always enjoy a game of street hockey and hopes to introduce the sport to his friends.
“Hopefully we’ve contributed to France’s national team,” laughs Stewart.