Balancing hockey — “serious hockey” — and school is seldom easy.
Trying to do it while playing in the pros, well, there are very few who even attempt it, let alone succeed.
Sudbury native Brent Gauvreau is more than happy to be the exception to the rule.
In fact, as far back to his time with the Oshawa Generals (1996-2000), a period in which he intermixed a trip to the Memorial Cup (1997) and captained the team in his final year of OHL hockey, the notion of working on his business degree was always there.
It never really left, not through 12 stops in the professional ranks, a series of on-ice adventures that would see the now 40-year-old father of two put down roots, at least temporarily, in no less than seven different countries.
“As I was playing, I was chipping away at it, picking up a handful of courses here and there,” said the pharmaceutical rep who also now serves as the Northern Ontario scout for the Kingston Frontenacs. “Every summer, I would add a course or two at Laurentian. I knew that I was getting closer and closer to finishing my degree, but on the other side, I still had a passion for hockey.”
To a large extent, the combination allowed Gauvreau the comfort to pursue the dream right through to his 30th birthday, never feeling that this was an all-or-nothing proposition.
“When you’re in the minors, you definitely realize that every year, the window gets smaller and smaller,” he said. “I am thankful that I was pursuing my education at the same time. I had that sense of being able to play guilt free, for a little bit.”
The fact that he should run somewhat contrary to the grain seems to fall in line with his earliest days of competitive hockey, eschewing the AAA option until the time he reached the midget age grouping.
Finding just the right fit with coach Owen Gibbons and the Copper Cliff Minor Hockey crew, Gauvreau saw no reason to make the jump, simply to add one extra A to the lettering on his coat.
“Kids need to have fun and enjoy the game,” he said. “Everything else will come to fruition when the time is right.”
Even as he finds himself now in the middle maelstrom as an OHL scout, there is an appreciation for not getting too caught up in it all.
“I definitely feel for the kids these days, just because they are under such a microscope,” Gauvreau added. “There are all of those outside pressures that creep into it. In my time, I really didn’t think much about it until my draft year.”
As he now navigates his way through the memories of hockey past, the middle of three boys in the family does so with an enjoyable sense of ease, conveying a sincere appreciation for the experience that each different outpost would bring.
“Just going from Sudbury to Oshawa, at the start, was a big shock,” said the man who had visions of playing for the Wolves. “I walked into a great situation, with players like Marc Savard and Bryan Allen and John Tripp. It’s a first-class organization, I had a fantastic family that I stayed with all four years, and there wasn’t as much travel as some of the other teams. I may have only missed four or five days of school during my time of playing there.”
Drafted first by the Calgary Flames (fifth round, 1998), and subsequently by the Phoenix Coyotes (sixth round, 2000) when his former team endured a complete overhaul of their management staff, Gauvreau found himself making his pro debut in Biloxi, Miss., home of the Sea Wolves of the ECHL.
“The culture is very different from Northern Ontario, but it’s a culture that I grew to enjoy,” he said. “There’s a lot of great people down there, in such a beautiful place, right on the Gulf of Mexico. If you are going to be in the minor leagues, that was one of the better places to be.”
Though he finished with 173 points in 185 games in Mississippi, mixing in a season split between Augusta, Ga., and Jackson, Miss., and closing that stretch with a 12-game stint with the Bridgeport Sound Tigers of the AHL, Gauvreau had come to a crossroads.
“Every year, I would train as hard as I could in the summertime,” he said. “I do have that peace of mind now, knowing that I absolutely gave it my best shot. I just wasn’t quite there.”
The love of the game, however, still was.
“I was 24 years old and getting offers to go over to Europe, which had some appeal. Still, it’s a tough decision because you’re basically giving up on your NHL dream, even if you realize that it’s a little more lucrative (in Europe), a little easier on the body, not to mention the life experiences that come with jumping across the pond.”
And it wasn’t as though his game wasn’t going to play well on the other side of the Atlantic.
“I was a cerebral type of player, a playmaking centreman,” said Gauvreau. “I felt that I could always read the game well, that I had very good instincts. I was a pass-first type of player who took pride in playing a full 200-foot game, which takes some time to develop.”
The ensuing seven years saw Gauvreau and his new bride, Sarah, hang the Welcome Home sign in houses in Italy, Norway, Germany, Holland and Korea.
“I’m very thankful to have had all of those experiences,” he said. “Germany was likely my favourite, living in a city that wasn’t touched at all by the war, blessed with fans that really supported the team.
“In Italy, we lived in a beautiful little village. Norway reminds me a lot of Northern Ontario, with the climate and people with a real passion for hockey, being part of Scandinavia.”
Sharing it all was a lovely young woman with an equal sense of adventure, as Sarah taught English for a stretch in Germany, very much enjoyed the travel opportunities, and even took time to squeeze in a pursuit of her masters while in Italy.
Yet even by the standards of well-travelled hockey professionals, the chance to throw in one year spent in the Asia League Ice Hockey is rather unusual.
“It was my second or third last year of playing, so by that point, I saw this as a fantastic experience,” said Gauvreau, noting that much of that time was spent in Japan.
“It was fantastic how well they take care of you. You fly into the airport and there is someone greeting you there with flowers. I had my own personal translator anywhere that I went. It was a very well run organization, really first class.”
With his playing days complete, Gauvreau mixed in a little coaching, working with teams in the SMHA, and also with a junior squad during a period where work would take him and his family to Halifax. With two very young children at home and now back in Sudbury, he has not yet committed to returning to coaching, at some point down the road, though few will be shocked if it happens.
“Hockey was always a passion of mine, is a passion of mine, and always will be a passion of mine.”
Randy Pascal is That Sudbury Sports Guy. Read his columns regularly in The Sudbury Star.