Catching up with: Sylvain Cloutier
Sylvain Cloutier moved to Sault Ste Marie, Ontario with his family from Mont-Laurier, Quebec when he was five years old. As a teenager, Slyvain began his hockey career with the Ontario Hockey League’s Guelph Storm where after registering a 116 point season he was drafted in 1992 in the second round by the NHL's Detroit Red Wings.
In 2006, Sylvain left North America for the UK, following a distinguished career where he played over 600 games in the American Hockey League, posting a total of 392 points, which included Captaining the Houston Aeros to the AHL Calder Cup in 2002/03. In 1998/99 he also made seven National Hockey League appearances with the Chicago Blackhawks.
Cloutier's first stop in the British Elite League was with Coventry Blaze, where he went on to win back-to-back league Championship's, the second as Captain, whilst also adding a Challenge Cup and a Knock-Out Cup over a two-year spell.
He then decided to step behind the bench moving to Corpus Christi IceRays of the now defunct-CHL, before heading back to the UK to continue playing and coach the Hull Stingrays for a total of five years.
Now 42 years of age, we start by asking Sylvain what he's been up to since leaving the Rays in 2014?
"I came home that August and I needed to find something to do, so I ended up coaching the Bradford Rattlers (Greater Metro Hockey League). I resigned from the position and coached a Jr. "A" team, the Coldwater Falcons. More recently, I was approached by a group of businessmen who asked me if I’d like to run a team about 15 minutes from my house in Barrie, Ontario, so I said yes I'd like to be involved."
Now, Head Coach/Director of Hockey Operations of the Essa Stallions, Cloutier continues, "It's a new league, the Canadian Premier Junior Hockey League. I’m currently heavily recruiting. We’re not going after the top-end talent, we’re looking for players who maybe get overlooked or don’t get that second chance. We’re mostly trying to find the local boys, Ontario players. I want kids who are passionate, committed and are hungry to improve.
"As fans in the UK will know, my budget when I was with Hull was small so I had a lot of local kids playing for me and I really enjoyed working with them. They listen, they soak it all in and they want to move up. I want to build a solid programme and I want kids to want to come and play for me here. I have a lot to offer, I have a lot of experience in the hockey world and I think I can help to move them on to the next level.
"We’ll be working on skating and stick-handling, the little things that maybe get overlooked nowadays in practice. I’ve been watching people try and put systems into minor hockey teams and I think they maybe lose focus on what they need to work on.
"Everyone wants to win, but last season (with the Coldwater Falcons) the average age was 16 ½ and all the other teams were averaging 18/19. I think we won two games before Christmas. We went 2-24, but after Christmas we went 8-6, so those kids never gave up. That was like us winning a Championship when you see from where we started. To play against 19 and 20 year olds, that’s a big adjustment, as a coach it made you proud because they never gave up and battled all season."
So, what type of coach would you say you are?
"I’m a pretty comfortable guy to work with, my door’s always open, and I have teenage kids so I know how it is. Right from day one I try to make the kids feel comfortable. I’m a player's coach, but if you want to come and play for me, you’ve got be prepared for hard work. I always worked hard as a player and so I demand that as a coach. But, it's supposed to be fun to play the game. It’s going to be your job one day if you make it, this is the time you want to enjoy it and have fun. My job also as a coach is to not only make them better players but better people off the ice too."
Going back to 2006, what bought you to Coventry?
“I was playing for a team back home that ended up folding (Adirondack Frostbites). I went to the Swiss league first, but I knew a few players that played for Coventry and that kind of got the ball rolling for me to end up there. I didn't know what to expect. I had spoken to Barrie Moore and Neal Martin and they had nothing but good things to say about the organisation so that made our decision easier.”
Blaze (and now Sheffield last season) are the only teams to be able to win the Elite League back-to-back. How tough is that? What are the main challenges to repeating and what key things helped Blaze to achieve it during your time at the club?
“Winning the league trophy is the hardest and toughest to win. It takes a group of players that are dedicated and willing to play for each other, week-in and week-out. Also, a little luck helps as well. The group we had for those two years were willing to do that. We had some great players!
"Reid Simonton who was one of the best all-round defencemen that I played with over my career. Trevor (Koenig) in goal, what can you say, the guy bailed us out when we had an off-night, he was the best goalie in the league. Up front we had everything, (Tommy) Watkins, (Danny) Stewart, (Barrie) Moore, then of course we had the best 1-2 punch in the league with AC/DC (Adam Calder and Dan Carlson). I really enjoyed playing with them on a line when Thommo (Paul Thompson) put us together. Great hockey players and really good people. It was such a great group of guys. I still think if we would had of stayed together another year we would of won again!”
Aside from the trophies, are there any other highlights from your time in Coventry?
“The one game I remember the most was the 1st league game at home against Belfast. I remember waiting in the hall-way to go on to the ice and the fans clapping and standing and cheering. It gave me goose bumps before going on. That's something I will never forget, the atmosphere we had those two seasons was awesome. The fans were one of the reasons why we won those trophies. The other game that stands out to me was when we won the Challenge Cup in Sheffield, we had our fans with us and they were louder than the Steelers’ fans – that was a great night!”
You mention about the core of the back-to-back Blaze side disbanding in the summer of 2008, you were one of those moving to Corpus Christi to become the club’s Head Coach. Any regret about that decision?
“I don't have any regrets. It was tough to leave Coventry but I always wanted to coach so it was the right decision at the time.”
Following the year back in North America, you returned to the UK, put back on the skates and led the Hull Stingrays in a player/coach role for five seasons. Tell us about that time.
“The five years I coached in Hull weren't always easy. Although, I went through some of the best moments in my career! No one gave us a chance to beat Sheffield in 2012. I think they had 50 or 60 more points than us and we played one import short. You can imagine the budget difference between the two. It was a special weekend for our fans and for us players to knock them off with the history between the two clubs. That's was something I will never forget.....”
Sadly, the club you left in 2014 were forced to leave the Elite League in 2015, however they have since re-named to the Hull Pirates and entered a team into the English Premier League, and also retired your jersey for your service to hockey in Hull. How did that feel?
"Anytime a player gets their jersey retired is a great honour. The new ownership in Hull treated me and my family first-class, to be able to go back and see the fans that supported me for five season's was great. It’s a night I will never forget."
A couple of players helped you make a big impact in Hull, namely Jereme Tendler who won a Playoff Championship with Blaze in 2015, and British netminder Ben Bowns who you took a chance on when many others weren't brave enough to in 2012.
Starting with Tendler, he averaged nearly 43 goals a season under you at Hull, however struggled to find that same consistency with Blaze, finding the net just 16 times, plus the two huge goals in the playoffs. You must have been pleased to see him lift his first Elite League trophy, scoring in the final too after what was a self-admitted difficult season for him?
“What can I say about Jereme apart from Adam Calder. I don't think I've ever played with a better goal scorer. The guy could score goals for fun if you use him right. When you have a guy that can score like that you need to play him, even double shift the player. You know any chance he gets it will go in at some point. He was a player I could count on all the time in Hull, he never complained and was always a pro, but most importantly he was a great person and friend.”
And now onto Ben Bowns, Elite League goalie of the year last season, the apparent number one for Team GB, you must be proud?
“I'm very proud of Ben! I got the chance to see his game grow while he played for me. I saw how hard he works and how bad he wanted to be the best British goaltender. He came to me at a young age, he practiced with us the year before he came to play for me. I took a bit of heat at the time but I knew it would eventually pay off for him and the team. Not only is he a great goalie but like ‘Tends’, he’s also a great person and friend as well.”
Two more questions, and then we’ll let you get back to your recruitment. You had a long and distinguished career, give us some highlights outside of what you achieved in the UK?
“Being drafted by the Red Wings was a dream come true, growing up in Canada, all you want to do is play in the NHL. Being a black ace (reserve in-case of injury) with the New Jersey Devils the year they won the Stanley Cup against Dallas. What an experience that was. Also, winning the Calder Cup with the Houston Aeros and being the Captain (highlights). And of course, playing with and against some of the best players ever. Chris Chelios, Doug Gilmore, Sergei Federov and Steve Yzerman I played with, and against Patrick Roy, Joe Sakic and Peter Forsberg.”
Thanks for your time Sylvain, last question, will we ever see you back in the UK?
“I guess you never know but I don't think I will be back. A few years ago I was hoping to get the job, I always wanted it but it didn't work out. Now that I'm working with the young players over here it's a lot of fun and I'm really enjoying that for now. Maybe one day I can coach a midget AAA team or something like that. For now though, my daughters Emily (17), Chloe (13) and Avery (7) and wife Katie (teacher) of 19 years have been very supportive of my career and now it’s time for me to be a Dad and husband. They are home now so to pack up again it’d have to be something really worth it. The job security in the hockey world isn’t guaranteed and that’s one thing you’ve got to remember too.”
Any closing comments?
“I just wanted to say a thank you to the fans of Coventry for the two great years we had together, it's something my family and I will never forget."
We thank 'Clouts' for taking the time to speak to us, and for his outstanding contribution to the Blaze and British Ice Hockey. We wish him well with the Essa Stallions this coming season and for his further coaching career beyond.
Article: Craig Summerton