From: Ryan Stanzel
Director of Communications
Thursday, September 30, 2004
713.361.7930 (Direct Line)
'TWO LITTLE REDHEADS' FROM QUEBEC FOLLOW SEPARATE PATHS, END UP TOGETHER AGAIN
Childhood Friends Lessard, Veilleux Reunited in Houston
SUGAR LAND, Texas
If theres ever a testament to what a long and winding road hockey is, consider Junior Lessard and Stephane Veilleux. A decade ago, two "little redheads" born miles apart from each other, dreaming of the big-time in a midget AA league in Quebec. Now, teammates for the American Hockey Leagues Houston Aeros.
The pair took much different roads to Houston Lessard was last years Hobey Baker winner as college hockeys top player at Minnesota-Duluth, while Veilleux went the major junior route and is now considered the Minnesota Wilds 10th-rated prospect. Lessard, meanwhile, is No. 4 on the Dallas stars list. And while the players would like to someday play opposite each other in the NHL, theyre happy to work on their games together in Houston due to the Aeros NHL affiliation with both Minnesota and Dallas.
"We had that conversation this morning," said Lessard, who at 24 is 1 1/2 years older than Veilleux, yet is the rookie. "The last year we played together was midget AA. Steph didnt make the AAA team and I was too old and never made it. So we were playing on the same line together, little two redheads together. We had a great season. We were talking about it today at lunch. Not too many people expected us to make it, both on my side and for Steph too. It turned out really good. Its just like the good old days. Its kind of ironic playing pro hockey together. It helps me a lot having someone here I know already."
Veilleux said this is something they dreamed about way back when.
"We talked about it," said Veilleux. "If we can play against or together in the NHL one day it would be funny. You never know whats going to happen."
How they got here from those "good old days", though, is another story.
"I was a late developer," said Lessard, who was never drafted and signed a free agent deal with Dallas in April. "Major junior hockey never had that much interest in me."
Lessard, now 5-foot-11, 185 pounds, said teams always looked down on him due to his size. But it led to something else an education.
"Back then, I was pretty small, so I decided to take a different way," he said. "My dad always told me its nice to play hockey, but its also good to have an education too. Thats why I decided to go to (a college camp in) Manitoba and try to get a scholarship. The University of Minnesota Duluth was a great fit, it helped me take a step towards being pro. I also got my college degree. It was definitely a good thing."
"We were definitely two small guys when we were young," said Veilleux. "But you get stronger if youre little. He was little. He proved to everyone he can be a professional now."
Lessard is always eager to listen
Lessards college degree is in English, which is apparent as the St. Josephe de Beacue, Que., native is fluent in English. He says he writes it even better.
Going to college, Lessard said, taught him lessons he will use for the rest of his life. "One thing that has helped me is my work ethic," he said. "In the off-season, I work really hard on my weaknesses. Most of the time it was speed. (College) was brand new to me. Its different hockey. Youve got hockey, got school two things to focus on. As you get older you know how to deal with things. We had a great coaching staff, it helped me develop a lot."
Aeros head coach Todd McLellan has seen college players like Mark Cullen and Marc Cavosie move in and take an active role in their own development.
"For the most part, the college player has had two or three more years to mature," said McLellan. "They have probably lived on their own, havent been billeted, and theyve moved to larger cities. Sometimes a junior player lived in a very small city with family. They can have a sense of culture shock when they get to a place like Houston."
While winning the Hobey Baker award at UMD was rewarding, Lessard lists another moment as his favorite in hockey The Frozen Four, college hockeys version of the Final Four.
"It wasnt only about being in the Frozen Four," said Lessard, whose team lost to Denver. "You get a look at where we started. We won four or five games my freshman year, and the program was struggling. It was nice to be there. We had a good team, and we didnt have the result we wanted, but the community in Duluth was really happy. Its a hockey town. Its all about hockey. People are behind you, they know you and support you very well. That meant a lot to us as players."
According to Lessard, he didnt even consider himself a Hobey Baker candidate from the beginning.
"I was surprised," he said. "I expected to have a good season, and to work hard to get there. There are so many good players at that level. Im going to be honest, I wasnt one of the top favorites to start the season. I just tried to go out and work hard every game. I played with good players too, so that helped."
Now Lessard and 13 other rookies in Aeros Training Camp are trying to make the changes necessary to play the pro game.
"I would say hes adjusting well," said McLellan. "Its not an easy situation to come to. Basically, the first pro camp is a camp where everybody is unknown and the city is unknown. People are expecting big things from you. Hes handling himself well. Hes quite active on ice. He knows the drills, and based on the scrimmages you can see that he has very good puck sense in the fact that hes in the right spot a lot of the time. Hes got a good shot to go with it."
Lessard believes his first pro camp being in Houston, not in Dallas, may be a blessing in disguise. Hes not worried about making an NHL roster, just trying to solidify his spot on the Aeros team.
"I think its definitely a good thing for me (to be here)," said Lessard. "Its a big step from college to pro hockey. Coming here helps me get there. Im not worried about if there will be an NHL season. I just want to be here and fight for a spot. There are a lot of good players here."
His childhood friend is there to assist.
"Im going to help him if hes got questions since Im close to him," said Veilleux. "On the ice or off the ice. The lifestyle in Houston, I thought it was really different my first year. Its a lot different city than others."
And if they meet up one day in the NHL on opposite benches?
"I think were all professionals," said Veilleux. "Youve got a job to get done. Hockeys still a battle. If we play against each other, well still have fun and compete."
Although he spent most of the summer in Dallas, Lessard is still new to Texas. But hes very familiar with a staple of the Lone Star State.
"Im probably one of the biggest fans of country music," said Lessard. "In college, I lived with guys from Saskatchewan and Alberta, and it was all they listened to. I used to hate it. But then you start to pick up on a couple of songs, and you cant get it out of your head."
As county legend Buck Owens wrote and recorded in 1964, Lessard and Veilleux are "Together Again." To those skeptics in Quebec in the 1990s, they must want to say "How Do You Like Me Now?"
---HOUSTON AEROS, BE A FAN---