LONDON, Ont. - Alexandre Rouleau gives new meaning to the phrase learning on the job. When he was 28, he became the general manager of the Val-d’Or Foreurs, a team he had played for in junior.
Rouleau got his big break when he was part of a group that purchased the team in 2012. Given his hockey background, his partners in the venture decided he should run the team. Outside of being a former player, in the AHL and ECHL with a short stint playing pro hockey in France, he had no experience in hockey management.
It was a rocky start.
“The first thing I learned was how big the job was,” says Rouleau, now 30. “I went in there thinking that it would probably be easy – you draft some players, they play for a year, and then next year you draft some new ones. It was a lot bigger than I expected and that was, for me, the toughest thing to learn that there was some new issues to deal with – learn about the league, learn about the players, learn about the agents, the parents, the coaching staff – they’re all positions that I never had before.”
Many of the general managers in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League sent their congratulations and wished him well, knowing he was a young, inexperienced guy learning the ropes. And then, shortly after that, a few of them proposed trades to gauge just how green he was.
“I don’t feel that anybody did it in a rude way, but obviously I got some weird calls in the beginning there that wanted me to trade good players for late picks and stuff like that," says Rouleau. “That’s OK that’s part of the learning process.
“Sometimes I was just smiling at my phone after hanging up. It’s obviously a fun business to be in – that’s the fun part – to deal with the other (GMs).”
It’s been a fun season for Rouleau and the Foreurs, who won the QMJHL championship and have advanced to the semifinals of the Memorial Cup here. For Rouleau, it’s a gift to reward him and his team for their hard work. Being a general manager has meant long days, leaving his wife Veronique, a Val-d’Or native, to do the heavy lifting at home in the small Quebec mining town with their two young kids, Samuel, 3, and Annabelle, 6.
Unlike Kyle Dubas, the 28-year-old GM of the Ontario Hockey League’s Soo Greyhounds, Rouleau looks older than the players he oversees. He could, however, still pass as an older brother. That was an obstacle for him at first, when it came time to convince parents to trust him with their children.
“It was a big issue with some parents obviously,” he says. “I understand. You don’t want to send a 16-year-old kid out to someone who is in charge – I was 28 at the time. They were all just looking at me like, ‘Well maybe you could be my son?’ I think we did a good job with all the (support staff) involved, with the coaching staff involved.”
In his first season he tabbed long-time QMJHL fixture Mario Durocher as head coach of the team and the Foreurs went 31-21-0-6 with him behind the bench. They made it to the playoffs and defeated the then-PEI Rocket in six games to advance to the second round before being eliminated.
“I didn’t only want someone who had that experience,” says Rouleau of Durocher. “I wanted someone that was ready to share it and that’s exactly what Mario was for me. He’s always been ready to share all that experience.”
Rouleau’s plan for the 2013-14 season was to take the next step and go even further in the playoffs. What he didn’t expect was to win a league championship and compete for the Memorial Cup. On the ice, the catalysts for the Foreurs success have been star forward Anthony Mantha and goaltender Antoine Bibeau, who was the QMJHL’s playoff MVP.
Bibeau was on Rouleau’s radar after the GM watched tend net for the Rocket during their playoff series in the previous season. Even though he was on the losing end, the sixth-round pick of the Toronto Maple Leafs impressed Rouleau enough to want to bring him on board. But the negotiations with fellow GM Grant Sonier to bring Bibeau to Val-d’Or from Charlottetown were long and complex.
“In the end we paid the bill,” said Rouleau, of the first, third and fourth-round picks sent to Charlottetown. “We really felt like it was a must for our organization and our team, but at Christmas we felt that if we couldn’t get a hand on Antoine – then the trade could have gone the other way.”
To hear Rouleau tell it, if he wasn’t able to shore up the goaltending in Val-d’Or, he would have considered trading Mantha to another team and started rebuilding from scratch. In hindsight, that’s a shocking thought.
“We had only one or two names on our list and Bibeau was number one,” says Rouleau. “If we couldn’t get those two guys we were thinking, ‘what could be the option there?’ ”
Did Sonier get a thank you gift?
“I already sent them flowers along with the first, third and fourth-round picks,” say Rouleau with a laugh.
Bibeau has been simply sensational in both of Val-d’Or’s victories here, including a 47-save performance in the Foreurs’ dramatic double-overtime victory over the Edmonton Oil Kings on Tuesday night.
Rouleau credits his former junior coach, Dominic Ricard – the GM in Drummondville – and Gatineau head coach and GM Benoit Groulx for helping with the finer points of the job. One of the biggest pieces of advice he received was on the importance of fostering a culture of winning in the dressing room. It’s a message he’s taken to heart considering a good chunk of his lineup is eligible to return next season.
“Now they’ve all learned the winning process of a team,” he says. “That’s good because we have 16 or 17 guys coming back next year and they’re going to pass that along to the five or six new guys. That’s the mindset we’re trying to have.”
He says his mindset when it comes to negotiating is to be as honest and up front as possible. He believes that fair deals foster good working relationships and pay off in the long run. As for players there’s also a specific characteristic he’s looking for – and it’s more than just skill.
“I want warriors,” says Rouleau. “I want players who are going to care about their teammates. For me, team is a big thing because we’re all working together… I want guys who are going to block a shot with their face to win the Cup.
“All the (players), they’ve already shown it in the playoffs at some point and if we win the Cup it will be because they’ve already paid the price somewhere down the road.”