That means Dave Henderson and his team, the French Senior Men’s Hockey Team, is on their way to Norway for an exhibition game. After that, they’ll be on their way to Russia for the Ice Hockey World Championships. Sixteen teams will be competing, divided into two groups of eight. France is in Group B, up against teams like Canada and the USA – in a tournament that runs from May 6-22.
Living in France since 1975, Dave is Canadian — born in Winnipeg, grew up in Montreal — and raised on hockey.
“Growing up, with my buddies or my brothers, it was hockey, always hockey. We lived, ate and breathed hockey. My mother would shake her head and say, ‘Hockey! Always Hockey!’ That’s just the way it was.”
France’s senior mens team has been in the Top Division for the World Cup for the last four years, which Henderson says is a testament to the hockey program they’re growing in France. In 2006, ice hockey moved out of an umbrella federation that combined a dozen other disciplines like figure skating and luge and into a federation of their own, better known as HockeyFrance.
“We might not have as much money as we used to,” says Henderson, “but we use it as hockey people see fit.” Hockey France has as its President another Canadian, Luc Tardif who hails from Trois-Rivières , QC. In a country with slightly more square miles than the Canadian province of Saskatchewan, Tardif has been able to grow his players to over 20,000 – from a population of 66 million in the decade he’s headed the Federation. That compares to around 720,000 players in Canada, from a population of 35 million.
Those slim numbers doesn’t mean there isn’t talent, because there is.
“We’re 12th in the World Rankings for the Top Division,” Henderson says, “moving up 6 or 7 spots in the past 10 years, which I’d say is a pretty good performance.” Two years ago, his team made it to the quarter finals. But last year, they hung onto their Elite status by the skin of their teeth.
“It’s a fight to stay up in the Elite division,” Henderson tells me on a Facetime chat. “Our objective is to stay there.”
2017: Hockey and Paris!
Regardless of this year’s results, France will stay in the Top Division next year: they’re hosting the World Championships in 2017. As the host, they’re given a bye into the Top Division.
“Come and see us in May, 2017! There’s hockey, and there’s Paris!” Henderson says. “Thirty games in a stadium that holds 15,000. That would be one heck of a vacation, don’t you think?”
From the North Shore to France
After playing youth hockey in Dollard-des-Ormeaux on Montreal’s North Shore, and a year’s worth of Varsity hockey at Sir George Williams (Concordia), Henderson packed his bags and began an adventure in France that has continued to this day. It was 1975, just three years after the Canada-Russia series, and Henderson (no relation to Paul) started a career as a professional player in Amiens for the Gothiques – a club established in 1968.
He worked as a player/coach for them for 17 years before becoming a full-time coach. Since 2005 he’s been coaching France’s Senior team. I asked him about his coaching philosophy.
“Growing up I had coaches – I can still remember their names – Ken Landers, Pat Tracy, Jim Weissman, Ron Hutchison… they gave their time to transmit their knowledge of the sport — and especially the passion,” he tells me “That’s what I try to transmit, the passion. I played for them, but it was FUN.”
“That’s what I’m trying to do. I’d like my players to say, ‘Yeah, I really want to play for that guy. Yeah, I want to play here’ – and mean it.”
Henderson says that results come from developing the players.
“If you develop the players, make the best players you can, put them all together, then the results will come.”
“It’s a small sport in France compared to football (soccer) or other team sports. There’s 130 arenas here and I’d guess about 125 have hockey clubs. But we’ve developed team spirit, a close knit team, a hard working team, with a bit of talent, obviously,” he says. “Our players all want to play their best, and play against the best. The talent pool is getting bigger and deeper, and there’s much more choice than we had 10 years ago.”
2016 IIHF World Ice Hockey Championships
May 6-22, 2016
Moscow – St. Petersburg, Russia