Goalie Cristobal Huet was the first Frenchman to win the Stanley Cup, with the Chicago Blackhawks in 2010. Photo: Catherine Steenkeste
French goalie looks forward to Worlds at home
“We want to show our country what a great game hockey is and what a great event the World Championship is," says France's goaltender Cristobal Huet.
Back in 1997, France trotted out a new, promising goaltender at the World Championships in Finland. The 21-year-old Cristobal Huet from Grenoble ended up playing a little over 100 minutes in the tournament, mostly in relief, and it wasn’t easy. His save percentage in the three games he appeared in was 79.3.
It got better after that, and in eight months, Huet is looking to cap his World Championship career on home ice in Paris, exactly twenty years later. The chance to represent France in a tournament played in the Palais Omnisports de Paris-Bercy (now called AccorHotels Arena) has been a motivator, Huet says.
“I think it made me play a couple of more Worlds than I wanted to,” he says with a laugh.
“We want to show our country what a great game hockey is and what a great event the tournament is. I probably would have retired from international hockey if not for the tournament, because it’s a long time to be away from the family – but I’ve said that a long time ago, too, so who knows,” he adds.
The home tournament would also be his 13th World Championship tournament in the top division, which would make him tied for lead for most Worlds for a goaltender, together with Belarus’s Andrei Mezin and the Soviet Union’s IIHF Hall of Famer Vladislav Tretiak.
So, yes, Huet’s been around for a long time. He was drafted to the NHL as a 25-year-old, when the Los Angeles Kings used their ninth pick to choose Huet in the seventh round and 214th overall. By then, he had won the French title with Grenoble, the Swiss title with Lugano (in his first season in the Swiss league) and had also won all the individual awards that a goalie can win in those leagues. He made his NHL debut in 2003 as a 27-year-old, and in 2010, he became the first French player to win the Stanley Cup when he was with the Chicago Blackhawks.
Since it’s his 41st birthday on the day of the interview, the question of age - and the question of media talking about his age - comes up naturally.
“It’s a big thing to hit 40, especially for a hockey player,” he says.
“I’m not as fast as I used to be but I try to play with my head more than my body. I think. I still love the game and the key is to enjoy what you do and appreciate the opportunity to still be able to play at a high level,” he adds.
Other players in the 40s always talk about the importance of taking care of the body, of eating right, getting rest, and working if not harder than ever before, then smarter than before.
“I’ve never been the hardest working guy off the ice but I do understand the realities [of getting older]. I do everything I can to stay on top of my game and I use all methods available to help me recover from a game,” he says.
Huet doesn’t look like the prototypical goalie of the 21st century who, while they’re the biggest players on the ice, are the skinniest guys on their teams off the ice. Huet is muscular, with strong arms and legs. He’s listed as 183 centimetres and 91 kilograms, which makes him heavier than four of the defencemen and three of the forwards he has in front of him at the Olympic qualification tournament in Oslo.
“I’ve always been like this. I know a lot of the goalies are skinny but my body’s like this. I’ve always tried to do the same weight programs as the skaters,” he says, and smiles when he adds after a beat:
“And I like to eat.”
In 2012, Huet signed a four-year contract with Lausanne. The long contract and the fact that his wife comes from the region, and that Grenoble is only a two-hour drive from there, made it an easy decision for Huet even though at the time, Lausanne played in the Swiss second-tier league.
“It was time to think of my family and while I had offers from bigger leagues, I didn’t want to sign a short contract and then move the kids again,” he says.
Lausanne was promoted to the top league at the end of his first season there, and Huet was named Best Goaltender in the top league the year after that. In 2015, the media voted him Best Goalie, and into the All-Star Team after “CristoWall” posted seven shutouts, leading the league.
Last season, at 40, he played 46 games (out of 50), which is more than he played in most season in the NHL.
“The Swiss league is tough because we play back-to-back on Fridays and Saturdays and I know that in my age it might be smart to give the other goalie some starts but it’s not up to me. If the coach wants me to play, of course I always want to play,” he says.
Playing all three games in a short Olympic qualification tournament is therefore nothing unusual for Huet.
“Except that it’s early in the season and I’m more of a diesel engine that takes time to get going. We knew we had to be in mid-season form in September and that’s been a little different,” he says.
While he hasn’t played in France since 1998, he’s seen the highs and lows of French hockey from up close in the national team. (He’s also played in two World Championship Division I events). In Oslo, he’s trying to help France qualify to the Olympics and to pass the torch to the next generation.
“We don’t have the strongest team on paper, and our ranking - we’re 14th now - shows it but we’ve learned from [Philippe] Bozon and the other guys were there before us that we need to work hard and have a good atmosphere in the team.
“It’s important for us to see that Stephane da Costa and Pierre-Edouard Bellemare are some of the guys that follow the lead that [team captain Laurent] Meunier and Yorick Treille have shown every day. We know the French team is going to be in good hands with them. The atmosphere and the energy and the fact that we know we’re lucky to play for the country will be there even in the future,” Huet says.
But first, Sunday’s game against Norway, with Treille, Meunier, and Huet.
“We’re 60 minutes from the Olympics, Norway plays at home and the arena will be sold out. We know there’s a lot of pressure on the home team so we hope to get a good start and put a little doubt in then, and take it from there,” he says.