SPOTLIGHT: FRANCOIS BOUCHARD

Bruce Berlet 7BY: Bruce Berlet

A lot of players might not be enamored with having to travel 12-15 hours round-trip to play their first few games with a new team.

Not right wing Francois Bouchard, whom the New York Rangers acquired from the Washington Capitals on Tuesday for Connecticut Whale defenseman Tomas Kundratek.

Bouchard arrived from Hershey, Pa., around 1 p.m. Wednesday, and met his new teammates and practiced with the Whale for the first time Thursday, before the team bussed to Boston for a flight to Toronto and then on to St. John’s, Newfoundland, for games Saturday night and Sunday afternoon.

“It’ll be fun to play at St. John’s, where I can go eat with the guys and meet them more,” Bouchard said after his first workout. “This is great timing just to get to know the guys and spend time with them so I can introduce myself.”

It’s not surprising that Bouchard had some mixed emotions about the deal, especially after being a key contributor as the Bears, the top affiliate of the Washington Capitals, won the Calder Cup in 2009 and 2010.

“It was a little surprising because you never really expect to be traded, but I think I needed a fresh start,” Bouchard said. “I left so many friends behind. There are guys there who I played with in my first (pro) game four years ago. We won the (Calder) Cup together twice, so there were really great memories and I’ll keep texting and communicating with them for sure. But I played three years in Hershey and Washington, so I think it was just time for me to get another opportunity somewhere else and get my confidence back. I think the change will be good for me.”

Bouchard’s confidence had declined with his playing time after he signed a one-year deal on July 15 with the Capitals, who selected him in the second round (35th overall) in 2006. For most of his time in Hershey, Bouchard played a regular shift and was on the power play, but not this season. After getting 48 goals and 63 assists in 215 games in three full seasons in Hershey, he was scoreless with eight penalty minutes and minus-4 in nine games this season while playing mostly on the fourth line.

“They always have a great team in Hershey,” the 23-year-old Bouchard said. “They always sign so many players in the summer, so they have older guys that need ice time so mine was pretty limited. I wasn’t playing the power play, which I played in juniors and some in my first two years in Hershey. It was kind of hard to play six or seven minutes a night on the fourth line, but I think they’re going to give me a great opportunity here. They talked to me like they were really high on me and expect a lot from me, so I’m just going to try to do my best and work hard every day at practice. It’s a young team, too, so it’s always exciting with those guys.”

Kundratek, the Rangers’ third-round pick in 2008, also had seen his playing time decline this season as he was a victim of an overload on the Whale defense, including being a healthy scratch the last five games.

“We were a little bit long on defense and short on forwards, and you can’t have people not playing and not developing,” Whale coach Ken Gernander said. “Hopefully it works out well for Tomas and he gets a little more opportunity in Hershey. And it should work out to our advantage to get a skilled forward that can help us offensively.”

Kundratek was upbeat when he arrived in Hershey.

“I was asking for a trade because it was kind of a tough position in New York and Hartford,” Kundratek told Tim Leone of The Patriot-News in Hershey. “I was so excited when I heard I got traded to Washington, and I’m looking forward to being here. It was tough to get in to play in the top six defense (in Hartford).”

Bears assistant coach Troy Mann said, “(Kundratek) has got good size and looks like he moves pretty well. We’ll just have to see over the next few games if we can get him in there to get a true evaluation. I don’t think you can 100 percent evaluate him after one or two games. You have to give him a body of work of four or five or six games and then assess what you’ve got.”

Bouchard’s adjustment to his new surroundings was made easier, as he knew several Whale players, notably rookie left wing Ryan Bourque, whose older brother Chris plays with the Bears and was MVP of the playoffs in 2010.

“I went to Boston a few times to see the Bourques, and Chris was my best friend in Hershey,” Bouchard said.

But Chris will be his foe on Nov. 29, when the Bears visit the XL Center and the Bourque brothers play against each other for the first time.

“I got a little X on my calendar for that one,” Bouchard said with a smile. “For sure I’ll be excited to play against my old team, but right now I’m focusing on this team.”

Bouchard also knows center Kelsey Tessier and rookie wing Jonathan Audy-Marchessault from youth hockey in the Quebec province. Bouchard grew up in Sherbrooke, Quebec, where he learned to play hockey with his father, Denis, and 27-year-old brother Pierre-Marc Bouchard, who is in his ninth season with the Minnesota Wild.

“He’s an idol and role model for me,” Bouchard said. “We’re really close and talk to each other every day. He has always been a big help to me since we grew up playing hockey in the street with my dad. And he was pretty happy for me to get another opportunity. He knows the Rangers are a great organization for young guys, so I was pretty excited about that.”

Rangers assistant general manager Jeff Gorton told Jim Cerny of BlueshirtsUnited.com that Bouchard is “a skilled guy that can play all positions and just needed a change of scenery. We like his sense and playmaking ability.”

Gernander feels Bouchard should be “a pretty good offensive player.”

“He’s pretty creative and showed some pretty good passing and hand skills (in practice),” Gernander said. “Now we’ll see how he does in games.”

Bouchard twice exceeded 100 points in four seasons with Baie-Comeau Drakkar in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, with his best being 2006-07 when he led the league in scoring with 125 points (45 goals, 80 assists) in 68 games. Two seasons ago, he had career highs as a pro in goals (21), assists (31) and points (52) as the Bears won their first of two straight Calder Cup titles.

Bouchard had several productive outings against the former Hartford Wolf Pack, most notably when he had one goal and three assists in Hershey’s 6-0 victory at the XL Center on Oct. 30, 2009 while playing with Mathieu Perreault (one goal, one assist) and former Wolf Pack left wing Alexandre Giroux (two goals, two assists).

“I remember some great games both here and back home (in Hershey),” Bouchard said with a smile.

Now the Whale hopes Bouchard can play as well for them as he did against them.

CHALLENGING WEEKEND FOR WHALE

Bouchard joined the Whale as they look for some revenge in another battle of two of the Eastern Conference’s three division leaders.

The Whale (7-2-1-2) was in first place in the Northeast Division as they headed to Newfoundland on Thursday to play the Atlantic Division-leading St. John’s IceCaps on Saturday night and Sunday afternoon. Last Friday night the Whale allowed four third-period goals in a 6-3 loss to the IceCaps (9-2-3-0), who had the AHL’s best record when they completed a nine-day, six-game trip through New England with a 4-0-2-0 record, capped by a 4-3 victory at Bridgeport on Sunday.

Veteran defenseman Wade Redden was impressed with a team that was minus five call-ups, including half of the Winnipeg Jets’ defensive corps in a 3-0 loss to the Rangers on Sunday night – Brett Festerling, Mark Flood and Paul Postma, an AHL All-Star last season.

“I think we have to be happy with where we’re sitting right now with our record, but realizing, too, that we obviously can’t be content and there are things that we need to improve,” Redden said. “St. John’s was kind of the benchmark for us as the top team in the conference, and they played real hard and kind of took it to us for some important parts of the game, so we have to learn from that because it’s a big weekend coming up against them.”

The IceCaps’ comeback was especially impressive, after Kris Newbury and Ryan Bourque scored in less than 20 seconds in the final minute of the second period to give the Whale a 3-2 lead. The Whale did a good job of protecting the lead the first five minutes of the third period with smart dump-ins, and then lost their way with a series of ill-advised plays and a few rare soft goals allowed by Chad Johnson, the Reebok/AHL Goaltender of the Month in October.

“They obviously played hard for most of the game,” Redden said. “They put together a pretty solid 60 minutes, and all their guys were skating and checking and forcing plays, so if you’re up against that, you have to be doing the same. We weren’t doing that enough that game and we have a tendency to panic a little bit, which we can’t do. Obviously we have to feel confident in ourselves with what we can do because we’ve got a great group of guys, so we just have to stick to the game plan. Sometimes we face adversity, and the first thing guys do is try to do a bit too much instead of keeping it simple and relying on each other.”

The IceCaps, formerly the Manitoba Moose, are the top affiliate of the new Jets, the former Atlanta Thrashers, after St. John’s was the home of the feeder system for the Toronto Maple Leafs from 1991 to 2005, before that team was relocated to Toronto and became the Marlies. This is the Wolf Pack/Whale’s first visit to The Rock since a 3-1 victory on Dec. 1, 2002. Prior to last Friday, the Wolf Pack/Whale last played a St. John’s team on March 26, 2003, a 7-4 loss in Hartford.

“They’re obviously a strong team, being at the top of their division,” Gernander said. “They’re playing winning hockey, finding ways to win games, and if we’re going to be successful, we have to play our best hockey. Obviously if you’re going to make mistakes or give them opportunities, they’re going to hurt you. They’re a little more experienced team and played a very patient, fairly tight defensive game and worked hard on their forecheck. They have a good, complete game and the wherewithal or savvy where if you deviate from your plan or try to take a shortcut and make a mistake, they’re going to cash in on those too, because they have the guys to pay it off on the other end.”

The St. John’s trip is part of the Whale opening the season with 10 of their first 14 games and 15 of 22 on the road, much like the Rangers started with a team-record seven straight away from Madison Square Garden, which is undergoing a $850 million facelift over three years. The Rangers ended a six-game home stand on a high Sunday night behind Martin Biron’s 23 saves in his 27th career shutout, first with the Rangers. The Whale plays eight of its last 11 in 2011 on Asylum Street.

Audy-Marchessault leads the Whale’s balanced attack with five goals and six assists in the last seven games, after going scoreless in the first five. Kris and John Mitchell, both former St. John’s Maple Leafs, are tied for second with nine points, one ahead of rookie Carl Hagelin and Mats Zuccarello, who has three goals and five assists in seven games since being reassigned by the Rangers.

The Moose were based in Winnipeg, and played in the International Hockey League in 1996-2001, and the AHL in 2001-2011, after the departure of the original Jets to Phoenix. As the top affiliate of the Vancouver Canucks, they won the North Division in 2006-07 and 2008-09, when they reached the Calder Cup finals, losing to Hershey in six games.

The IceCaps lost the five players to call-ups because of numerous Jets injuries, including to defenseman Ron Hainsey, a Bolton native who has been sidelined for three weeks with a separated shoulder. But IceCaps rookie head coach Keith McCambridge’s team has hardly missed a beat, showing plenty of perseverance and grit while rallying to beat the Whale, who return home Nov. 18 to play nemesis Bridgeport. The Sound Tigers have twice overcome two-goal deficits to beat the Whale, 5-4 in a shootout on Oct. 15 in Hartford and 4-3 in overtime on Wednesday in Bridgeport.

FORMER WHALERS DEFENSEMAN AMONG FOUR TO BE INDUCTED INTO AHL HALL OF FAME

Former Hartford Whalers defenseman John Stevens was among four selected for induction into AHL Hall of Fame as the Class of 2012. Others to be recognized Jan. 30 at the AHL Hall of Fame induction and awards ceremony at the Circus Maximus Theatre at Caesars Atlantic City in New Jersey are Joe Crozier, Jack Gordon and Zellio Toppazzini.

Stevens, 45, is a former head coach of the Philadelphia Flyers who is now an assistant coach with the Los Angeles. His 14-year playing career, which was cut short by an eye injury, included eight assists in 44 games with the Whalers spanning three seasons. He was a member of the undefeated 1987-88 Hershey Bear Calder Cup championship team coached by former Wolf Pack coach John Paddock. Stevens also won a Calder Cup in 1990-91 with the Springfield Indians, but the defenseman is best known for his days with the Philadelphia Phantoms, where he was the team’s first captain in 1996-97, won a Calder Cup in 1997-98 and coached the club for six seasons in 2000-07. He then took over as Flyers coach for 31/2 seasons before being fired.

“These four individuals enjoyed significant careers and are legendary figures in the rich history of the American Hockey League,” AHL president and CEO David Andrews said in a statement. “The AHL Board of Governors is pleased to support the selection committee’s recommendation for their induction into the American Hockey League Hall of Fame.”

The quartet will be honored as part of the festivities at the 2012 AHL All-Star Classic in Atlantic City, N.Y. Formed in 2006 to recognize, honor and celebrate individuals for their outstanding achievements and contributions in the AHL, the AHL Hall of Fame is housed on-line at www.ahlhalloffame.com. … South Windsor native and Houston Aeros captain Jon DiSalvatore had a nine-game points streak (four goals, nine assists) end in a 5-3 loss to the visiting Abbotsford Heat on Thursday night.

BALDWIN TO BE HONORED SATURDAY NIGHT

Whalers Sports and Entertainment chairman and CEO Howard Baldwin will receive the Community Leader of the Year Award from the Connecticut Chapter of the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation at its Sportscasters’ Super Ball on Saturday at The Club at Rentschler Field in East Hartford. The black-tie optional gala from 7 p.m. to midnight honors Connecticut sports stars and community leaders while raising fund and awareness of cystic fibrosis.

Baldwin is the former owner and managing general partner of the Hartford Whalers and then founded Whalers Sports and Entertainment two years ago. WSE assumed business control of the former Hartford Wolf Pack 14 months ago and rebranded the team the Connecticut Whale last Nov. 27.

Former Kolbe Cathedral High-Bridgeport and University of Connecticut basketball star Chris Smith and Plainville’s Abby Negro will receive the Native Son Award and Rookie of the Year Award at the dinner.

Smith, UConn’s leader in career (2,145 points) and Big East (1,140) scoring and three-point field goals (242), is one of only two Huskies to score at least 500 points in three different seasons and a member of the UConn basketball All-Century Team. He graduated from Kolbe Cathedral, where he became a high school All-American and played on the U.S. national team. He was Connecticut Player of the Year before playing at UConn and then three seasons with the NBA’s Minnesota Timberwolves. He is now the Kolbe boys’ basketball coach.

Negro, 16, is an honor student and basketball player at Plainville High and will be making her debut as an ambassador for the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation.

Cystic fibrosis is a genetic disease affecting the respiratory and digestive systems. Thick mucus blocks the airways, leading to life-threatening infections. The median life expectancy is 37 years.

The Cystic Fibrosis Foundation is consistently rated one of the most efficient health charities in the country and is devoted to controlling the disease. Headquartered in Bethesda, Md., the foundation has more than 80 chapters and supports and accredits a nationwide network of 115 care centers. To advance research for a cure, the foundation has invested nearly $300 million in promising drug research in the biotech industry since 1998. For more information, visit www.cff.org.

The Sportscasters’ gala was established in 2002 by ESPN’s Joe Tessitore and Chris Berman to celebrate Connecticut’s rich sports history. Since its inception, the gala has raised more than $1 million in much needed research funds for the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation. Dinner, dancing and a unique live auction will highlight the event. For tickets ($200) or to get involved, contact CFF director of special projects Paul Drury at 860-632-7300 or pdrury@cff.org.

MARK HOWE SET TO ENTER NHL HALL OF FAME

Mark Howe, the best defenseman in Hartford Whalers history, heads to Toronto on Sunday for a celebratory dinner as a prelude to being inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame on Monday. Howe, who had been eligible since 1998, will be inducted with Dallas Stars GM Joe Nieuwendyk, Ed Belfour and Doug Gilmour.

“It’s hard to believe this is happening,” Howe, 56, the director of pro scouting for the Detroit Red Wings, said while watching the Rangers-Winnipeg Jets game Sunday night. “There’ll be about 40 friends and family coming in, and I’m so happy dad will be able to be there.”

“Dad” is legendary 83-year-old Gordie “Mr. Hockey” Howe, who ended his 32-year pro career at 52 playing with sons Mark and Marty with the Whalers after six seasons with the World Hockey Association’s Houston Aeros and New England Whalers. Marty and his family still live in Glastonbury.

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