By Lindsey Willhite | Photos by Ross Dettman
When the weather isn’t too poor and their bodies aren’t aching from a hard stretch of practices and games, Yann Sauve and Antoine Roussel hit the outdoor court at their northwest suburban apartment complex to play “21.”
Perhaps that’s a surprise for a pair of professional hockey players who didn’t grow up anywhere close to basketball hotbeds – Sauve in the far western suburbs of Montreal and Roussel in Roubaix, France.
But when Roussel assesses their games, it’s clear Sauve’s size and athleticism translate whatever he plays.
“I haven’t won a game yet,” Roussel said. “He’s pretty skilled. We played one time in the outdoor and there’s a little kid standing in his way. (Yann) was going to dunk the ball. And the kid saw him running hard with the ball, so the kid’s moving away. We look at the kid and he’s, ‘Oh, I’m lucky I stepped out of the way! This guy’s huge!’ ”
The kid shouldn’t feel badly. The 6-foot-3, 213-pound Sauve has been making people say that for years. As the saying goes, Sauve was big even when he was little.
Growing up in Rigaud, Quebec – part of the greater Montreal area known as West Island – Sauve was a multi-sport standout who learned quickly from his two older brothers. He played basketball, he earned recognition as a hard-throwing pitcher…and he towered over everybody on the ice.
Sauve, who grew up speaking French and prefers to converse in his native tongue when possible (partially explaining why he lives with Roussel), preferred not to boast when reminiscing about his youth hockey days.
“I was bigger than everybody and I was skating well so I had some speed and all this,” Sauve said. “I was heavy, I was big, so for sure it was a bit easier for me.”
Perhaps so, but scouts also noticed a skill set to match his size. During the 2006 Quebec Major Junior Hockey League (QMJHL) Entry Draft, the Saint John Sea Dogs made Sauve, then 16 years old, the first overall selection – an honor also earned by such players as Mario Lemieux (1981), Pierre Turgeon (1985), and Sidney Crosby (2003).
“They were an expansion team,” Sauve said. “They had three first overall picks in a row. There was me, there was Alex Grant and Simon Despres, who plays in Pittsburgh. We had a good team, a lot of good prospects…not only me.”
Sauve spent four strong seasons with Saint John in the province of New Brunswick, where he learned to speak fluent English in addition to solidifying his status as a top prospect.
During the 2008 NHL Entry Draft, the Vancouver Canucks selected Sauve with their second-round pick. He joined the organization after running out of QMJHL eligibility – but his debut on the ice was postponed by a car accident during training camp. Sauve was trying to walk across a street when he was hit by an SUV and knocked unconscious. He suffered a concussion that kept him out of action for two months.
“I wasn’t able to do anything at all,” Sauve said. “It was hard to watch practice the first half of the season.”
What happened next was more improbable than Sauve’s accident. Once he received clearance to play, the Canucks sent him to East Coast Hockey League affiliate Victoria. After just eight games with the Salmon Kings, Sauve jumped to the AHL’s Manitoba Moose. After just 20 games with the Moose, Sauve was promoted to the Canucks.
Yes, Sauve’s opportunity came because Vancouver had four injured defensemen – but the fact remained that he made his NHL debut three days shy of his 21st birthday. Sauve appeared in a total of five games for the Canucks last season. He posted no points and no penalty minutes in 65 minutes of ice time.
“You don’t want to (brag), but I did feel comfortable,” Sauve said. “I think the thing is, when I had (the accident), I had to make sure I was playing well because I didn’t have much time to have some games and get my season going. But I think I did real well there and I fit in there.
“Everything happens so fast there,” he said. “You always have to be ready. You can’t have a shift off or you can’t lose focus because it’s going to be behind you in the net.”
Sauve has taken those lessons and applied them during his first full season in the AHL. Through Feb. 7, Sauve owned one goal, five assists and a plus/minus rating of +11. His strength has proven to be his rare blend of size and skill.
“He skates really well,” said Wolves head coach Craig MacTavish. “He’s very strong. He’s a tough guy. When he’s playing his best game, he’s moving the puck well. He’s a big part of our penalty kill. He’s really good at stopping the opposition’s cycles by being good and physical – a cycle-buster.”
That’s what the Wolves love to have – and what the Canucks want to see. During a recent interview with the Vancouver Sun, Canucks GM Mike Gillis declared, among other things, “Yann Sauve has made big strides.”
“For sure, everybody wants to (score) points and all this,” Sauve said. “But if I look at my game, I need to be real good defensively. I think that’s what’s going to bring me to the next level. I’ll still work on my offensive development and what’s going on on that side, but I just want to focus on being really good defensively.”
And Roussel, his roomie, focuses on making sure Sauve’s ego doesn’t grow large as well. When asked whether Sauve’s ability to dunk a basketball reinforces the idea that he’s a good athlete, here was Roussel’s reply:
“Yeah, but don’t tell him that. He’s going to have a big head.”