MONTREAL – Leaving home is one of the toughest moves a Junior hockey player has to make in his young career. When Jean-Jacques Daigneault was making that decision three decades ago, an opportunity to represent his country helped seal the deal.
After spending two seasons in the QMJHL with the Laval Voisins and the Longueuil Chevaliers, the Ville Emard native received a call that changed his life in the summer of 1983. Despite his young age, Hockey Canada wanted to add Daigneault to the mix as early as the fall to start preparing him for a chance most Junior-aged players never get to enjoy.
“That August, I ended my career in the QMJHL at age 17 so I could accept an invitation to join the Canadian National Team in preparation for the Olympics in Sarajevo,” explained the former Habs blue-liner and current Canadiens assistant coach. “I played 62 games in the Olympic program and we were playing against NHL, AHL and European teams.
“At the beginning of December, my coach, Dave King, told me the National Junior Team was going to invite me to play at the World Juniors,” he added. “So I went from one National Team to another.”
One of the youngest players on the senior team, Daigneault benefitted from his time learning from some of the team’s young veterans before joining the rest of the best teenage players in the country. Having already acclimated to a new group of teammates a few months earlier, he knew exactly what he needed to do to make the transition even easier the second time around.
“Going straight from the Olympic program to the Junior team made it really easy to get my bearings quickly,” admitted Daigneault of his experience at the World Juniors. “I finished up a tournament with the Olympic team in Russia and went to join my teammates for camp in Finland.
“I met up with some of the guys I already knew like Yves Courteau and Sylvain Cote,” he mentioned. “I also knew Kirk Muller a little bit because we had the same agent.”
Under the leadership of head coach Brian Kilrea, the Canadian squad headed to Sweden looking to improve on the previous year’s bronze-medal finish.
Unfortunately, the Canadians had to battle some controversy off the ice prior to the opening puck drop. Mario Lemieux refused to join the team, forcing Team Canada to head to Nyköping short one superstar. Even without Lemieux, the team went into the tournament confident and ready to go.
“We had some great offensive players like Russ Courtnall and John MacLean, who each scored seven goals in the tournament,” explained Daigneault, who registered two points in seven games himself. “Obviously if we had a guy like Mario on the team he could have been a difference-maker and we could have finished with an even better result.”
The longer the Championships went on, the more Lemieux’s absence was felt. After posting four wins in the team’s first five games, the Canadians hit a wall against two of the tournament’s toughest challengers, tying the eventual gold-medal winning Soviets and losing to the bronze medalist Czechoslovakians. Team Canada returned home without a medal for the first time in three years, settling for a fourth-place finish.
“People’s expectations for us were high. Canada has always been a hockey superpower, both at the professional and amateur levels,” shared Daigneault, who also finished fourth a few months later at the Sarajevo Olympics. “We had some good performances early on against some weaker opponents, but we weren’t able to do what we needed to do to win a medal.”
While the results from that tournament still sting 30 years later, Daigneault looks back on his experience with the National Junior Team with nothing but appreciation. That opportunity gave him a taste of what to expect in the NHL and helped lay the foundation for his professional career.
“What I remember most is the caliber of the European and Canadian players. A lot of those guys went on to have really successful NHL careers,” he mentioned. “When you get all the best Junior players in the world together, you get fast, creative, explosive hockey. For a young guy like me, going to another country and playing in a tournament like that was an amazing experience.”
Hugo Fontaine is a writer for canadiens.com. Translated by Shauna Denis.
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