“We need stories like that, which will make the world of hockey in Quebec understand that it’s a marathon, not a sprint. »
Jon Goyens gets excited when it comes to the career of Djibril Touré, his former protégé from the Lions du Lac St-Louis. “Stories like that” are that of Touré, a giant defender from Dorval, ignored in the QMJHL draft, who waited until he was 19 before playing in major junior, and who now holds a contract with the National League in due form.
Touré was that slender number 73 who skated on the Ottawa Senators blue line Wednesday night, against the Canadiens, at the Bell Centre. The most avid fans, who watched the rookie tournament two weeks ago, may also remember him for his fight against Riley McKay, of the Canadian.
At 6’7”, Touré turns heads. On Wednesday, when the Senators players arrived at the Bell Center, it wasn’t very hard to spot in the parking lot. But such a size also comes with disadvantages for a hockey player, particularly in terms of coordination. “When I was younger, I had a lot of problems! “, he agrees, in an interview before Wednesday’s meeting.
“Often, when we see a big guy like him, we know it’s going to be a long time before he’s comfortable in his body, but we could see that he hadn’t finished growing. And he was thin. But he was confident with the puck and attempted plays, instead of clearing it into the bay window,” recalls Goyens, head coach at Lac St-Louis from 2009 to 2019.
Except that once the QMJHL draft came, everyone had their turn, which Goyens found “laughable”. “I often heard the term “project”. I find it hard to believe that no one wanted a big guy, still growing, who comes from a family that values work… We’re talking about two young people who worked in the summer to help pay for their hockey. They weren’t born at third base. They have not received everything in life. »
Touré smiles when Goyens’ comments are reported to him. “I worked as an actor [in the English version of 19-2], as a model, I worked at IKEA, I served ice cream in a convenience store, that was great! », he lists.
This means that while the best of his age were drafted in major junior and could spend their summers focusing on hockey, he had to eat his crusts. Did he stop believing in it?
“Not really,” he assures us. I knew I was young and that the QMJHL was not the only path to the NHL. It was early in my development. I didn’t know much about myself as a player yet. It took me a while to develop, but today it’s great. »
After a 2020-2021 campaign lost due to the pandemic, Touré took charge of Ontario the following season. At 18, the age at which he could have been drafted into the NHL, he found himself in Junior A, at Carleton Place and Hawkesbury.
Then, in the summer of 2022, the Sudbury Wolves of the Ontario Junior League (OHL) added him to their roster. In August 2022, the OHL therefore places an “out-of-territory player request”, a procedure which allows a player to play for a junior circuit other than that of his province. “This player was not on any QMJHL protection list,” we confirm at the Cecchini circuit.
Touré amassed modest offensive statistics there (16 points in 57 games), but Pierre Dorion, whose son played with Touré at Hawkesbury, invited him to the development camp in July, then to the rookie tournament two weeks ago. It was at the end of this tournament, on September 21, that the Senators signed him to an NHL entry contract.
His journey is reminiscent of that of Arber Xhekaj. Both are very tall, undrafted defensemen who earned NHL contracts despite modest offensive numbers. “My teammates were joking about it, they said that I had the same background as him,” Touré admits.
Xhekaj, however, reached the NHL by bypassing the American League. Touré seems destined to pass through Belleville, if we rely on his low usage time on Wednesday. Still, its late development should serve as a lesson, believes Jon Goyens.
“We have to ask ourselves what we can do to not eliminate young people too quickly in minor hockey,” notes Goyens. He was big, he seemed uncoordinated. It would have been easy to say that he’s not good, that he skates like Bambi.
” He is not the only one. Jonathan Marchessault, Yanni Gourde… Justin Hryckowian [undrafted Quebecer, who plays at Northeastern] is also coming. These guys were never drafted, never played in the U18, U20 programs. We put tags on kids at 11 years old, in AAA pee-wee. It becomes a sprint and there are no brakes on the bike. Unfortunately, young people who take their time more are left behind. »