MONTREAL - As a wide-eyed boy of nine, young Jean-Sebastien Giguere, sitting in the famous red seats of the legendary Montreal Forum, underwent a surprising change of allegiances.
In the span of just a few seconds, J-S, a Montreal-area native and an avid Quebec Nordiques backer, suddenly became a Maple Leafs fan.
And with good reason.
The year was 1986 and Stephane Giguere, Jean-Sebastien’s oldest brother, had just been selected with the 111th pick at the annual entry draft at the Forum.
By the rival Maple Leafs.
Seeing your big brother drafted into the NHL is enough to convert a kid’s loyalties in a big hurry. Be sure of that.
Twenty-four years later, it is J-S Giguere himself who now wears Toronto blue-and-white. And Saturday, with friends and family proudly watching him, Giguere returns to the area where he grew up and for the first time will play at the Bell Centre against the rival Montreal Canadiens while wearing a Leafs jersey.
Sure, he played here a handful of times as an Anaheim Duck.
But this time it is different.
Here the Leafs are the enemy.
Here he can expect to be serenaded with chants of “Leafs Suck!” and “Sixty-seven!”
At least his family will be behind him.
“They’re converting,” Giguere said. “My brother was part of the Leafs when he was drafted in ’86. We did the transition then. Let’s do it again.”
You can hear the excitement in Giguere’s voice about the game, which will mark the end of Toronto’s disappointing 2009-10 season.
“I’ve never experienced anything like this,” the veteran goaltender said of the Leafs-Habs rivalry. “With the Ducks, we had the Kings. But it wasn’t the same.
“I’m looking forward to see what it would be like here in Montreal. When Montreal played in Toronto it was great but from what I hear it is unbelievable when the Leafs play in Montreal.
“I’m looking forward to see the atmosphere.”
Unlike J-S, Stephane Giguere never had the opportunity to play an NHL game for the Leafs.
After being drafted by the Leafs, Stephane scored 84 goals in two seasons for the St. Jean Beavers of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. He then went to Flint of the International Hockey League, where a disappointing four-goal output in his rookie season as a pro caused him to hang up the blades.
“(Stephane) just felt like his career was not going anywhere,” J-S said. “He wanted to go in a different direction, so he became a police officer.”
With that, Stephane Giguere’s NHL dream died.
Years later, younger brother J-S is still living his.
It is early Friday afternoon and J-S Giguere, having just finished practice at the Habs’ practice facility in suburban Brossard, is being swarmed by the Montreal media, with both the English and French variety well-represented.
The question du jour: Why did you decide to become a goalie in the first place?
“Part of it was, I was the youngest of five kids and they needed someone to shoot the ball at,” Giguere said. “So, they stuck me in net.
“The other part of it was, I was intrigued with the position and asked my dad to try it. It went pretty good. I stuck with it.”
Giguere’s father Claude, a prison guard, did not have a lot of money to use to spoil his five kids. But he would do what it took to make sure his children had the best equipment, including taking out a second mortgage on his Montreal-area home.
As young J-S began moving up the ladder in minor hockey, he, like so many other aspiring French-Canadian goaltenders, wanted to follow in the footsteps of then-Habs star Patrick Roy. In Giguere’s case, one of his favourite personal photos shows an awe-struck J-S, just 12 at the time, shaking hands with St. Patrick, an image that remains etched in his memory.
“Patrick Roy, him being such a good goalie, I kind of imitated the way he played,” Giguere recalls. “The fact that he was a goalie too, young kids with talent here in Quebec would strap on the pads instead of being a forward to try to imitate him.”
The same year that the famous photo of Giguere and Roy was taken, J-S attended a hockey school in nearby St. Therese run by a friend of Roy named Francois Allaire. It was the beginning of a friendship that has lasted for the past two decades.
“Back then in Quebec, in the summers you went to his school,” Giguere recollects. “We received good coaching right from the get go.
“Right now, we can see other provinces, even other countries, catching on. The coaching is better too. But for a decade or so Frankie was the guru.”
At the time, there was one trait Allaire noticed in young Giguere that stood out: His competitiveness.
“He was a local kid, a good goalie,” Allaire, now the Maple Leafs goaltending consultant, said. “More than anything, he wanted to win.”
That will be the case yet again when Giguere steps out onto the Bell Centre ice Saturday.
The 2009-10 season has been a roller-coaster ride for Giguere who, as a member of the Ducks, won the Conn Smythe Trophy in 2003 and a Stanley Cup in 2007.
Beaten out for the starting job in Anaheim by Jonas Hiller, the veteran was acquired prior to the Olympic break by the Leafs’ Brian Burke, his former GM with the Ducks. Giguere responded by becoming the first goalie in Leafs franchise history to earn shutouts in each of his first two Toronto appearances.
While young Jonas Gustavsson appears to be the starter down the road, Giguere, with a season left on his contract, isn’t about to give up on his aspirations of being the Leafs’ No. 1 goalie in 2010-11 either. At 32 years of age, he feels there is plenty of life still remaining in his hefty pads.
That’s down the road.
For the time being, his immediate goal is to help the Leafs finish off their season on a high note with a win over his hometown Habs at the raucous Bell Centre.
Maybe his brother Stephane never was fortunate enough to know the feeling of beating the Habs in Montreal while wearing a Leafs jersey. But, come Saturday, J-S Giguere himself will have that chance.
“To do that,” he said, “would be very special.”