Huet offers Habs' fans new hope

JIM KERNAGHAN -- London Free Press

, Last Updated: 9:03 AM ET

Cristobal Huet is a rare package and his former mentor describes the Montreal Canadiens' goaltender in rare terms.

Humble and aggressive, goaltending coach Tom Hedican says. Modest and fiery, too. Laid-back, but focused.

The new hope for Habs' fans is all that and more, Hedican said after Huet's sparkling two-shutout weekend.

Nothing about the self-effacing Huet surprises Hedican, former goalie coach with the London Knights and Western Mustangs. From pickup hockey in Grenoble, France, to the top of the Swiss league to the National Hockey League, Huet has made the step up every time.

Considering the only butterfly he knew was un papillon, the steps have been gargantuan for someone who didn't play hockey until he was 16.

It's only two games, but in tossing zeroes at Boston and Philadelphia, Huet's perfect string ran to 72 shots and 2 2/3 games without conceding a goal. Hedican, a former writer and copy editor at The Free Press, is ecstatic

Jim Koleff, Hedican's colleague at the Swiss League club Lugano, saw Huet seven years ago at the world championships and asked Hedican to have a look.

From the outset, Huet was bad . . . but good. He knew nothing about the nuances of goaltending, but his athleticism, along with his humility and desire to learn, sparked Hedican's interest.

Everyone at Lugano thought Hedican and Koleff got too close to the schnapps. The wealthy club could have brought in anyone to fill out their maximum three imports.

"The fans and media were asking, 'Who ever heard of a goalie from France?' " Hedican recalls. "The club is owned by a billionaire. He could buy any goalie he wanted. The pressure was on."

After Huet led Lugano to the Swiss championship and recorded the league's top goals-against average, they became believers. So did the Los Angeles Kings. They signed Huet for the 2002-2003 season.

He played largely in the American League, but made the jump to the big team the following season. Montreal traded for him, but during last season's lockout, he played in Mannheim, Germany.

"He's an extremely humble kid," Hedican said.

"I remember in Lugano when they were planning an award to give him at centre ice. He said, 'Can't we just do it here?'

"He'll keep his feet on the ground, that's how he was raised. It's so much fun to watch him be successful."

Hedican is getting rewarded for his work on more than one front. Alex Auld, whom Hedican had when he was associate coach/general manager with the North Bay Centennials, has stepped up with the Vancouver Canucks and Corey Hirsch (ex-Rangers, Vancouver) leads his club in Sweden.

"When Cristo came to Lugano, he was playing on raw athletic ability," Hedican said. "He wasn't a student of the game, certainly. He's very competitive, though. He seems laid-back, but he hates to be scored on, even in practice."

Hedican said that while few Swiss league players make the NHL, their technical skills are the equal of anyone in the less-physical league. Consequently, Huet faced a host of capable scorers.

"We worked on every part of his game, on angles, the butterfly and what I consider a big part of the game, the down movement -- moving when you're on the ice, side to side while on your knees.

"We did a lot of video work and work on rush analysis, on reading the attack, on when to attack and when to be passive."

Huet was an apt student. His athleticism was aligned with the thinking part of the game and both fell in step with his desire.

"He's the complete package," Hedican said. "Some guys have the ability, but just aren't competitive. Cristo has it all."

Hedican, who has been with S.C. Fribourg in the Swiss elite league after leaving Lugano, signed a contract this week with S.C. Bern, where the Bears are the highest-drawing team in Europe, attracting 17,000 fans every game. He'll be assistant coach in all areas, as well as goaltender coach, next season.

And hoping for another Cristobal.


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