Monday, January 22, 2007

For All Star Boucher Family Comes First

If you've followed the Stars at all this season, then you know about what Dallas defenseman Phillipe Boucher has gone through. It's been well documented that his father Jean-Claude has been very ill. Back in November, he was diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer and not given long to survive. Meanwhile, his Mom also was about to have heart surgery. So the situation wasn't ideal.

After missing a couple of games to be with his family, Boucher returned to the ice. Probably inspired, he then went on to play some of the best hockey in his 16-year career. The 33 year-old St. Apollinaire Quebec native has followed up a career season in which he recorded 16 goals, 27 helpers and 43 points with an even better year. Currently, the former Buffalo 1991 13th overall selection leads the Stars in scoring with 13 goals and 20 assists for 33 points. He also paces them with eight goals coming via the power play.

On a defensive team that doesn't score a lot and is currently ranked sixth in the Western Conference with a 29-18-1 record for 59 points, he has been a valuable commodity. That kind of production was good enough to merit his first ever All Star selection. For Boucher, it has to be extra special that he'll get to suit up on home ice as the 55th NHL All Star Game makes its debut in Big D with festivities beginning tomorrow night at 7:30 ET/4:30 PT with the Young Stars Game on Versus. The All Star Game will take place Wednesday night at 8 PM.

As part of this special feature on Boucher, we are reposting Dallas Morning News' columnist Mike Heika's piece on him. It's an outstanding story and deserves every bit of attention:

Despite heartache off ice, All-Star Boucher shines

01:09 AM CST on Monday, January 22, 2007

By MIKE HEIKA / The Dallas Morning News

Philippe Boucher settled into a chair in his father's hospice room in Quebec and let out a little sigh.

Hanging in the window was an All-Star Game jersey with Boucher's name on the back. The Dallas Stars defenseman that day was named to play in the annual NHL All-Star Game for the first time, completing a long career climb after being a first-round draft pick 16 years ago. As a bonus, Dallas on Wednesday at American Airlines Center is hosting the game for the first time.

Flickering in a corner was a new television, showing hockey game after hockey game on a Saturday afternoon. It was a comforting backdrop for a family in crisis.

Jean-Claude lay in bed, his body racked by cancer. Sitting nearby was Boucher's mother, Jacqueline, two months removed from heart valve replacement surgery. Their only child sat with them and soaked up the scene.

There were stories and deep conversations about times long past, when a father was engrossed in his son's budding hockey career. There was talk of grandkids and youth hockey games to come. At times, there was just the chattering of the television.

And throughout, there was healing.

"It's been a really great weekend," Boucher said by phone on that day a week ago. "It's just the three of us, and we've been able to talk and really just be together. I think it's something we all needed."

For Boucher, 33, forces of life have collided during the last year. His father, who has battled paralysis brought on by a stroke for 22 years, was diagnosed in November with terminal pancreatic cancer and given weeks to live. At the same time, his mother was scheduled to have surgery for a heart condition.

At work, Boucher has had a banner season. He's on pace to post career bests in goals, assists and points. But the Stars, division champions a year ago, have been beset by injuries and have struggled to find consistency.

It seemed as if everyone needed Boucher's help. He's done his best.

"It's really an amazing story when you look at it," Stars coach Dave Tippett said. "To have all of this happen in one year, in three months, really, and he just never lets it get to him. He rises above it all, and he takes care of things and he plays some of the best hockey of his career. It's amazing."

Boucher said:
"I don't know why these things have happened, but there has been a lot of good that has come out of it. It's forced us to talk about a lot of things and really forced us all together, and we needed that."

History of rocky times
Rocky times are nothing new for the Bouchers. Jean-Claude was a plumber who loved his son. Jacqueline was a secretary who loved her son. But the parents couldn't get along. When Philippe was about 10, a divorce was in the works.

Jean-Claude Boucher and Jacqueline Paquet stood by son Philippe as he made his way through Canada's hockey system. Today, the All-Star stands by his parents as they fight illness.
Then Jean-Claude suffered a stroke, was hospitalized for two years and came out in 1986 with partial paralysis and the need for constant help.

So the parents, who eventually went through with the divorce, set up in different residences and tried to help each other as much as they could. Boucher also discovered he had to do a lot more.

"There were a lot of times that my dad needed help, whether that was with cooking or a bath or whatever, and I would be the only one there," he said. "Yeah, you grow up really fast."

He still had a hockey career to pursue. His father operated the hockey and baseball programs in St. Apollinaire, a small town across the St. Lawrence River from Quebec City, and had taken a heavy hand in Boucher's development. If he wasn't his son's actual coach, he still coached his game.

After the stroke, Boucher had to find another way. His uncle, Andre Paquet, stepped in.

"Nobody could take the place of my dad, but I think it was something I needed at the time," Boucher said. "My dad wanted to talk hockey all of the time, and my uncle wasn't that way. He was lighter. He would always say, 'Don't worry. You'll get 'em next time.' I think maybe I needed that then."

Because of financial issues, travel problems and his father's needs, Boucher moved up the ranks of Quebec's junior hockey system slowly. But, he says now, that might have helped his growth as a player as he made his way to the highest level, major juniors. There, he displayed a hard shot, delivered some hard hits and revealed a knack for the game. He was chosen 13th overall in the NHL draft by Buffalo and suddenly found himself a hot prospect.

Setbacks before success
Success didn't immediately follow. He bounced between Buffalo and the minor leagues, spending much more time in the lower levels. In 1994, the Sabres tossed him in on a trade to Los Angeles.

He had wrist surgery in 1995 and hand surgery in 1996 and suffered a sprained shoulder in 1997. A foot operation in 1999 led to the Kings loaning him to a minor league team that wasn't their direct affiliate. A ticket to join the Manitoba Moose to begin the 1999-2000 season was a clear message.

"I figured it was close to over," Boucher said. "I didn't know if I should consider playing in Europe or consider getting out of hockey."

Boucher found new determination on the plains of western Canada. He gutted it up, pushed himself hard and played some of his best hockey in years, tallying 32 points in 45 games for the Moose. When the Kings had injury problems in 2001, they recalled him.

"He was still on our radar, but I'm not sure that he would have been called up if we weren't so banged up," said Tippett, an assistant coach with the Kings then. "He got one opportunity, and he made the most of it. He earned back a regular spot and never looked back."

Boucher played 80 games in 2001-02, then signed with the Stars as an unrestricted free agent the following summer. He has battled more injuries in Dallas but transformed himself into one of the top defensemen in the NHL. Last season, he tied for fifth in goals scored by defensemen at 16 and tied for sixth in plus-minus rating at plus-28. This season, he's on pace to set career highs in goals (he's tied for second in the league among defensemen with 13) and points (ninth at 33).

"You always are seeking approval from your peers, and that's what makes this special," he said. "To be out there with the best players in the league, that's not something I spent a whole lot of time thinking about before this year."

He knows he belongs, and so do his teammates.

"You look at the top six [defensemen] in the West, and there's no way you can leave him off," said Stars goalie Marty Turco, the team's only other All-Star this season. "He is a dead-lock All-Star. And with everything that he has been through this season, that's just incredible."

Tippett says it's a tribute to Boucher's career.

"He's just so mentally strong and so dedicated," Tippett said. "He is just a very focused player."

His father's son
Boucher says he gets that strength from his father. He said his dad was a heavy smoker when he was a kid – to the point that it made young Philippe sick when they rode together in the car.

"So I told him it was really choking me, and he stopped," Boucher said. "That's it. He just stopped."

Boucher said a similar situation occurred involving his father's drinking. He told the family one day it was time for him to stop, and he did.

"He never brought it up again," Boucher said. "He never talked about it."

Hockey has always been important to Jean-Claude Boucher, though he couldn't pursue a playing career because it was too expensive. He later channeled that attention to coaching and providing a place for the kids to play.

Growing up, 'my dad wanted to talk hockey all of the time,' says Boucher, who got his first stick before he was 2.

"I gave him the All-Star jersey and said, 'This is for you,' " Boucher said. "And after a while, he looked over at me and asked if they could auction it off and maybe get some extra money for the youth hockey association. He's just that kind of guy."

Boucher remembers his father sitting in his rocking chair after the stroke, watching people go to work in the mornings.

"He is such a proud man, and that really hurt him," Boucher said. "He wanted to work. He wanted to help his family. And so he put all of that into trying to get better."

Reaching a goal
And he did. He became as self-sufficient as he could, eventually learning to walk small distances with a cane. Boucher said his father has faced the cancer the same way. Doctors told him around Thanksgiving that there wasn't much time left, so Boucher gathered his family – wife Lucie, son Matthew and daughter Vanessa – and went to Quebec to say goodbye.

But his father keeps fighting. He has good days and bad, and the good ones are among the best in Boucher's life. Outside the window of his hospice room, he can see an outdoor skating rink similar to the one outside the window of his boyhood home.

His father wrote a letter for Philippe and for Jacqueline, who has gone by her maiden name of Paquet since the divorce in 1988. He has thanked Andre Paquet, Boucher's uncle, after years of resentment that Paquet might be trying to take his place. He has made things right in the extra time he has been given.

"He has so much determination and so much perseverance. Even fighting the cancer, he is not going to give up," Boucher said.

And the son sees some of his father in himself.

"If you want to say I have that, then I think I got it from him," Boucher said.

Family time
Hockey Day in Canada dominated the television on that Saturday when Boucher sat with his parents. It's an annual tribute to the sport in Canada that runs on the nation's biggest network, CBC. Among the daylong programming are NHL games, major junior games and tributes to the sport at every level. It was the perfect backdrop for the family to bond.

After Boucher answered questions on his cellphone about being named to the Western Conference All-Star team, he was asked whether his parents could answer a few questions.

"Do you speak French?" he asked, before offering to translate.

His father's replies were short, pointed and focused on his pride in his son and all that he has accomplished. His mother's answers were longer and more detailed.

When she was asked how difficult it was to continue taking her teenage son to practice given the family situation, Jacqueline's reply caught him by surprise.

"She said that she had to do it because she knew that is what I would be in life, that is what I would do," Boucher said. "Wow, we're learning something new every day here. I had no idea."

Asked if she was coming to Dallas for the All-Star Game, Jacqueline said she would watch the game at the hospital with Jean-Claude.

It seems like the perfect way to share as a family.

And then Boucher excused himself. There were letters to be read and hockey games to be watched. And there was healing to be done.

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