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When all roads lead to hockey

Between the death of his mother when he was young and a move to the other side of the country to live his dreams in hockey, Manu Charbonneau had a path strewn with pitfalls

Manu Charbonneau, 17, knows very well the story of Willie O’Ree, the first black player to join the National Hockey League some 60 years ago, today inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame.

This sportsman from Fredericton has had to fight for diversity and inclusion throughout his professional career. A difficult life story that marked the young Manu; he doesn’t need Black History Month, celebrated in February, to remember that.

Indeed, the young hockey player – who today patrols the blue line of the Alberni Valley Bulldogs of the British Columbia Hockey League (BCHL) in Port Alberni – has not had it easy either.

A child of color, he grew up alone with his Caucasian mother, Annie, in Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu, Quebec. His father was not in the portrait. At 12, he saw his life change dramatically after the death of his mother, a tragic event he still struggles to talk about.

Manu, whose full name is Emanuelson, was then taken in by his Caucasian grandparents, Luc and Thérèse, who still reside in the small town 40 kilometers from Montreal.

The elderly couple made a vow to encourage him to continue hockey, where the child shone. Designated “player of exceptional status”, he played in the M18 AAA division for Collège Charles-Lemoyne at the age of 14 during the 2018-2019 season, writes his family advisor Jonathan Lachance. Only three other players have had the same status in his age group.

At 15, Manu returned to play for the same team and was used in all match situations: he could be called upon on the power play, he defended the fort during penalties and he was called upon in defense to follow certain players. on the trail,” Lachance said in a letter to the national appeal committee supporting a request to move to British Columbia. “He was one of the three most used players on his team. »

In 2020, he was also selected by the Blainville-Boisbriand Armada in the third round of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League draft, but opted for a university career instead and joined the Bulldogs. Manu obtained the authorization to move, and at the age of 16, he left the family nest, leaving behind him his memories of adolescence – and especially, of childhood with his mother – to join the BCHL.

Not speaking a word of English then, he did not let himself be dismantled.

“It was fun,” he replies when asked if he was a little scared at the time. “Very different from the East Coast. It’s a beautiful place to live, I loved my experience. I wasn’t really scared; I was a little nervous, it’s true, but it was good stress. »

At the heart of his second season with the Bulldogs, the young hockey player is now doing very well in English and continues to flourish on the ice as elsewhere. After his third season next year, he plans to attend the University of Nebraska at Omaha, where he earned a full scholarship.

He has also caught the attention of NHL Central Scouting, who are already considering him a candidate for the 2022 draft. Manu is certainly on the right track, although he had to overcome many obstacles to get there. !

Fortunately, he was not alone: ​​he received help from Lachance and his business partner at the Will Sports Group, Dominic De Blois. The Quebec company also serves Tyler Seguin, Miro Heiskanen and Thomas Chabot, among others.

Alberni Valley Bulldogs general manager and head coach Joe Martin also had the pleasure of working with the 6-foot-3, 200-pound young colossus. With such a size, difficult to go unnoticed.

But it is above all his journey that attracts attention, and he can now tell it in English.

“He has come a long way in English since his arrival,” proudly asserts Martin. When you see him, it’s easy to forget he’s 17. He is so big! He looks us in the eyes, with his shining gaze. He is a passionate player, but off the ice he is calm, caring and diligent.

“He is unique, and he complements the team perfectly. I don’t see him as a 17 year old. There are not two like him; he is very mature for his age, probably because of his past. »

The loss of his mother during his childhood, then the life with his elderly grandparents in times of COVID-19 certainly left their marks.

“I hope he still enjoyed his childhood,” says Martin. It’s hard to say; I didn’t know him before he arrived here at 16. I know that today at least he is happy, diligent and determined. I wish him to continue on his way. “It must have been really hard for him (to lose his mother), especially so young, at 12 years old. He’s still lucky to have Jonathan and a good (boarding house) family, a big family – the Steel family. »

Manu lives with the Steel, business owners who support community sports, with a teammate: 20-year-old defenseman Ryan Nause, originally from New Brunswick.

“They helped me enormously, recognizes the young Quebecer. As a francophone, I had a lot of trouble making myself understood. They welcomed me with open arms and took care of me, I’m really grateful. »

“I have a lot of friends here (in Port Alberni), and I’m close to my teammates. Ryan Nause is one of my best friends, and we make a good team on the ice. We are all quite close, and the training sessions are pleasant. We are always in a good mood! »

Thankfully, Manu didn’t have to endure the racism that O’Ree and many others have faced in their careers.

“There weren’t a lot of black people in Saint-Jean, but I had great friends, so that didn’t change anything. They saw my personality first, and I saw theirs,” he says.

“We were maybe three people of color in the whole school, and we were treated well, but people tried to make jokes from time to time. It bothered me sometimes; I simply asked them not to do it in front of me. It was nothing against me, it was general jokes, but it could still affect me. When it happened, I just said it. »

“I know it can happen on the ice, but I was lucky: I didn’t experience it. Racism is a very sensitive subject for me. Of course, if I lived in hockey, I would talk about it. That would be a shame; ultimately, we are all equal. But as I say, I was lucky and it has never happened to me before. It’s okay to feel frustrated, but nothing justifies racism. »

He knows O’Ree fought against racism, and he holds a special place in his heart for the former NHLer.

“I saw the documentary (about O’Ree), I know that black NHL players wore special skates in his honor,” Manu recalled. He is of course talking about the model bearing the image of the famous hockey player produced by Bauer in 2021, which bears his favorite quote: “All I needed was the opportunity”.

“When I was younger, I really liked video games. I always chose O’Ree on my first line, I had a special card for him and I used it a lot. A former Montreal Canadiens fan, Manu now supports the Boston Bruins, for whom O’Ree played all 45 NHL games.

He’s also keeping a close eye on other players of color, like K’Andre Miller (from St. Paul, Minn.), who plays for the New York Rangers.

“I know Miller’s background. I have been since his time with the US national program and at the University of Wisconsin with Cole Caulfield (now a Montreal Canadiens player). It was crazy to see Miller, Caulfield and (Alex) Turcotte (a Los Angeles Kings selection who played a few NHL games) play together. Miller is already in the NHL and is part of the first line of one of the best teams, so I am a little interested in him, ”explains Manu.

It also follows PK Subban, who began his career in Montreal. “I continued to follow him even after he left for Nashville, then for the New Jersey Devils,” he says, adding that he is delighted with the success of more and more players of color.

Martin knows that is probably very important for Manu.

“I did not see him being the victim of racism, fortunately, confides the coach. We have two players of color in the team, and I know there are others elsewhere. British Columbia and BCHL are very diverse; there are notably players from Asia and India. »

Martin is happy that Manu didn’t have to deal with this problem, but he knows that not everyone is so lucky.

“A few years ago I had a player… I didn’t witness it directly, but I heard rumors from another team. I don’t know what they’re told (on the rink), but I’m sure if anything happened I’d be made aware. The team would react. »

“In addition, Manny has the respect of the locker room; anyone who dared attack him would regret it bitterly. And I know my players would defend him even if they didn’t hold him in such high regard. »

Manu sees himself as a strong two-way player. “I’m very tough, it’s very difficult to play against me. I’m good on the penalty kill, that’s my specialty,” he says proudly.

He is inspired by David Savard, a Canadiens defenseman; Drafted in the fourth round by the Columbus Blue Jackets, for whom he played 10 seasons, Savard made a brief stint in Tampa Bay before returning to his native Quebec.

“I like his size and his defensive presence, and also the fact that he knows how to create plays in offensive,” explains Manu.

If he once admired Sidney Crosby, the young hockey player now takes Charlie McAvoy for the Boston Bruins.

“He’s an unknown player, we don’t talk a lot about him. But for me, he’s one of the two best defensemen in the NHL. He has a way of moving on the ice…he’s a great athlete, and a great person. I follow him on social media; he often donates, helps others at Thanksgiving…stuff like that. Yes, he is a good person in addition to being a good player. »

It’s thanks to McAvoy that Manu supports the Bruins. “I love the Bruins. I still love the Canadiens, of course, it’s my childhood team. I grew up near Montreal. In Quebec, Sainte-Flanelle is practically a religion. »

He hopes, one day, to stir up passions too.

Mario Annicchiarico is a freelance writer living in Victoria. He previously covered the activities of the Edmonton Oilers of the National Hockey League and the Western Hockey League.

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