Cassandra Vilgrain, Chicago Blackhawks, Claude Vilgrain, Montreal Canadiens, New Jersey Devils, Philadelphia Flyers, St. Louis Blues, University of New Hampshire, Vancouver Canucks, Washington Capitals
The hockey gene kicked in for Cassandra Vilgrain on Feb. 21, 2002.
After watching the Canadian women’s hockey team beat the United States 3-2 for the Gold Medal at the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City on television, Cassandra was overcome by a sensation that she never felt before – the sudden urge to play the game.
“I was figure skating and dancing and all that kind of stuff. I just went to my dad one day, me and my friend, after they won the gold and I said ‘I want to play hockey,’” Cassandra told me from the family home in Calgary, Alberta. “He was kind of taken aback and said ‘Oh, really? That’s great.’”
Dad is Claude Vilgrain, who played 89 National Hockey League games for the Vancouver Canucks, New Jersey Devils, and Philadelphia
Flyers, skated in eight North American and European hockey leagues, and played for Canada in the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary.
From her 2002 hockey epiphany, to a newbie barely able to stick handle on ice, Cassandra is now a forward for the University of New Hampshire’s NCAA Division I women’s hockey team. She tallied 9 goals and 8 assists in 32 games for the Wildcats last season. She got to Durham, N.H., through good hockey genes and good coaching - both courtesy of Dad.
“My first year of hockey there was no coach and my dad was like ‘Oh, I might as well do it since I’m going to be there anyway,’” Cassandra recalled. “He was really good. He taught me everything I know.”
Claude admits he wasn’t so sure when he first saw his daughter play.
“I watched her first couple of practices and she could hardly move the puck,” he recalled. “A Thursday I wasn’t there I got a call from my wife, Janet, and she said ‘You should have seen her, she’s flying out there. She’s like Mario Lemieux, blah, blah, blah.’ I said ‘What are you talking about, she can hardly move.’ But Cassandra’s always been a quick skater, a quick learner. She was always the hardest-working player on the ice and still is.”
Having a dad who’s an ex-NHL player as a coach is a plus. Having three former NHLers as coaches is a bonus. Claude had a volunteer parent-coaching staff on Cassandra’s girls teams that included Ron Sutter, – a forward who played for 555 games for the Flyers, St. Louis Blues, San Jose Sharks, Calgary Flames and other teams, and Kevin Haller, a defenseman who logged 642 games for the Flyers, Montreal Canadiens, Buffalo Sabres, Anaheim Mighty Ducks and others squads during his NHL career.
“I guess I didn’t realize how cool it actually was, all the experience I got to grasp from them, but I think it definitely helped my game,” Cassandra said. “The best part was, yes, they were parent coaches, but we weren’t their daughters when we were on the ice or on the bench. We were treated the same, professionally, and we learned the game well.”
As a tribute to her father, Cassandra wears Number 19 at UNH, the same number Claude wore during his NHL career. It gives Claude that “Mini-Me” feeling when he watches Wildcats games online back home in Calgary.
“I see her go on the ice, Number 19, and she turns around and I can see ‘Vilgrain’ on the back, it’s like a ‘Little Claudie’ out there,” he said.
“With a ponytail,” Cassandra added.
“With a ponytail,” Claude chuckled.
Hairstyle aside, father and daughter say they see similarities in their games, which Cassandra credits to bloodlines and coaching.
“I’m like a playmaker and my dad was always a really good playmaker, passer, kind of a power forward, a force to be reckoned with, kind of hard to knock off the puck,” she said. “I think that’s what I see in my own game.”
While Claude revels in his daughter’s hockey accomplishments, he says he’s just now beginning to fully grasp the significance and impact of his hockey career. Though raised in Quebec, Claude Vilgrain is the only NHL player born in Haiti - Port-au-Prince in 1963. He became a high-scoring forward for the Laval Voisins of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, the University of Moncton, and Canada’s national team in an era before NHL players participated in the Olympics.
“One of the first times I realized the impact I had was when I was playing in Switzerland, I got invited to play in the Spangler Cup for Team Canada,” he recalled. “They invited a couple of college kids to play with us. One of those players was Jamal Mayers (who played for the Blues and Chicago Blackhawks before retiring last year), he was a young kid, about 20 then. We were fixing our sticks before the first practice and he came to me and said ‘Hey, Claude, you’re our idol. My friend and I, we were watching you every game when we were playing in the states and it’s an honor playing with you.’ It never dawned on me that there might be some kids watching me. I was a little oblivious to the whole thing.”
By the time Claude made his debut with the Canucks in 1987-88, fellow black players Willie O’Ree, Mike Marson, Bill Riley, Tony McKegney, Grant Fuhr, Val James and Ray Neufeld had preceded him in the NHL. The trail they blazed was still a bumpy one for Claude. By the time he ended his NHL career with the Flyers in 1993-94, Claude totaled 21 goals, 32 assists and 78 penalty minutes in 89 games.
“When I played it wasn’t that easy. I’m not going to say I had a tough time, especially after talking to Willie O’Ree. I’m never going to complain,” he told me. “But I know every time I stepped on the ice, the eyes were turned towards me and they were wondering ‘Is this a black kid?’ It was even worse in Europe, especially when I was on the national team. We would play in places like Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Russia. Every time I stepped on the ice, the looks, the cameras, the interviews. They couldn’t believe there were black hockey players.”
Claude said it thrills him to see the growing number of players of color in the NHL today, especially players like Flyers forward Wayne Simmonds who have starring roles on their teams.
“You’re seeing more kids of color choosing the hockey path.” Claude said. “In Europe, I see Swedish black kids on my ex-team in Switzerland. I check the web sites of different teams in the German league where I played and I see black kids playing, the same thing in junior hockey.”
As for Cassandra’s hockey path, both father and daughter hope she’ll follow in the old man’s skates and play for Canada in the Winter Olympics. Cassandra’s still jazzed about 2002 – and about the Gold Medal Canada’s women won at the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi – and craves the Olympic experience.
She’s building the credentials: she was assistant captain for Team Alberta at the 2012 Canadian Nationals Under-18 competition and was a member of the 2011 Team Alberta squad. But she’s yet to receive an invitation to Hockey Canada’s women’s juniors or Olympics prospects camps.
“I wouldn’t say that I was overlooked, but I feel like I could have made an impact in those (Hockey Canada) programs already,” Cassandra said. “I’m hoping to make the Under-22 program and then drive for the Olympics.”
Claude said “It’s a little surprising that she never got invited for the U-18 type of thing” but added that “As a former national team member, I won’t mention anything. It’s up to her to find a way. She just has to work harder and make them notice her.”
Cassandra says she’s up for the challenge.
“I just always tell myself I’m going to give them no excuse not to invite me,” she said. “I’m going to play my hardest, do the best I can, and hopefully they see something in me and invite me next year or the year after.”
UP NEXT: Meet the Nurses.