Thursday, July 8, 2010

Michel Mongeau, hockey player (1965-2010)

Michel Mongeau (left) hoists a trophy with Laval Chiefs teammate Denis Paul.

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
July 8, 2010

Michel Mongeau, a professional hockey player, suffered grievous facial injuries when crosschecked from behind into a goal. He recovered from a broken face to resume his career.

Perseverance is a sports cliche, but doggedness is the best explanation for Mongeau’s comeback. He was overlooked and underestimated during his playing days, managing to earn a salary as a hockey player for 17 seasons owing to his own fierce determination

Mongeau, who has died, aged 45, played briefly in the National Hockey League. He had been skipped in the draft as a junior player, but his playmaking prowess in the minor leagues gave him a shot at an NHL roster.

He played in 54 NHL games for two teams over parts of four seasons. In the end, he proved too slow a skater and too small a forward at 5-foot-9 to earn more than a temporary spot.

It was in the unlikely hockey hotbed of Peoria, Ill., that the Quebec-born centre became a fan favourite, leading the Rivermen to a championship.

A peripatetic career included stints with teams in Europe, though he returned to his native province to play senior hockey before retiring just six years ago.

Mongeau was born in Montreal, where his hockey hero growing up was Guy Lafleur of the hometown Canadiens, a team so dominant it had won 10 Stanley Cups from his birth until shortly after his 14th birthday.

At 16, he caught the attention of scouts by averaging more than two points per game for the Lac St. Louis Lions, an AAA midget team.

He moved on to the junior Laval Voisins, a freewheeling ensemble whose two other centres were Vincent Damphousse, a future captain of the Canadiens, and Mario Lemieux, who averaged more than four points per game on his way to a Hockey Hall of Fame career.

The Voisins dominated Quebec competition before flaming out with three consecutive losses in the Memorial Cup playoffs, as Lemieux managed only a single goal. For his part, Mongeau scored three goals and added two assists in a losing cause.

After two more seasons with the Voisins, including a campaign during which he recorded 180 points in 72 games, Mongeau went unselected in the NHL draft. He wound up signing a contract with the Saginaw (Mich.) Generals of the International Hockey League, a minor-league circuit in which he would build his reputation.

He racked up impressive statistics, twice leading the league in assists.

The NHL’s St. Louis Blues signed him as a free agent and he performed well during a callup lasting seven games, scoring a goal and five assist. He also skated in two playoff games, earning another assist.

He bounced between Peoria and the parent club in following seasons.

With the Rivermen, Mongeau centered wingers Dave Thomlinson and Jim Vesey, a high-scoring trio sportswriters dubbed the MTV line. Mongeau led the Rivermen to an 18-game winning streak, which the club claims as a pro record, on the way to claiming the Turner Cup championship in 1990-91.

The NHL’s new Tampa Bay franchise selected him in the 1992 expansion draft, but the centreman played only four games in a Lightning uniform.

Mongeau was skating for the Rivermen in a road game against the Cleveland Lumberjacks on Feb. 27, 1994, when he suffered a gruesome injury. Mongeau grabbed the puck from opponent Chris Tamer, a defenceman employed less for his puck skills than for a bruising style. Tamer crosschecked the shorter player from behind, sending him crashing face-first into a support beam at the back of the Cleveland net.

At first, Mongeau did not realize the extent of his injury.

“I took my mouthpiece out and my teeth didn’t come together,” he later told Jeff Gordon of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “I thought I lost a few teeth.

“I never lost consciousness. I probably should have. I had some big headaches that night.”

The injuries included a broken jaw, a broken cheekbone, and broken eye sockets, as well as a broken nose. His head swelled to grotesque proportions. Doctors needed three metal plates to rebuild his face. It was an injury more typical of an car crash victim.

Tamer was suspended for a single game, a decision that outraged Mongeau’s teammates, who complained a marquee player had been taken out by a goon. Shortly after, Tamer was promoted to the Pittsburgh Penguins. He enjoyed a long career in the NHL.

Meanwhile, Mongeau ate his meals through a straw, as his wife, Chantal Bourgeois, needed to put his food through a blender. She ate the same fare in the same manner in solidarity.

The player sued Tamer and the Lumberjacks for $3 million US in damages. His wife sought $350,000.

A first trial in U.S. District Court in Akron, Ohio, ended in a hung jury. A second jury ruled against the injured player in 1996.

He returned to the ice after 10 months of recovery, complaining he had to change his style. He also suffered from headaches and difficulty sleeping.

Among the other teams for which he skated were the Detroit Vipers, Milwaukee Admirals, Phoenix Roadrunners, Flint (Mich.) Spirits, Quebec Rafales, Manitoba Moose, and the Cornwall (Ont.) Aces, as well as pro teams in Italy, France, and Switzerland.

He completed his career where it started by joining the Chiefs, a semiprofessional team, in the Montreal suburb of Laval, where he had played as a junior.

Mongeau died on May 22 after a diagnosis of melanoma skin cancer. He leaves his wife and two children.

On his death, he was remembered by the Courrier Laval newspaper as “a true magician with the puck.”

1 comment:

É. said...

Hi Tom,

Thanks for the great article. I played with Michel in the eighties and just heard the news of his passing away. He was a truly fantastic player.

May he rest in peace.

É.