BLOG: A shout-out for the Titan from one of the franchise’s best
For every player who has a long career in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, there comes a time when they go from being a prospect to becoming a bona fide starter.
For former Acadie-Bathurst Titan netminder Adam Russo, that moment came during a meeting with then head coach Real Paiement midway through his rookie season.
“The moment that probably marked me the most was when Real brought me into his office,” recalled the 2003 QMJHL and Canadian Hockey League goaltender of the year. “He said to me ‘Adam do you want to be a number one? Or do you want to be a backup for the rest of your junior career?’”
That was December of 2000, when the 17-year-old Montreal native had been playing backup to veteran Simon Lajeunesse, who was a second-round draft pick of the Ottawa Senators.
Russo had been drafted by Acadie-Bathurst six months earlier; on the same day the Titan swung a multi-player deal with the Moncton Wildcats that included acquiring Lajeunesse.
The trade was supposed to help Acadie-Bathurst become a contender that season. But early on the team and Lajeunesse both struggled, leading to the firing of head coach Roger Dejoie less than two months into the start of the campaign.
Roughly a month after replacing Dejoie behind the Titan bench, Paiement summoned Russo into his office.
“(Paiement) saw that I was just trying to sit back and let Lajeunesse do his thing,” recalls Russo. “I didn’t want to ruffle any feathers, but he asked me ‘Do you want to be the guy that does everything?’
“I said that obviously I wanted to be a number one, so he said ‘to get in there and take the net. Don’t respect (Lajeunesse) as much as you do. Take it.’”
That conversation, Russo said, was the turning point of his career. By January, he had wrestled the number one spot away from Lajeunesse and wound up leading the Titan all the way to the President’s Cup final in his rookie season.
“I was 17-years-old and wasn’t sure what the coach was going to tell me,” said Russo, who returned to Bathurst this week to be honoured by the Titan as part of their 20th anniversary celebrations.
“But after that I finished the season with 35 games played. We did pretty well, finished the season strong and went to the finals.”
Now 34-years-old, Russo still plays professionally with Saint-Georges de Beauce of the Ligue Nord-Américaine de Hockey (LNAH). He also runs a goaltending school, where he passes along the wisdom he’s learned from his playing days.
Wisdom he learned from coaches like Paiement.
“It was all a learning process,” he said. “[Paiement] set me straight. He is probably one of the best coaches I ever had in my career. He’s got the hockey knowledge, but he also has the psychological knowledge too. He knows how to treat his players and how to get the most out of his players. I think he got the most out of me, of what I could do in my junior career anyway.”
Russo led the Titan to a pair of Presidents Cup final appearances in 2001 and 2002, the last time the club has gone that far in the playoffs. He also finished his career with a handful of league records, some of which still stand today.
Those records include 23 career shutouts, regular season and playoffs combined, as well as nine playoff shutouts. He is also still tied for the most regular season shutouts in a single season, with seven.
When his junior career was over, Russo played five seasons in Europe, four in Italy where he won a pair of league titles and represented that country at four World Hockey Championships, before returning home to North America to keep playing the game he loves.
He still follows the Titan too, and has some advice for his former team and their fans as they try to make a return trip to the league finals for the first time since 2002.
“The biggest thing I would say is just enjoy every moment of it,” said Russo. “Every single playoff run was amazing. That whole thing of bringing the team together and building [towards] something that was amazing, that ended up being pretty awesome.”
With two months left in the regular season, the Titan have a lot of hockey left to play before they can even think about making a long playoff run. That being said, as someone who’s been there before, Russo knows there is a lot of work to be done and there are no shortcuts along the way.
“To be honest with you, if you have that opportunity to take a run at it, just do every little thing possible,” he advised. “It really is the teams that do the little things right, that put in the extra little effort and the commitment and the dedication. It is all those little things that will make the difference in the end, especially in a playoff run.”
“As a player you only have four, maybe five years if you come in as a 16-year-old, to actually have an opportunity to win something – and not a lot of people do. There is only one championship every year, and 18 teams fighting for it, and you get fives chances max…so take advantage of every moment.”
That goes for fans too, who Russo said played a big part in the team’s success back when he was the final line of defence for the club.
“As fans, just enjoy every minute of it because you never know when, or if, you’ll get a chance [to see it] again.”
It’s been 16 years since the Titan made it all the way to the league finals, and nearly 20 since they earned a trip to the Memorial Cup. If they get a chance to do it again this year, one thing is for sure, one of the best players to ever play for the team will be cheering them along every step of the way.