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Leader of the Pack

Before asking my first question, I do my typical “housekeeping”. Confirming the interview subjects’ career background, any interesting facts and, finally, age.

Herein lies a bit of a miscommunication.

“65!?,” the man on the other end of the phone exclaims. “Holy geez, are you trying to give me a heart attack!?”

So first, some clarification. Rouyn-Noranda Head Coach Mario Pouliot is 55, not 65 (I promise that’s what I had in my notes to begin with). That aside, many will tell you that age is just a number or, in another sense, a specific era or timeline of events. To that end, the age Pouliot is currently living in is as golden as the accents on the sweaters of the Acadie-Bathurst Titan squad he led to a Memorial Cup Championship in Regina last May.

Weeks after hoisting junior hockey’s most coveted prize at center ice of the Brandt Center, a series of events unfolded in rapid succession. It would send Pouliot from nearly one end of the geographical spectrum of the league to the other.

“It happened very fast,” Pouliot recalled. “After the [2018 QMJHL] Draft, I was on the phone with [Titan General Manager] Sylvain [Couturier]. Another call came in on his end and he asked if he could call me back. Turns out it was [former Rouyn-Noranda Huskies Head Coach and GM] Gilles Bouchard. He was hired by the [AHL’s Syracuse] Crunch and was asking Sylvain for permission for the organization to talk to me about taking both jobs with the Huskies. I talked to Sylvain and the Huskies’ owners. Two days later, I took the jobs.”

The Rouyn-Noranda Huskies have become a model of success and consistency in recent years. This is, after all, a franchise that has employed two Head Coaches over the past 15 seasons. Doing everything possible to keep that dynamic in place was paramount. Ideally, finding a person that possessed both a recent championship pedigree and an intimate working knowledge of the organization would be the perfect hire. But, realistically, how many people out there would hold that specific skill set?

The answer to that question was: one person. He also happens to be the guy who accepted the job.

22_sept_GAT Pouliot

This is Mario Pouliot’s third tour of duty behind the Huskies’ bench. The first two came in assistant coaching stints under first, André Tourigny, then the recently departed Bouchard. Sandwiched between those three tours of duty were head coaching stops in Baie-Comeau and, of course, Acadie-Bathurst.

“This was a perfect opportunity,” Pouliot explained. “I’ve got a great relationship with [Huskies’ President] Jacques Blais. I know their culture. I know what they represent.”

What they represent is an organization that has finished .500 or better in five of the past six seasons. That includes a President Cup title and Memorial Cup Final appearance in 2016. This season, the Huskies hold down first place overall in the QMJHL standings, are currently ranked as the top team in the nation by the CHL, top the QMJHL defensively and are second best on offense.

For Pouliot, this season’s story won’t just be about what the team will accomplish, but more so about how they got to that point.

“I like our depth and our leadership group,” Pouliot said. “Guys like [Rafael] Harvey-Pinard and [Peter] Abbandonato, to name a few, do a great job of addressing the room. On most nights, most of the guys we have in the lineup were drafted by our staff, which is so important in developing the team’s culture. All the credit goes to our scouting staff for that. They know the right guys to select. Our leaders today learned from guys like Jérémy and Zachary Lauzon, and Philippe Myers, so they know what it takes to be successful as a group.”

Pouliot also used the latest trade deadline to add some key pieces to his solid core of players. Not willing to risk affecting his team’s chemistry, the head coach and GM carefully picked out quality players with plenty of skill and leadership. He first pursued playoff veteran Joël Teasdale from the Armada, before reuniting with defenceman Noah Dobson, with whom he won the President and Memorial cups last year.

But it’s not just the development of the team he currently guides that Pouliot, whose son Raphael played three seasons in the QMJHL, sees as crucial. His own personal development as a coach has been a key priority for him as well.

“I try to take care of the details and lead by example, but I’m not the same type of coach I was in Baie-Comeau [from 2011-13],” Pouliot recalls. “I can relate to the process our players go through, both as a coach and as a parent. You need to be honest with them. You also need to learn from your mistakes. When we draft a player, it’s my responsibility to help maximize his potential and to do my job the right way.”

If there’s one thing Mario Pouliot has learned over the course of almost three decades in the “Q” as a scout, coach, and now GM, it’s how to do the job the right way. It’s an inexact science that is truly easier said than done. However, it’s a formula that he successfully developed, en route to striking gold with the Titan last season.

It’s also a course of action that could, perhaps, result in Pouliot clutching one or two shiny silver trophies once again this spring.

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