To Hugo Boisvert, central Ohio is more foreign a concept than is “U.S.A.”
“It’s different.” The sophomore center from St. Eustache, Quebec, makes a gesture as though he’s running his hand over the top of a table, and he makes a noise — “ppphtt.” He says, by way of summary, “Flat.”
“I’ve been to the beach, to the East coast, but the middle, the central area, I never came here before.”
Boisvert’s longtime linemate, Eric Meloche, takes it one step further when describing Columbus. “The weather is weirder here. Instead of snow, it’s rain and that’s depressing for me.
“It’s tough to adjust. I’m still having trouble adjusting. I miss home. My whole family and my girlfriend are back home. But the aspect of hockey is great. When I’m on the ice, I feel okay.”
Meloche, a sophomore winger from Rosemere, Quebec, pauses. He doesn’t want anyone to get the wrong idea — that he doesn’t like Ohio State — because he says he really does. But he says, “When you speak French, it reminds you a little of home too.”
He quickly and sincerely adds, “And everyone on the team is great.”
There are six Quebecois players in the CCHA, playing for four different teams. Three of them are Buckeyes. The Boisvert-Meloche duo is two-thirds of the line that’s known as le trio Quebecois.
The second winger of le trio is freshman Jean-Francois Dufour, younger brother of former Buckeye standout Pierre. Adjusting to the homogenous middle-American culture of Columbus has been easier on J.F. (as he’s often called) because Hugo and Eric paved the way.
Since his older brother played with Boisvert and Meloche, and because they live within driving distance of each other in Quebec, the younger Dufour already considered the sophomores friends before he came to Ohio State. But even with that familial connection, J.F. had reservations about being a Buckeye.
“I didn’t want to come here because he [Pierre] was here. The brother thing. I was afraid that if I came here, everybody would say, ‘He’s here because his brother was here. He’s following his brother, and they took him because of his brother.’
“I looked at three schools, and Ohio State was my last choice.” Dufour says he seriously considered UMass-Lowell and Merrimack before choosing OSU.
“You go back home, and people back in my hometown will say I came because of my brother. But sometimes you have to live with that. I don’t think it’s only because of my brother that I’m here. I think I deserve to play here.”
When a player from Quebec chooses to play Division I hockey, he usually heads east — or south, if you’re in Quebec — usually to an ECAC school, something closer to home. That was how Boisvert and Meloche planned it. Both were much more interested in Clarkson than they were in a large land-grant university in a place that seems like a world away.
What could change the minds of such players, players who have proven to be two of the best in the CCHA and a young man with reservations about living in his brother’s shadow?
One man: Casey Jones.
The third-year top assistant coach at Ohio State has worked recruiting magic, bringing talent from Quebec, Ontario and the U.S. Select teams to a school in the process of rebuilding its hockey program.
Jones, a native of Temiscaming, Quebec, said that Columbus — a city adorned with a spectacular neon sign that marks the site of the Wonder Bread bakery — becomes an attractive alternative to kids from Quebec, just because, as Boisvert said, it’s so different from anything they’ve known.
“That’s the beauty of it. We become an exciting entity. It’s further away from home. It’s exotic.
“Kids from Quebec, who grew up near Montreal — they want a more urban setting, and we can provide that.”
The 29-year-old’s eyes sparkle when he talks about recruiting players to come to Columbus, as though the thought that this large, Midwestern city offers something exotic to young men is a brilliant secret that he just can’t keep himself from revealing.
“And the school is different from what they’re used to seeing out east. There’s a huge athletic tradition here.
“This is a different world. Big Ten is big time.”
Jones played college hockey at Cornell from 1986-1990. After a brief stint playing minor league hockey in the Boston Bruins’ organization, Jones returned to Cornell to coach from 1991-93. As an assistant, he recruited the majority of Big Red players who captured the 1995-96 ECAC league title.
From 1993-95, Jones moved upstate to serve as an assistant with the Clarkson Golden Knights, where he also monitored recruiting.
It was for Clarkson that Jones initially wanted to recruit Meloche.
“Casey wanted me to go to Clarkson,” says Meloche. “He had me at the top of his list to recruit for Clarkson, but my coach didn’t think I was ready or that I was good enough to play there, so I waited.
“Then the following summer  Casey called me and said, ‘I’m going to Ohio State. We’ll keep in touch. Don’t worry about it. Everything’s going to be okay.’ So I decided to spend one more year in Cornwall.
“I followed Casey to Ohio State.”
And where Meloche went, so went Boisvert.
Boisvert and Meloche were linemates for two years with the Cornwall Colts of the Central Ontario JHL. Boisvert — who has been in or near the top spot in CCHA league scoring all season — won the COJHL league scoring title in 1995-96 (130 points) and was named the league’s Most Valuable Player.
Meloche had 68 goals and 53 assists in 54 games during his second season with the Colts while playing on-line with Boisvert; the 68 goals were second in Canada, and first in the COJHL.
The Colts won their league championship the two years–1994-95 and 1995-96 — when Boisvert and Meloche played formed two-thirds of a line.
Boisvert says his decision to come to Ohio State was “a little bit” based on his relationship with Meloche “as a friend, as a teammate, too.”
“Eric got cleared at the beginning of the year, so he signed early. But I didn’t know until late January what was going on. Then I knew I could go play Division I somewhere. And Eric had already made his decision. So we came to visit together, and I decided to come here.
“If he wouldn’t have come here, I don’t know.”
Boisvert says his decision to come to Ohio State was also based on how comfortable he was with Jones and John Markell, now in his third full season as the Buckeye head coach. His parents really took to Jones.
“My parents didn’t say, ‘Go to Ohio State.’ Before they talked to him, they thought, ‘Well, it’s far away,’ but after they talked to him, they thought, ‘Well, it could be good there.'”
Markell can’t say enough about Jones and the assistant’s importance to the program. “You have to have a top-notch recruiter that does his homework and is aware of who’s coming up because I’m here. He’s your lifeblood. You can’t function without a good recruiter.
“We also have to have continuity, where everybody knows that when Casey Jones is in the rink, he’s Ohio State’s man, just like Tom Newton is Michigan State’s and Mel Pearson is Michigan’s. We want that presence out there.”
Markell has had faith in Jones from the day the assistant started. “If my instincts are on a kid, he trusts me,” says Jones. “He loves the game, and he wants kids on the ice who love the game. He trusts me to find who we need.”
While Jones’ recruiting style has certainly contributed to the turnaround the Buckeyes have experienced this season, there are other reasons why young players are beginning to consider Ohio State an attractive destination.
For Boisvert, it was the challenge of playing in a program that is on the verge of becoming competitive. “I knew for a little bit that the program has been” — here Boisvert makes a see-saw motion with his right hand — “so I decided to come here to help change things around, instead of going to a winning program where things just keep going. I thought it would be better to change things around here. More satisfaction.”
And there’s one other thing that draws players to Columbus.
“I would never have come here without the Schottenstein Center,” says Boisvert. “When I came here and I saw the rink, I said, ‘Oh my god.'”
Meloche says, “I don’t think I would have come here if I had to play four years in this rink.” “This rink” is the tiny OSU Ice Rink, the one where the puck frequently hits the ceiling and the officials have to pause to clear the debris that floats to the ice. “If that Schottenstein Center wasn’t coming up, I wasn’t coming here. Next year we’ll have that big facility, and I’ll be among the first to be in it. It will be fun.”
The Schottenstein Center is the $100 million-plus facility that will be home to Buckeye men’s and women’s basketball and men’s and women’s hockey. The new arena is the tangible proof that OSU hockey is being taken more seriously on a campus still in love with Woody Hayes.
The man who made certain that hockey as well as basketball would be played in the Schottenstein Center is OSU Athletic Director Andy Geiger.
“I’ve seen Andy Geiger at games,” says Meloche. “It’s fun to see him excited. He came into the locker room after the Michigan State game, and he was pumped. It’s fun to see someone so high up in the administration give us support.”
Geiger has been a college hockey fan since serving as Brown’s AD in the 1970s. “The Schottenstein Center will force everyone to take a better look at hockey in Columbus, as will the NHL.” The Blue Jackets are scheduled to begin play in the 2000-2001 season, in yet another new arena to be built in downtown Columbus.
Geiger is thrilled with the progress of Ohio State hockey. “We went from a program that had trouble skating to a program that’s really, really sound.
“We’ve got some well-kept secrets here. We’re going to slay the dragon.”
The glee in Geiger’s voice is unmistakable. “My god, the monster has awakened.”
Before signing on with the Buckeyes, Jean-Francois Dufour was just as skeptical as any CCHA fan who’s followed Ohio State these last ten years that the Buckeyes could “slay the dragon.”
“Just last year before I decided to come here, my brother told me that he wasn’t that happy, but that things were going to change here. It was hard for me to believe it, but I believe it now.