Juggling Thrills With Adversity

This is the dream, to skate out onto the great white way, that brilliant sheet of ice that becomes a stage for the best of the best at hockey’s mid-season classic. Being good enough to earn status as an American, Canadian or European idol is a goal to which every youngster aspires.

Dallas Stars’ standout defenseman Phillipe Boucher realized this career pinnacle on January 24. The 55th NHL All-Star game in Dallas, Texas provided Boucher (pronounced boo-shay) with a hometown audience. Highlighting the colorful pomp and circumstance of the pre-game activities was an enormous, heartfelt roar that greeted his pre-game introduction as a starter. He learned he was a starter less than 90 minutes before the game after Anaheim’s Scott Niedermayer was unable to play due to an injury.

Throughout the spirited match, won by the Western Conference 12-9, the fans of Big D accented his every on-ice shift with a hair-raising buzz of anticipation that he might feather a pass to a breaking teammate or ignite one of his rocket-propelled slap shots past a beleaguered Eastern Conference netminder. “The whole experience has been surreal,” he said in the afterglow of a solid +2 performance and numerous post-game interviews and sound bites. “I’ve never been in this situation, so it’s hard to put this into words.”

The experience, to be sure, was tinged with a bittersweet taste. While basking in the glow of being a first-time NHL All-Star, The 6’ 3”, 215 pound Boucher was tormented by the reality that his father, 68-year-old Jean-Claude Boucher, was dying of pancreatic cancer. His dad, who has battled paralysis resulting from a stroke for the last 22 years, was diagnosed with the disease in November at a very late stage, and the cancer had spread very quickly. Doctors determined that chemotherapy was not an option. Jean-Claude Boucher is currently in a hospice in Quebec City, Quebec that helps him achieve some semblance of quality of life by reducing pain.

Philippe’s mother, Jacqueline, who underwent successful open heart surgery in November, has been at Jean-Claude’s bedside. There, the two watched their only child light up the mid-season classic that was being beamed across TV screens in two nations. Also in the hospital room were an All-Star game jersey, and a game puck presented to Boucher by Stars’ coach Dave Tippett after the 33-year-old defenseman blasted home three goals in a November 24th victory over visiting Los Angeles.

“I think in tough times like this hockey helps you focus,” Boucher said after patiently fielding questions from print and electronic journalists in the crowded Stars/Western Conference All-Star locker room. “I’m allowed to go to the rink and play 60 minutes and be a kid. It’s what I love to do, so I can escape for a little bit. Sometimes you don’t know how you gather yourself for the game.

“But when you go in the (dressing) room, the guys have their own way of making you feel good, then you hear the national anthem, and everything seems normal.”

Boucher called his father the day of the game. Philippe said his dad told him to have fun, and that he was proud of him. There is a strong synergy between father and son; the senior Boucher was involved in minor league hockey many years ago, and his son considers his appearance and All-Star status “as a celebration for (dad) for all the work he did.”

For the second straight year, the native of St. Apollinaire (near Quebec City) has played at an All-Star level (there was no mid-season showcase least season in deference to players’ participation at the Winter Olympics). However, there was speculation that if Boucher would earn All-Star status this season, he would instead use the time to be with his dad in Canada.

When the announcement was made, however, Philippe said he would be proud to participate, and with the knowledge that his dad wanted him to be there to fulfill the honor of being chosen. The consummate family man who drops his kids off at school each morning in the sprawling Dallas suburb of Plano when he is not traveling with the Stars, Boucher made sure that his wife, Lucy, son Matthew and daughter Vanessa were a big part of the festivities.

“(Being chosen as an All-Star) means a lot,” Boucher said. “It’s a celebration of hockey for the league, and I think in our family, it’s sort of a celebration for the sacrifices my family made for me. They’re all excited about this.”

The fact that Boucher can play some of the best hockey of his 15-year professional career and deal with a personal issue as intense as this one is a tribute to the man’s intestinal fortitude. He credits his father for instilling in him a certain pride, a sense of determination to succeed even through the most challenging of times, and the perseverance to get through life’s tougher moments. And he knows that his dad will not give up even against as formidable a foe as pancreatic cancer.

Right before Thanksgiving, in the aftermath of his dad’s unfortunate diagnosis, and his mother’s heart surgery, his wife underwent tests because she wasn’t feeling well. The results, fortunately, were negative, and Philippe attributed her ailments to the stress created by the concerns about his parents’ health.
?Looking back to the Kings game of November 24th, he was driving to American Airlines Center, the gleaming hockey palace located just north of downtown Dallas. As he drove toward the rink, he wondered how he could possibly maintain his focus on playing winning hockey, let alone keep his wits about him. He suddenly began thinking about Dallas Tippett’s game puck.

Focusing on the award, he proceeded to play outstanding defense, and propelled three long-range shots from the blue line into the net. Like heat-seeking missiles, each shot elicited explosive, excited roars from the crowd. The first hat trick of his NHL career helped the Stars to a 5-3 win. He brought the game puck to his dad’s hospital room during his first of two visits there since the diagnosis.

“He was very proud,” said Boucher. “He was showing everyone the puck. It was a special day. It was good to see a little sparkle in my dad’s eyes.”
?Philippe’s eyes often have that mirthful sparkle of someone who enjoys his role as an emerging star in pro hockey. More often these days, however, his eyes are clouded, even pained, a reflection of the anguish and torment he has juggled along with his other responsibilities.

He garners strength from those around him, including his wife and young son and daughter, his teammates, and the well-wishers in his Plano neighborhood. The baristas at a local coffee emporium on Preston Road near Park Boulevard enjoy his frequent visits, his good-natured personality, kind words, and radiant smile.

The Stars’ fans, comprised of native Texans and the legions of “naturalized Texans” who have moved to north Texas for warmer winters and more promising career potential, have made an indelible impression on Philippe.

“It’s funny, but I do feel the appreciation from the fans here in Dallas,” said Boucher. “It’s hard to explain, though, or to put into words how much gratitude I feel for them when they cheer for me. But it’s really gratifying when your name is announced, and there’s a big round of applause for you. You don’t expect anything like that, but you do notice it.

“Hey, I would have played hockey for anything, and played anywhere. I love this game,” he quickly added. “This is the best feeling I’ve ever had playing hockey.”

The milestone that he has achieved with the Stars was a long shot just a few years ago. The 13th pick of the 1991 NHL entry draft by Buffalo, he spent a considerable amount of time as a member of the Sabres in the minors before he was dealt in the Alexei Zhitnik trade to Los Angeles in February 1995. He required wrist surgery (1995) and hand surgery (1996), and suffered a sprained shoulder (1997). After a foot operation in 1999, the Kings loaned him to the Manitoba (Winnipeg) Moose of the now-defunct International Hockey League. There, he began turning his career around with 32 points in 45 games.

When Los Angeles recalled him due to injury problems in 2001, he earned a regular spot. Philippe signed with Dallas as a free agent before the 2002-03 campaign.

He has earned his place as one of the NHL’s premier defensemen. In 2005-06, he tied for fifth in goals scored by a blue-liner with a career high 16 and tied for sixth in plus-minus rating at +28. His 43 points were also a career best.

This year, he was the Stars’ leading scorer heading into the All-Star break, due in part, to injuries that have plagued team captain Brenden Morrow and Mike Modano. He’s also on pace to reach new career highs for goals and points. His 13 goals at the break ranked him tied for second among defenders, and his 33 points ranked him ninth.

“The last two years have been special, and being part of the All-Star experience is priceless,” Boucher said. “But what I did in the first half won’t mean anything from here on out. You’re only as good as your last game, and we have some ground to make up between now and the playoffs.”

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