Maurice Richard...Jean Beliveau...Guy Lafleur.... Surely, Michel Goulet, the high-scoring left wing of the Quebec Nordiques, sounds as if he belongs in the pantheon of French-Canadian hockey heroes. Just listen to his name—Me-shell Goo-LAY—roll off the tongue. And look at his gaudy numbers—57, 56 and 55 goals in the past three seasons. He should be just what idol-starved youths from Verdun to Chicoutimí are looking for.
But weird things keep happening on the way to Goulet's coronation as the contemporary King of the Quebecois. The press has found him bland—when it has been able to find him at all. The fans have found him workmanlike, unresponsive to their cries of "Gou, Gou, Gou." Then, early in training camp, Goulet made matters worse by demanding renegotiation of his contract and refusing to report to the team. When he did rejoin the Nordiques on Oct. 19—the Nordiques refused to rework this season's contract but guaranteed Goulet $320,000 for 1986-87—some of the "Gous" had turned to boos. His teammates had won their first five games without him. Suddenly, the best left wing in the game had come perilously close to being expendable. "The people here, they are not so much behind Goulet," says a Quebec City cabdriver.
The problem is this: After six years with the Nordiques, Goulet still has not fulfilled the image that hockey-mad Quebec has shaped for him. "People in Quebec ask more from the French players—like parents with their children," says Nordiques teammate Alain Cote. "At times, Michel isn't always what the people want him to be."
What the Quebecois want is the savoir faire and the end-to-end rushes and the wild goal-scoring celebrations that Lafleur and the Rocket provided in Montreal. What they get from Goulet is extraordinaire unfortunately hidden under a thick layer of ordinaire. Goulet more than fills the bill, but he does not sparkle. The 25-year-old winger knows what the French-Canadian community expects, and he tries to give a little of himself, but it is tough.
"Management asked me last year to be more expressive, maybe do a little dance after I score a goal, so I would be more recognizable," Goulet says. He shrugs. "And I did, but I'm not a flashy player. I'm the guy who's in the right place at the right time—at the end of the play. But maybe I should try and be more exciting. I don't know. It is not my style."
Nor is public speaking. Before last season, Goulet regarded reporters like day-old baguettes: not deadly, but certainly unpleasant and to be avoided. But when he was not selected to the NHL All-Star team last season after being a second-team and first-team pick the two previous years, Goulet realized he had to play their game, if his game was to be fully recognized for its understated brilliance.
"I think the day will come when people will consider me a superstar," Goulet says. "But I have to help myself off the ice."
Goulet certainly did not learn self-promotion on the family potato farm in Péribonka, Quebec, a town of 675 residents some 170 miles north of Quebec City. Goulet is the fifth of eight brothers, "all of them bigger than me," he says. His parents, Jean-No√´l and Alphonsine, made good use of this formidable work force. "You had to live for hard work," Michel remembers. "A lot of times I would help my mother in the kitchen, and the dishes alone would take three hours." Hockey offered a far better option than dishpan hands. Goulet remembers stealing the key to his high school ice arena and skating from 5 a.m. until school began at seven, then returning home to tend the farm chores. "People ask me why I'm so low-profile, but that's the way I was brought up," he says. "I'm making money now, I have a car now, a house, but I'm still mostly the same way as I was on the farm. The values, they do not change."
Mario Marois, a Nordique teammate, remembers the shy and frightened 16-year-old who showed up to play for the junior Quebec Remparts in 1976. "He didn't say a word, and he came along with these big skates, two sizes too big at least," Marois says. "He was like the rest of us—our families wanted to save money, so they bought skates that you would grow into." Eventually, Goulet was supplied with better fitting footwear, and he scored 17 goals in 37 games during his first season, followed by 73 goals in 72 games the following season.
At the time, the World Hockey Association was looking for young stars, and Goulet led a parade of peach-fuzzers to the Birmingham Bulls, the Baby Bulls, as they were called. Goulet did not understand a word of English, and the folks in Birmingham understood an equal amount of hockey.
Goulet had 28 goals and 30 assists in 78 games with the Bulls. Off the ice, his agent at the time was Guy Bertrand, an activist in the movement for an independent Quebec. Bertrand insisted that Goulet's contract with the Bulls contain a provision that he would become a Nordique in the event of a merger between the NHL and the WHA; Quebec was a member of the WHA. When the WHA was absorbed into the NHL in 1979, the NHL didn't accept that clause, so Quebec compliantly drafted Goulet. Bertrand did not stop there, though. Next, he insisted the NHL rewrite Goulet's contract in French. The league agreed.
In retrospect, Goulet, who now has a different agent, says, "I was being used. I was so young. What did I know about politics? After Birmingham, I was willing to go anywhere so long as it was in the NHL."
Six years later, "anywhere" seems to be the periphery of genuine superstardom. New York Islanders defenseman Denis Potvin says of Goulet, "He's a lot like [Mike] Bossy in the way he's always around the net, and he has that sense of where the puck is going to be. He's got that great touch."
So, suddenly, do the Nordiques. After Goulet's return, they extended their winning streak to seven before losing a 6-5 shoot-out to the Islanders last Thursday, then tying Pittsburgh 4-4 on Saturday. Islanders defenseman Ken Morrow says, "Right now, I'd place the Nordiques among the top three teams in the NHL [with Edmonton and Philadelphia]."
Goulet's holdout—during which he checked up on his standardbred and enjoyed extra time with his wife, Andrée, and their two children, Dominique and Vincent—does not appear to have hurt him on the ice. In his first game back, he scored the winning goal as the Nordiques beat Pittsburgh 4-3, and in Saturday's tie with the same team he had two goals and an assist. At week's end, he had four goals and two assists in only four games.
Now if only he can more fully win over the Quebec fans. If the callers to radio talk shows in Quebec City can be assumed to represent a cross-section of fan opinion, Nordique G.M. Marcel Filion and president Marcel Aubut were the good guys in the renegotiation showdown. But Goulet came away with approximately a $70,000 raise, and he staunchly says, "I felt like it was something I had to do. Everybody sees Michel Goulet: farm boy, small town. It looked like I had no personality, and I have one. I had to stand up for myself."
Having stood up, Goulet still must stand out. If the Nordiques retain their current touch, that may yet happen.