The best way to judge a player is to talk to his coach and teammates. And when it comes to Belanger, there are rave reviews all the way around.
ďHugo set a great example both on and off the court,Ē said Jawz head coach, Phil DeGaetano. ďHe practiced hard and was always there. You knew exactly what to expect from Hugo and he always produced. He was fantastic from start to finish. In my opinion the highest praise you can give to any player is that they are professional, and Hugo is truly a professional.Ē
DeGaetano added that Belangerís outstanding season and impressive skills were produced by a combination of proper coaching at a young age, innate hockey sense, natural talent and hard work. ďIn Hugoís case, I think itís the combination of several things. He was born and raised in Montreal, so he had excellent coaches as a kid. That tends to have a snowball effect. Heís also just one of those guys who gets the puck and makes things happen.Ē
Belanger credits his father, who played, coached and loved hockey, for getting him started. Dad strapped a pair of skates on Hugo and had him on a team by the tender age of five. Belanger played his junior hockey in Montreal and credited youth coach, Oville Bonneville, for bring a major influence on his young career.
ďHe showed us a lot about team discipline and systems,Ē said Belanger,
who went on to play four years of Division I (NCAA) college hockey at Clarkson University. (He earned his degree in management.) After a solid college career, Belanger was drafted in 1990 by the Chicago Blackhawks and played two seasons with the ĎHawks farm team in the IHL (Indi-anapolis).
Last season, Hugo knocked the ECHL had a stellar season and won the ECHL League MVP award. His 144 points put him in the number three spot on the all-time ECHL scoring list (single season). Belanger finished the season atop the ECHL in both points and assists (90) and second highest in goals (54).
Belanger, who had to leave the Jawz before the end of the regular season due to his commitment to play ice hockey with EV Duisburg (Germany), finished the RHI season second in goals (48) and third in assists (53) . His other RHI benchmarks include netting a goal in 14 consecutive games (first player to do so in the league), scoring a point or better in 24 consecutive games and finishing fourth in the league in plus/minus at +29. All this while spending only six minutes in the penalty box.
Hockey Player recently caught up with Hugo in Germany to find out what he had to say on a variety of topics including his stellar season, making the transition to roller hockey and how he developed his impressive hockey skills.
This was your first RHI season. Was it difficult for you to switch to the inline skates and how did you like the RHI format?
It was a new thing to most of us, only two or three of the guys on our team had skated on inlines before. We took things real easy at first. But, our guys picked it up pretty quickly and we ended up going 7-0 at the start of the season. The wins kept coming and the points kept coming for me. The four-on-four is a big plus for a player like me. In RHI you have more time with the puck. That extra time with the puck on the ice really helps. Itís harder to check other players, so that gives the guy with the puck extra time to pick his pass or shoot.
How difficult did you find the transition from ice to roller hockey? Which skills take the most adjustment?
In terms of skating, I find that it is much easier to get used to the inlines and itís much harder to make the transition back to ice. When you do, you fall flat on your face. Youíre higher and the blade is longer on the inlines, so crossovers are more difficult. On the ice you add a jump to your step when crossing over and you canít really do that on inlines. You kind of have to adjust your stride a little. That makes it especially hard to go back and forth between the two. Also, you have to get used to the lighter puck because the ice puck is heavier on your stick. You can shoot more accurately with the roller hockey puck but it rolls on edge so much that itís much harder to handle. It is so much easier to stick handle the ice puck. With the roller puck you just try your best to get it flat, but if you canít just go ahead and take a shot.
What do you see as your best skill? Individually, what is the most important asset you bring to a team?
I think my best asset is my ability to see the ice (surface) and find the open man. The key to seeing the ice well is to have good peripheral vision. Look at Gretzky when he sets it up he can see 90% of the ice. You have to be able to be relaxed with the puck and keep your head up and find the guys that are open. And if the guy isnít open, you have to know when they will be. Knowing your linemates well helps too. I think being a good set-up man and being able to see the ice well is something youíre born withójust like some guys are naturally good scorers. I also have a pretty good shot. If you canít find an open man to pass to, you need to be able to shoot on net. I consider myself as a passer and playmaker. But, everyone tells me to shoot more because I have a good shot.
You have a reputation for being an unselfish player and your assist numbers certainly back that theory up. How did you become that type of player?
Thatís just the way Iíve always played and I pride myself in playing that way. I get as much from setting up a goal as scoring one myself. Thatís just the way I am. I was a slow skater when I started out, so I didnít have a lot of time to take shots. Also, I played most of my youth hockey with Reggie Savage. He was a superstar and I really enjoyed playing with him and being a part of that. When he moved on, I found I had to start playing for myself more. I was so used to playing alongside of him that when he left I was on my own. I had to get used to playing with new and different players. Thatís when I developed my good shot and other aspects of my game.
Why not be a great goal scorer and get all the glory?
Iím a playmaker. I can score my share of goals, but I enjoy passing the puck and setting guys up. I guess itís the way I was brought up. My parents taught me to be unselfish and Iíve always been a giving guy. I like to see the guys score and enjoying themselves. When I see them score and that big smile comes out on their face, it makes me happy as well. Itís just a different way of thinking. Iím not saying I donít like to score, but there are different types of players. Some like to make a big hit and some people like to score. What I like to do is set people up.
Do you think European players, coming from a more wide open, skating style of play, have an advantage over North American based players?
In Europe the rinks are smaller ... but the systems are the same. Skill-wise it doesnít matter what league or what country you play in. You canít compare league by league because some guys just adjust better to roller hockey than others. Just because a guy is a great ice hockey player, it doesnít mean he will be a good roller hockey player. I think they are two totally different sports. Right now, the guys playing ice hockey have an advantage because they know the game of hockey. But, I see kids playing roller hockey everywhere and they will be the roller hockey players of the future. On Long Island, I was amazed by how many kids were everywhere playing roller hockey ... and itís the same in California. I think it will become a huge market down the road.
What did you like best about playing in RHI this summer?
Itís a wide open game made mostly for guys like me. Itís also a new game thatís exciting for the fans and it compliments ice hockey well during the summer. For the players, itís better than riding the bike and training like that over the summer. It keeps you in better hockey shape and better skating shape when you play year round. Plus, itís a lot of fun.
Were there any things you disliked about RHI?
The length of the schedule. RHI gets most of its players from European, the East Coast and the Central hockey leagues. In Europe, the season starts early (mid-August). I wish they could find a way, without playing less games, to make the RHI season over by mid-August so we could concentrate on ice hockey sooner. The only other drawback is the instability of the league in terms of knowing which teams will return next year.
How difficult was it to have to leave before the season was over, especially with the great season you were having?
It was the worst feeling in the world. I talked to my team in Germany. But since itís my first year there, I didnít have much negotiating power. I had told (Jawz) coach DeGaetano at the beginning of the season that I would probably be playing in Europe this fall. So, he knew it was a possibility that I might have to leave early. It was tough to leave the guys, especially heading into the playoffs, but is was something I had to do.
You play hockey year round now, arenít you worried about burning out?
The burnout factor depends on the coach. If he understands that youíve just come off of playing hockey eight months straight and adapts the practice schedule, burnout shouldnít be a problem. Things like shorter practices and having a few days off helps. There also isnít that much traveling in RHI. Itís a great way to stay in shape and have fun with a good group of guys. Iíd love to play again next summer.
Do you have any advice for the kids and adults who are taking up roller hockey?
They need to figure out what their goal is ó to play and have fun or to be competitive and move up through the levels. Either way, they need to work hard and have fun. If you make it, great. If you donít, at least youíre having fun and keeping active.
This first appeared in the 11/1996 issue of Hockey