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This year the fans of the Montreal Canadiens have been treated to an unexpected, magical ride. Currently sitting atop the Eastern Conference, the Habs have had no shortage of players garner their share of the accolades for the team’s success. And while there have been untold stories written about the flair of Alex Kovalev, the sturdiness of Carey Price, and the presence of Mike Komisarek, there have been some players that have been unfairly overlooked.

Maybe these players don’t score as many points as Tomas Plekanec, or are as versatile as Mark Streit, but they make an equally important contribution; one that is sometimes taken for granted, neglected by those who follow the team, but appreciated by those who matter the most; their teammates and their coaches.

For most of us playing in the NHL would be a dream come true. We look at players like Chris Higgins, a first round pick, playing for the Canadiens, and wish we were him. The story that is less told is the one of the player who has struggled for years to get his spot on the team. It is these players whose hard work has brought them to the NHL, more so than their talent.

Traditionally, these players have been referred to as “grinders”, those heart and soul players who while not as talented as some of their more famous teammates, give it their all every night; game in and game out. They are usually the players who make the least amount of money, have a tenuous hold on their job security, and are usually walking the tightrope between playing and sitting up in the press box.

No one player for the Canadiens epitomizes this hard nosed, grind it out, physical style more than Francis Bouillon; a player who traditionally performs outside of the spotlight that sometimes glares brightest and hardest in Montreal.

While many of his teammates have shone in the spotlight of the Habs glory this season, Bouillon has performed in relative anonymity. One of the team’s most overlooked players; Bouillon has quietly shone in the background of the team’s success.

To his credit this lack of acknowledgement hasn’t affected Bouillon’s play in a negative way, instead his play has thrived. Sadly, being overlooked is nothing new to the hockey career of one Francis Bouillon; the Habs little big man.

No player is enjoying the Habs current run more than Bouillon, a man who along with Saku Koivu has suffered through a decade of mediocrity. Unlike Koivu however, Bouillon has continually been on the bubble with the team, playing for the Habs one day, and in the minors the next, never secure in his position with Montreal until the last three seasons.

Few have traveled as far a road to employment in the NHL as Bouillon; a man who has continually defied the expectations of others and has overcome all of the obstacles thrown in his way. Francis’ determination in the face of having obstacles thrown in his way, says more about the man than any scouting report ever could.

In a career spent in the background there have been many accomplishments overlooked, not the least of which is that Francis Bouillon has played on a championship team before. In 1996, Francis was able to lift the Memorial Cup as the captain of the Granby Predateurs. For most players, this is a mere prequel to a long and successful career in the NHL.

But for Francis it was merely the beginning of a journey, one that few would have completed.

When most people conjure up an image of Francis Bouillon it usually comes back to his size. Built like a tank, Francis is at 5’8′ the smallest defenseman in the league. It is his height, more than anything that was held against Francis throughout his long ride to the NHL.

What has never been questioned is the size of Bouillon’s heart and his desire, both of which are immeasurable. Every fall during team physicals, Bouillon is routinely the strongest of all the Habs. It is this combination of physical strength and mental determination more than anything that helped him survive the years spent on the busses in the minor leagues.

After winning the Memorial Cup, Bouillon had to endure the disappointment of watching his name go uncalled at the NHL draft. Taking the long road to the NHL, Bouillon signed with the Wheeling Nailers of the lowly regarded East Coast Hockey League in the fall of 1996. Climbing the long ladder of the minor leagues, Francis joined the International Hockey Leagues Quebec Rafales the following year.

The fall of 1998 saw Francis join the Montreal Canadiens top farm team, the AHL’s Fredericton Canadiens. Taking notice of Bouillon’s play, the Habs soon signed him to a contract. Francis for the first time, feeling a sense of security in his hockey career shone, playing in 79 games, scoring 55 points.

After his first season with Fredericton, Francis was invited to the Canadiens training camp in the fall of 1999. Taking advantage of a gap on the Habs blue line – due to the departure of Stephane Quintal as well as injuries to both Vladimir Malakhov and Patrice Brisebois, Francis added much needed grit to the Canadiens backend. In the 1999-2000 season, Bouillon starred in 74 games for Montreal, chipping in 16 points, and establishing himself as a physical force.

However, just as Francis seemed to be secure, he endured what may have been his most disappointing season. It is one thing to achieve your dream, but then to have the rug lifted from under your feet would have crushed the spirit of a lesser man.

Shuffling back and forth between the Canadiens and the AHL team, Bouillon saw limited action with Montreal, playing in 29 games in 2000-01 and in 28 games in 2001-02.

In the fall of 2002, Bouillon found himself unprotected at the conclusion of Montreal’s training camp. Claimed by the Nashville Predators, Francis welcomed the move, feeling that his chance for a regular roster spot had suddenly improved.

Sadly, yet again Francis would suffer disappointment, playing in only four games during his first three weeks with the team. It would turn out to be his only three weeks as a Predator. Placed on waivers, Bouillon found himself reclaimed by the Canadiens. Once again, Bouillon found himself traveling back and forth between the majors and the minors.

With his career quickly becoming a seemingly endless treadmill, Francis was asked to play for the United States team at the 2003 World Championships. In many ways this validation was a turning point for Bouillon in his career, one from which he has never looked back.

The 2003-04 training camp saw a new Bouillon show up and he has never looked back, becoming a full time regular on the Habs backend, a position that he holds to this day.

It didn’t take long for Bouillon to make an impression with both Habs fans and their opposition. Despite his lack of height, no player packs a punch quite like Bouillon. Many a player tried to squeeze past him on a rush on the boards. Soon they discovered the painful truth, that when it came to rubbing out opponents, few were as good as Bouillon.

And while Bouillon was never the most offensively gifted player amongst the Habs defensemen, he excels by playing a game based on keeping the puck out of his own net. Usually playing the role of the fifth or sixth defenseman, Bouillon often sits in the shadow of his flashier teammates.

His play and importance to the Canadiens didn’t go unnoticed by the team’s management who signed him to a three year contract in the summer of 2006. Finally, Francis’ long journey had come to an end. But just at a moment that should have validated all his efforts of the last decade, Francis underwent knee surgery, a surgery that hampered his play throughout the 2006-07 season.

Heading into this year’s training camp, Bouillon found himself in the familiar position of being on the bubble.

“I have to admit that Francis was a question mark when we started camp,” head coach Guy Carbonneau admitted to the Montreal Gazette last fall. “We didn’t know what to expect. I knew Francis from before, when I was an assistant coach, and I knew that he could play better than he did last season.”

If this season has proven anything, it has shown that Carbonneau’s fears were unfounded. And while Bouillon offensive contribution has been minimal, it is his play in his own end that has been a major part of one of the Canadiens most overlooked achievements this year and the one before the season viewed as the most important.

Clearly, the Canadiens reduction in goals against has been one of the secrets of the team’s success. And amongst those who have contributed, generally unreported has been Bouillon’s stellar play, which is best reflected in his plus nine rating. When contrasted with his minus ten last year, a swing of nineteen goals this year has been an indicator of Bouillon’s improved play.

As the Canadiens continue on this magical season there will be much more written about the team and its players. Very few will center on the contribution of Francis Bouillon. Quiet by nature, he sits back and let’s others fill the spotlight. He is the Canadiens blue color player – not the most talented, but their hardest worker.

This lack of recognition is nothing new for him, a player who goes out every night, game in and game out and gives his all. Outworked and out hustled by no one, Francis Bouillon continues to excel, all the while lurking in the background, and savoring this, a special season that was a long time coming for both him and his team.