September 22, 2017

Legends of Team Canada: Claude Vilgrain

Claude Vilgrain was the first and likely the last player to be born in Haiti of all places and make it to the National Hockey League and the Canadian Olympic team. 

Vilgrain was born in Haiti but he grew up in Quebec and played in Laval with the Titan. He was a scorer in this league. In fact in his last season he had 126 points in 69 games. Vilgrain was noticed by the Detroit Red Wings scouting staff, who made the big right winger their 6th choice (107th overall) in the 1982 Entry Draft. 

Claude was never offered a contract with the Wings, and didn't want to report to some minor league in an American city. Vilgrain instead stayed close to home and attended the University of Moncton (in New Brunswick). Claude played 3 full seasons in the AUAA, scoring 63 goals and 131 points in 73 games. 

Upon the completion of the 1985-86 season with Moncton, Vilgrain played one game with the Canadian National team. At this point of his career he felt more prepared for a run at a career in the NHL. But after turning on the Wings and playing 3 season in Canadian University hockey where few players graduate on to pro careers, he had few opportunities.

Claude had heard lots of good things about the Canadian National Team program and its legendary coach Dave King, and enjoyed playing the one game with the Nats. Dave King also felt Vilgrain could help out his team and convinced Claude that the Nats would be his best shot at future employment in the NHL. 

King would be right too. After a successful 1986-87 season, Vilgrain signed a contract with the Vancouver Canucks. However after being an early cut in the Canucks 1987 training camp, Vilgrain and the Canucks agreed that Claude would play the 1987-88 season with the National team. Normally the Canucks would have preferred to see their prospect make the jump to the next level, the minor leagues, but with the Olympics coming later on that season, the Canucks complied with Claude's wishes to go back to the National Team. 

Vilgrain returned but didn't show the same offensive numbers, dipping nearly 30 points. However Vilgrain's game had become well rounded under the defensive minded King. Until his tenure under King, Vilgrain needed a map to find the defensive zone. After two seasons with King he became a sound defensive forechecker. 

Vilgrain and the Nats played their hearts out in front of the hometown Calgary fans in the 1988 Olympics. Vilgrain failed to score a point in 6 Olympic contests as Canada finished just out of the medals with a 4th place finish. 

Claude joined the Canucks immediately after the Olympics. The Canucks were already eliminated from playoff contention and were giving players like Vilgrain an opportunity to show their stuff. Claude played well in limited playing time. He showed some good speed and some aggressiveness in recording 1 goal and 1 assist in 6 games. 

Vilgrain was a late cut in the 1988 Canucks training camp and reported to the minors where he played well before the Canucks traded him to New Jersey in exchange for BC born Tim Lenardon. Vilgrain would play the next three years in the Devils farm system, surfacing for only 6 games in 1989-90. 

But in 1991-92 Vilgrain made the Devils as if from out of nowhere. Not only did he make the Devils, but he had a good season, scoring 19 goals and 46 points in 71 games. He was also an impressive +27 

With the exception of 4 games, Vilgrain failed to make the Devils the following season. Perhaps he took his spot on an NHL roster for granted as Vilgrain wasn't happy with the demotion. The Devils however had beefed up their depth chart on left wing during the off-season and weren't willing to put up with Vilgrain's unhappiness for long. By Christmas time he was loaned to the IHL's Cincinatti Cyclones as opposed to staying with the Devils farm team. The Devils failed to offer Claude a contract at seasons end, thus making him an unrestricted free agent. 

Claude resurfaced with the Philadelphia Flyers, signing a one year contract for the 1993-94 season. However Vilgrain failed to make the team. He did have a really good year in the minors and appeared in what proved to be his final two NHL games with the Flyers part way through the season. 

Tired of playing in the minors, Claude returned to Calgary where the National Team skated. Vilgrain was sort of retired at this time, but skated for the Nats for 10 games. He got his final shake at the game he loved in 1995-96 when he signed with a Swiss team.

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