Antoine Roussel’s return to Canucks a sweet ending to recovery from knee injury

Just sitting on the couch wasn’t an option for Antoine Roussel.

Facing a long recovery after undergoing major knee surgery last March, the Vancouver Canucks forward kept himself busy looking after his two children and also enrolled in a university class.

So, what did he study? Political science? History? Literature?

“Maple syrup,” he said.

Ok. Different.

“I just wanted to know the process of everything,” Roussel said. “It’s something I’m probably looking forward to do after I retire. It’s nice to have the knowledge so when someone talks to you about something you kind of know what it’s all about.”

To put things in perspective, Roussel’s wife’s family owns a farm in Quebec with about 6,000 maple trees. As a kid playing junior hockey, Roussel worked on the farm as a summer job.

“It’s a fun, family business,” he said. “It’s very exciting. It’s something I look forward too.”

Roussel may have improved his farming knowledge while away, but his hockey skills didn’t gather any rust.

Playing left wing on a line with centre Adam Gaudette and Jake Virtanen, he scored a goal on his first shift in his first game after missing more than eight months. Just to show that wasn’t a fluke, he scored twice in his second game.

“I’m pretty happy with the results but there are still some points that I want to be better at,” said the 30-year-old, now in his eighth NHL season. “I want to clean up my game, be very consistent and mistake free. It takes a little while to get there.”

WATCH | Roussel scores twice in win over Sabres:

The Vancouver Canucks blew a pair of two goals leads, but managed to walk away with a 6-5 win thanks to J.T. Miller’s goal in overtime. 1:54

Being back on the ice is the light at the end of a long, dark tunnel.

“It was challenging, it was hard,” Roussel said. “You see the league going and you are sidelined. I knew it was going to be a process.

“The hardest part starts now, getting back in the league, getting back into the pace. The league is better and better every year. I just have to keep up with it and stay ahead.”

Hard work and persistence are part of Roussel’s DNA.

Born in Roubaix, France, Roussel played rugby before switching to hockey. He moved to Canada with his family when he was 16, settling in Quebec.

Roussel played four years in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League but went undrafted. After stints in the American Hockey league and ECHL, he eventually signed with the Dallas Stars in 2012.

After six seasons with Dallas, Roussel signed as a free agent with the Canucks in July 2018.

In 65 games last season, Roussel had a career-high 31 points before tearing anterior and medical collateral ligaments in his knee in a March 13 game against the New York Rangers.

“I knew it was going to be a long process,” Roussel said. “I didn’t want to leave myself on the couch thinking too much about how it was going.

“I kept myself busy, so I didn’t have too much time on my hands. Some young guys with the same surgery might not have so much to do.”

Roussel hadn’t played since suffering a serious knee injury against the New York Rangers on March 13. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)

Even after he began skating again, the Canucks didn’t rush Roussel back into the lineup. That investment paid dividends as Roussel returned fully confident in his knee.

“I’m not even worried about it to be honest with you,” he said. “If I would have started maybe a month earlier, maybe I could have played but I would have worried a lot and not been the same on the ice.

“Right now, I put the brace on, do a good warmup and I really look forward to the game.”

At five-foot-11 and 199 pounds Roussel brings a grit the Canucks need. Personable and always smiling, he’s also a positive influence in the dressing room.

“It’s been crazy,” captain Bo Horvat said. “He’s just sticking to his game. He’s not changing how he is as a player.

“He works hard, he goes to the net hard and he’s getting rewarded for it. It’s not easy to come back after eight months and do that kind of thing. We’re happy to have him back.”

Head coach Travis Green couldn’t help but smile when Roussel scored his first goal.

“Whenever you see a guy go through an injury of that magnitude and be out that long, as coaches, as teammates, you’re happy for a player to get back in, never mind what he brings to our group when he’s playing,” Green said. “People don’t see what goes on behind the scenes emotionally. The ups and down physically, the hard work you have to put in.”

Roussel’s return came on the same night Vancouver recognized his close friend Alex Burrows by inducting the former forward into the Canucks’ Ring of Honour.

When he scored, Roussel celebrated by patting his heart then pointing to the spot in Rogers Arena where Burrows’ name and photo hangs.

“He’s been a big inspiration to me, a big brother,” Roussel said. “We trained together for 10 years in the summer. I learned so much from him.”

Roussel plans to keep playing hockey for a few more years, but knowing he can have a career in maple syrup production helps sweeten thoughts of retirement.

“My mom always [tells] me you need to have options,” he said. “It’s nice I have an idea what I can do. You don’t want to go into retirement not knowing what you can do with it.

“It makes my life easier.”

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