Martin Houle has been overlooked and second-guessed at every level, every stage of his hockey career. The talented young goaltender has proven his critics wrong at every turn, but at 5’11, 175 lbs., questions about his smallish size continue to persist.
Passed over by all 30 teams at the 2003 NHL Entry Draft, Houle resigned himself to proving that he could be an elite netminder in the QMJHL and a legitimate NHL prospect. He responded with a phenomenal 2003-04 season, leading the Cape Breton Screaming Eagles to the second-best record in the circuit.
The ambitious Montreal native finished the campaign with a 34-15-1 record, 2.32 GAA and .921 save percentage. The latter two numbers were, by far, tops in the league. For his efforts, Houle was awarded the Jacques Plante Trophy as the league’s top goaltender, along with First All-Star and team MVP honors.
Despite his tremendous season, Houle would not get the opportunity to start for Cape Breton in the postseason. Shortly before the end of the regular season, the Pittsburgh Penguins loaned goaltending prodigy Marc-Andre Fleury (1st overall, 2003) back to the Screaming Eagles.
The two netminders split time initially, but head coach Pascal Vincent ultimately decided to deem Fleury his starter for the playoffs. Amazingly, with one of the most revered prospects in hockey tending goal, the Screaming Eagles were upset in the QMJHL quarterfinals by the seventh-seeded Chicoutimi Sagueneens, four games to one.
Houle’s accomplishments last season, however, were not lost on the hockey world. Still, he was not selected until the eighth round (232nd overall) of last June’s entry draft, where he was nabbed by the Flyers at the suggestion of Quebec-based scout Simon Nolet.
With Fleury having turned pro for good this season, Houle has been proving that last season was far from a fluke. In addition to Fleury, Cape Breton has lost a lot of offensive firepower from last season. Still, Houle has been a rock between the pipes. He once again ranks among the league leaders with a 25-18-4 record, 2.55 GAA, .910 SP and five shutouts in 54 appearances.
Cape Breton currently holds the eighth seed in the QMJHL playoffs with a 31-27-7-3 record (72 points). The team wraps up its regular season with a pair of home games this weekend, against the Moncton Wildcats and the Halifax Mooseheads.
Hockey’s Future had the opportunity to speak with Houle earlier this week, while the Screaming Eagles were making preparations for their upcoming playoff run.
HF: What are your thoughts on the Eagles’ season up to this point?
MH: We’ve done pretty good, I think. Expectations for our team weren’t very high this year. We had a big team last year, but this year seemed more like rebuilding. We kind of surprised everyone this year. Right now, we have the number eight spot for the playoffs. So, we have done really well. Last year was so different. Last year, we could take it easy and they just turn a switch on in the third period. We could just take it easy and, bang, win the game. This year, it’s much different. We have to play from the first minute of the game to the end now. We don’t have as much skill as last year, that’s for sure. But, I would say we have more heart.
HF: What would you say is the biggest difference between this and last year’s teams?
MH: I would say mentality. We had a totally different mentality last year. We lost in the [quarterfinal] round of the playoffs, despite having a really good team. We lost to a team (the seventh-seeded Chicoutimi Sagueneens) that was more focused on work ethic and hard work. This year, our organization kind of turned around and decided that we were going to do things differently. From the start, we’ve picked up players that may not have top skill, but they have a lot of desire. And our team has really reflected that this year.
HF: How would you describe the team’s mindset heading toward this season’s playoffs?
MH: All year we played one game at a time. It was always about the process and never the result. Even when we would lose, we would use it as a building experience. I think for the playoffs, it’s pretty much the same thing. We’re not changing anything with our game. We are going to take it one game at a time and see how it goes.
HF: How would you assess your play so far this season?
MH: I think I’ve done really well. I’ve been the number one goalie here all season for the first time in my career. I’m a part of the team, which is what really matters. We need every player to play their best so that we can win. I think I’ve done really well this year. I’m happy with my play.
HF: You really broke out last year, establishing yourself as an elite goaltender in the Q, seemingly out of nowhere. How were you able take that big step?
MH: Well, I got the opportunity to play more, because Marc-Andre Fleury was not there for a lot of the year. So, I was the starting goalie when he was away. I just got more and more comfortable in that role, and that really helped me. Last year was a great year for the team. We relied on talent a lot. We were really powerful, offensively. We could win games at will, almost. So, for me, I just settled back and played the best I could. The rest of the team did so much, it was really easy at times.
HF: Talk about the situation with Fleury last season. Was it difficult for you, not knowing whether or when he would be returning to the team?
MH: All year long, we did not know if Marc-Andre was coming back or not. Here, he’s almost a legend, so everyone was talking about whether or not he was coming back. I could not worry about that, though. I was the starter when he was away, and I had to focus on playing my role. It was a game-by-game thing for me. If he wasn’t coming back, I would have been the number one goalie for the playoffs. I had to be prepared. But, then he did come back, while things were going really good for me. So, we kind of split the games at first. Eventually, he took the starting job for the rest of the way.
HF: How difficult was it to not play in the postseason, especially considering the season you had?
MH: It was hard not to play, but Marc-Andre, well, like I said, he is almost a legend here in Cape Breton. So, I understood that he would get to play, that he would be the starter in the playoffs. I was still a big part of the team, and I would get the chance to be the starter [in 2004-05]. The important thing was that the team does well, but we lost in the first round. So, we felt we had to change some things, and we have done that for this season.
HF: How much are you looking forward to the postseason, getting a chance to be the starter this year?
MH: Well, I would say that the whole team is excited. Like I said, we surprised a lot of people this year and we all believe we can go a long ways in the playoffs. I am very excited about it, just to bet started and see what we can do. For me it will be kind of a new experience, so I am looking forward to it.
HF: How would you describe the evolution of your game during your time at Cape Breton?
MH: Well, I think my game has changed a lot. I’ve worked with Vincent Riendeau, who played in the NHL, and Marco Marciano. We have two goaltending coaches. They tried to make me more patient. I’m not a big guy, I know that. So, I have to sort of work the game differently. I think I have gotten much better at reacting and reading plays. Coach Riendeau has shown me so much. He sits down with me and gives me advice all the time. Both of my goalie coaches have really helped me out, really helped me get better. I really have a lot of trust in what they say, and I enjoy working with them.
HF: You play more of a standup than a butterfly goaltender, which is quite rare in the QMJHL. How did you develop the style you use?
MH: Well, again, I’m not a very big guy. So, if I go butterfly all the time, I will get burned up top. I have to be patient and read the play, read the shot. I have to stay up as much as I can, and only go down when I have to. Because of my size, my style has to be different than most of the other goalies in my league. But, it works well for me. I like to come out and challenge the shooter, and I can rely on my quickness. I am very comfortable with it.
HF: You mentioned your size. How do you respond to the critics who say you are too small to make it to the NHL?
MH: I have been told that at every level I have played. I don’t really worry about it anymore. When I was in midget hockey, it was the same thing. They told me I was too small to get drafted by a team in the Q. I did get drafted by Cape Breton, but it was later than I was supposed to. I mean, I was ranked in the first round, but I wasn’t drafted until the fourth round, just because of my size. But, I’ve played in the Q and I think I’ve had a lot of success here. So, it doesn’t really bother me at all. It doesn’t really affect me. As long as I get my shot, I feel that that’s all I need. I can prove that I belong.
HF: Aside from your coaches, who would you say has helped you the most during your time in juniors?
MH: My first year, I was back-up to Marc-Andre Fleury, and I learned a lot from him. Just watching him play and seeing some of the things he did. It was good to play behind him, because I learned a lot.
HF: How old were you when you started playing hockey and how did you get involved with the sport?
MH: I was 8 years old when I started. Where I’m from, where you start, it’s like a school system. There are different levels, from one to six. And then, once you’re done with those six levels, you move up. First, you go to novice, then on to atom, pee wee, bantam and midget. So, I just followed that system from the time I started, all the way up to being drafted in the Q.
HF: Were you a fan of any particular teams or players while growing up?
MH: Growing up in Montreal, I was a big Canadiens fan. I would always watch and follow the team with my dad. I loved watching Patrick Roy. He was my favorite player.
HF: Aside from being a Hab, what did you like most about Roy?
MH: I liked everything about him. He was a superstar in Montreal at the time. I think I started to play, started to be a goalie, the year after the Canadiens won the Stanley Cup (1992-93). At that time, it was hard to be a goalie in Montreal, because everyone wanted to be like Patrick Roy. So many kids wanted to be goalies then.
HF: Where there any other goalies you admired?
MH: Now, I kind of like to watch goalies who are my size. Like Jose Theodore and Ed Belfour. I like to watch how they play the game and see some of the things they do. They are very good examples for me to follow.
HF: You were drafted by the Flyers back in June. How did you find out about it, and what was your reaction?
MH: I was at home. I did not go to the draft. My agent said that if I was drafted, he would call me. I was just hoping to be drafted, but I didn’t know what would happen. I had no expectation on rounds or anything like that. I was following the whole thing on the computer, but the results weren’t coming up instantly. It would be like, every 15 minutes, they would put up five or six new names. So, I was following that with my mom. Then the phone rang. My name wasn’t on the computer at this time, so I didn’t know yet. I looked at the [Caller ID] on the phone, and it was not a number from long distance. So, I didn’t think it would be about the draft. My mom answered the phone, and it was my agent. He said that I was drafted by the Flyers. I couldn’t believe it when I found out. I was so happy to find out, to be drafted.
HF: Despite being eligible, you weren’t drafted the previous year. How did you feel about that at the time?
MH: For sure, it was disappointing not to be drafted. But, I think it all worked out for the best. I had talked to a few teams. But, my agent, he told me that it was better for me to not be drafted, because I really hadn’t played many games [in the QMJHL] up to that point. So, maybe it didn’t give me the chance to show as much. My agent reminded me that I would have more of a chance to show what I could do [in 2004-05], and possibly get a chance to be drafted a little higher in the end. I am happy with the end result, so that is all that matters.
HF: What kind of contact has the organization kept with you since the draft?
MH: I attended the Flyers rookie camp in July, but I haven’t spoken with anyone since then. When we played in Lewiston (Maine) last weekend, I was told that Ron Hextall and a couple other guys from the organization were there watching. But I did not get a chance to talk to them.
HF: How would you describe your first prospect camp experience?
MH: It was pretty good. It gave me a chance to see the installations there, to see how the systems are run. First time you go there, everything is impressive. It was a nice experience, and it was nice to meet some of the other players.
HF: Any particular thoughts on the other two goaltenders at the camp, Rejean Beauchemin and David Tremblay?
MH: I know David Tremblay from playing against him in the Q. He has been a great goalie for the [Gatineau] Olympiques. He is a great goalie. Rejean, I met him for the first time at the camp. He is a great guy also. It was nice to get to know them a little bit and to get to work with them. They are nice guys and great goaltenders. It was fun.
HF: What did you think of Philadelphia?
MH: Oh, it looks great. I come from Montreal, so I am used to being in a big city. I did not see so much of Philadelphia, but it was nice. I watched the Super Bowl this year and the fans over there, well, they look pretty…
MH: Yeah, I guess you could say that (laughs). They were pretty into it, for sure.
HF: What are the things you feel you need to work on in order to take your game to the next level?
MH: Well, there are plenty of things, for sure. I think that [young goaltenders] need to continue to work on everything constantly. When you get to a higher level, everything is quicker, everything is harder. It doesn’t matter if it is the Q or the NHL or whatever. You have to work hard every day or you will not get better. I think I still have to work on my patience and reacting to plays and how they develop. I want to get better at reading plays and anticipating what will happen next. I think my play around the net, sensing and seeing what is going on around the net, can get better also.
HF: Any hints on where you might be playing next season?
MH: I don’t know. It’s hard to say. I haven’t spoken to the Flyers about it yet, actually. With the lockout, it doesn’t leave much room. There are a lot of goalies [in the Flyers system] and not so many spaces to play. I am not sure yet. It would be nice to be playing pro next year, for sure, but I just do not know. I will have to wait and see how it goes and see what the organization wants.
HF: Is there a possibility that you will return to Cape Breton next season as an overager?
MH: Yeah, that’s definitely a possibility. I might be back for another season. It all depends, I guess. A lot of things can happen.
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