'What is hockey?' Bellemare's unlikely journey to the NHL

Sister inspired hockey star to take up sport

By PERRY KOSTIDAKIS
Copyright 2018 CNN

(CNN) - "What is hockey?"

Pierre-Edouard Bellemare, at 16 years old, had to answer that question. Not existentially, but literally to the police officer in France who had stopped him.

Unaware of the sport, the officer had pulled him aside, chastised him for carrying a weapon in public and then expressed incredulity when told it was an instrument of sport.

"Our sport magazine we had when I was a kid," Bellemare says, "I remember it was always one time a year, a sentence at the end, the last page, that team won the cup. That was it. So not really a popular sport."

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France, a country better known perhaps for its soccer, cycling and basketball, didn't place a high priority on hockey and the sport was foreign to Bellemare until a sudden inspiration to take it up struck his sister.

"My big sister ... somehow she wanted to start hockey. Why? I have no idea why, where she heard of it, but so my big brother and I were like, 'if she plays hockey, we want to also.'"

Financial limitations prevented the trio from truly diving into the sport at first, but a coach recognized the talent that Bellemare and his brother had and invited them back the next week to put them through training.

"We came back, and we did a bunch of drills that put us on our asses, like weird drills," he laughs.

"But we had a blast, and after that, the coach went to my mom and was like, 'hockey or figure skating, choose one, but they shouldn't go and play soccer.'

"For me, I was always a kid who wanted to do something different."

A Canadian or American, he notes, might have turned their sights on the NHL, but for a fledgling player in hockey-depleted France, his main goal became the Olympics.

"I could never see the NHL [games]; there was no internet, no cable, it was purely the Olympics and you had to fight to see the games."

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Undeterred from his dream, but realistic about the prospects of playing professionally, Bellemare earned an education alongside his pursuit of a hockey career, a backup plan in case, in his words, he "broke his leg one day."

"When I was 21, I got my degrees, and it was a decision to make if I stay at the university or if I go to Sweden.

"It was really close that I stopped hockey to go to school because, I mean, how much can you live out of hockey? You're French right? And you hear that your entire life.

"That's when I realized hockey is a job and you work, and not just working at the rink, it's the way you eat, the way you drink.

"That's when I realized, alright, this is going to be something I'm going to do for a living."

Since those early days of running wild on the ice with his siblings, Bellemare has achieved incredible accomplishments: getting signed by the Philadelphia Flyers after a stint in Sweden, playing in the Stanley Cup Finals as part of the Vegas Golden Knights and representing his native France at multiple World Championships.

Bellemare's unlikely hockey journey is far from complete -- another goal still awaits.

"I still haven't played in the Olympics," he said. "And it's still my biggest dream technically to be able to represent my nation."

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