French-Swiss ice hockey goalkeeper Cristobal Huet has had an extraordinary career. A French international between 1997 and 2017, Huet competed at the Olympic Winter Games in 1998 and 2002 and in 11 World Championships. He also enjoyed a long, successful stint in the NHL, during which time he became the first player from his country to win the Stanley Cup, in 2010. He spent his final six seasons at Lausanne Hockey Club, where he went on to become the team’s goalkeeping coach. Here, we speak to the ice hockey legend and Ambassador for the Youth Olympic Games Lausanne 2020.
What was it that made you want to become an ice hockey goalkeeper?
Passion! It was really as simple as that at the beginning. And then I just started making my way up the ladder in France. I wasn’t planning on making a career out of it; I just loved the sport. But I’m a competitive person, and that’s how I ended up having this long professional career.
What are your memories of competing at the 1998 and 2002 Winter Games with France?
They were incredible experiences, even though we didn’t bring home a medal. But it was all very emotionally charged. Representing my country has always been very important to me, and to do so at the Olympic Games, with other athletes and other delegations, was quite a moving, awe-inspiring experience. In Nagano, we couldn’t take part in the Opening Ceremony as we were playing the next day. That was the first time that professional NHL players were competing at the Games; huge stars like Wayne Gretzky and Martin Brodeur were with us in the Olympic Village. For me, a 23-year-old ice hockey player, that was really something. In Salt Lake City, once again we were playing the day after the Opening Ceremony, but we decided to go anyway to really make the most of our time there. I remember it fondly and I’m grateful to our delegation leaders for letting us be a part of it, because it was a magical experience. The Opening and Closing Ceremonies are always particularly special moments at the Games.
What does it mean to have been something of a trailblazer for France in the NHL?
I’m proud, but I did what I did for personal reasons – for myself – without ever planning to become a trailblazer. I tried to go as far as possible, to perform to the best of my abilities and to push myself.
Was the victory in the Stanley Cup in 2010 with the Chicago Blackhawks the pinnacle of your career?
No, I don’t think so. That’s what a lot of people remember from my career, and I do too; but I didn’t actually play that much, so the victory didn’t quite taste the same. Having said that, it’s true that my name is engraved on the Cup, and that’s definitely a major achievement in my career. But actually my highlights were the NHL All-Star Game in 2007, and all the victories with other clubs in which I was more actively involved. In Switzerland, for example, when I won the championship, and even before that with Grenoble in the French league. And then there was my time with the Montreal Canadiens. Being a native French-speaker, playing in Montreal was really special. I probably played the best hockey of my career while I was there.
And then you settled in Switzerland…
I came back to Switzerland in 2010. I played for two years at Fribourg, then six years at Lausanne. But I was already coming back every summer because my wife is Swiss. We planned out my career transition to become a goalkeeping coach – what I’m doing now – during my last few years as a player at Lausanne. But I wasn’t sure about it to begin with; I took the decision only at the end of my career.
The Malley ice rink is currently being renovated, largely due to the YOG Lausanne 2020. What can you tell us about it?
We’re going to have a brand-new rink! The construction work is almost finished. It’s going to be a state-of-the-art arena with 10,000 seats. It’s a really significant project, and there’ll be plenty of amazing matches and events to come. It’s key for Lausanne Hockey Club, but there’ll also be table tennis, fencing and swimming, with a diving board and an Olympic-sized swimming pool. The Lausanne area has acquired a major venue for loads of events, and for ice hockey in particular – it will take the club to a whole new level. The arena will host the competitions at the YOG 2020 and then the World Championships later in the year. Because of the YOG, the Worlds and the need to redevelop the rink for Lausanne Hockey Club, the city and the canton were behind the project, which made it possible for the work to get underway.
What are Lausanne Hockey Club’s ambitions?
To challenge for the title in the not-too-distant future. To be able to compete with the four or five heavyweights in the league, to shake up the pecking order a bit, to start knocking at the door and ultimately win the league title within the next few years. In the last 20 years, only four teams have been champions of Switzerland; it’s not easy to change the status quo. We need to keep our feet on the ground, but the club is putting itself in a position to succeed, thanks in no small part to the new ice rink. It’s developing and moving in the right direction.
Why did you become a YOG 2020 Ambassador?
Because I was asked! Given that I’ve competed at the Games twice and that I’m known locally, I think it made sense, and I was happy to accept the offer. I’ve never been part of this event before – it didn’t exist back in my day – and I think taking part in the Youth Olympic Games is an amazing adventure for young athletes. I’m not necessarily someone who puts himself out there, but I’m more than willing to offer my support by being there on site and representing whatever I can represent. It’s a special event and gives young people the chance to embark on a human and sporting adventure through healthy competition. As far as my role as an Ambassador is concerned, for the moment I’m just dealing with the requests coming in left, right and centre – my job is quite time-consuming – but I think that the pace will pick up in the coming months.
Why do you think this event is important?
It’s difficult to put myself in the shoes of the young athletes, but I think for them it’s like a dream come true to take part in the YOG and be able to compete against other athletes in this sort of international event. I would have loved to experience it. I can just imagine what it means for these young athletes. It’s also an event for the people of Lausanne and the surrounding area, and the canton of Vaud as a whole. They’ll get to see the stars of the future in action. They’ll be able to enjoy this festival throughout the region; they’ll see what it could be like, perhaps, to organise full Olympic Games in our beautiful city, the Olympic Capital. Everyone needs to make the most of this incredible festival!