BATHURST, New Brunswick — In this remote mining city pressed between pine forests and a bay, in a far corner of a province flanked by Quebec and Maine, in a nation bifurcated by culture and language, Sean Couturier absorbed a sense of balance.
It’s hardly surprising that the Flyers center has been one of the NHL’s best two-way players this season. His early life, much of it occurring in this place whose 12,275 residents are almost exactly divided between French and English, was a lesson in equilibrium.
Couturier spent his first nine years in large American and European cities, the rest of his childhood in this small Canadian town on Chaleur Bay. He attended the French and the English high schools in Bathurst. He starred at both center and less frequently on defense, then at 15 departed to hone his talents in the wildly disparate provinces of Saskatchewan and Quebec. Even his name — the French Couturier paired with the Irish Sean — reflects the ying-yang nature of both his upbringing and his game.
“Sean is so well-balanced,” said Eric Boudreau, a friend who played with him in Peewee and on the frozen ponds and lakes formed here by the bay and the Nepisiguit River. “He adapts quickly to anything new. That’s why early on we knew he was going to be special.”
“He’s well-rounded,” said Couturier’s father, Sylvain, who played briefly in the NHL. “That’s something you could say about him since he was small.”
Couturier’s 15th goal, scored Tuesday night at the Wells Fargo Center to beat the Toronto Maple Leafs, tied his NHL career high for a season — in just 30 games.
At 25, he has become a hockey centerpiece in Philadelphia. The story of how he got there from here is in some ways, with its bilingual soundtrack and the shiny games on frozen ponds, as typically Canadian as the “Moose Crossing” signs along Highway 11, the main road south to Moncton, New Brunswick’s largest city, 135 miles away.
But there are twists — his birth in Phoenix, Ariz., his earliest hockey experiences in Milwaukee, Dusseldorf, and Berlin. There was early promise, but also loneliness at an isolated hockey academy on Canada’s prairie. And throughout it all, there was intelligence, determination, and the advantages derived from genetics — size, and skills inherited and learned.
“[Reaching the NHL] is what he had in mind from the time he was small,” said his father, now the general manager of Bathurst’s Quebec Junior Major Hockey League (QJMHL) team, the Acadie-Bathurst Titan. “Every step along the way, he was thinking that.”
Where it all started
K.C. Irving Regional Centre sits at the end of what since 2016 has been Sean Couturier Avenue. The 21-year-old, 3,500-seat arena is the Titan’s home and where Couturier played the majority of his organized games as a youngster.
The Titan, along with the bayfront beach Bathurst’s major entertainment option, nearly folded in 2013 under financial strains. That’s when Sean Couturier and some NHLers who’d played here, like Florida goalie Roberto Luongo and Bruins center Patrice Bergeron, stepped in as part of the 28-person group that purchased the club.
Someday soon, Couturier’s photo will be added to an arena-lobby wall, where black-and-white images of area athletes comprise a Bathurst Hall of Fame. While several future NHL players have played for the Titan, Couturier is the first resident to make it to the big time.
A few steps away from that gallery is Sylvain Couturier’s unadorned office where on a recent afternoon he outlined the journey that led his son to fame and fortune in Philadelphia.
He and his wife, a hairdresser he met while playing junior hockey in Quebec, now live just a few miles away in Beresford, a French-flavored village. A high-scoring left-winger, Sylvain grew up in a Montreal suburb. He reached the NHL with the Kings in 1988 but would play just 33 games and score only four goals for them through 1992.
The Couturiers were living in Phoenix, where Sylvain scored 50 goals for the IHL Roadrunners in 1990-91, when their first of two sons was born, Dec. 7, 1992. They named him “Sean” after Sylvain’s first pro hockey roommate, Sean Whyte.
Soon, the new father moved on to another IHL stop, Milwaukee, where Sean was introduced to skates.
“I’d take him to our games and practices and he couldn’t wait to get out on the ice,” said Sylvain Couturier. “But at that age you can’t tell what will happen.”
Nearing 30 in 1997, convinced his NHL dream was dead, the elder Couturier accepted an offer from the German professional league, playing there for five seasons. Sean, in addition to beginning his organized hockey career, learned German, his third language.
“He went to school there on a U.S. military base where the teacher spoke in German,” Sylvain said. “He picked it up very fast. After a while, I would take him to the grocery store with me to translate.”
When Couturier retired in 2001, the family returned to Canada, resettling in Bathurst, which occupies both banks of the Nepisiguit, just above Chaleur Bay, where residents insist a ghost ship, a burning 18th century frigate, can still be seen gliding slowly across the water like a fiery sunset.
‘Sean was hockey, hockey, hockey’
New in the French-English town at 10, Sean enrolled in elementary school and looked for a hockey league. Though he should have been an Atom, an age mix-up landed him in Peewee with teenagers. After getting permission to play at that level, he led the league in scoring.
“That’s where I met Sean,” said Boudreau, a Bathurst bar owner who is three years older. “He was still Atom age but he was so good they let him stay. He’s such a super, super smart person that he always made the right decisions. Even at 10 he was making adult decisions. My father was our assistant coach and he said if this kid doesn’t make the NHL, something’s wrong.”
Taller than his companions, Couturier also excelled at baseball and basketball, averaging better than 20 points a game in the latter for his eighth-grade team in Beresford.
“He was bigger than everyone,” recalled Boudreau, “and just like in hockey, he was smarter.”
But those sports were secondary pastimes. Couturier and his friends played hockey seven days a week. During the winter, when it wasn’t official at the arena, they went looking for ice wherever they could find it. In summers, they substituted a ball for a puck, sneakers for skates and played in the streets.
“Sean was hockey, hockey, hockey,” said Boudreau. “He played offensive and defensive. He was all over the ice.”
The constant play, his unusual size, and whatever it was that burned so hotly inside him quickly made it clear that Couturier had a future in the sport, though not many then saw an NHL first-rounder.
“Sean was an OK skater, never the best,” said Sylvain. “But he worked hard in the defensive end. He was bigger and stronger than the other kids from a young age and he wasn’t going to wait for the puck to come to him.”
Heading west … far west
By the time his son was 14 and a high-school honor student at Ecole Secondaire Nepisiquit, with a spectacular year of Midget under his belt, his father felt it was time to intensify the hockey education. When an effort to get him prematurely into the QMJHL failed, Sylvain Couturier looked west — far west.
Athol Murray College of Notre Dame, a private, coed boarding school in Wilcox, Saskatchewan, attracts high school-aged hockey talent from around the world. It seemed a good fit, though it was 2,254 miles away in a town that made Bathurst look like Manhattan.
“We sent him to Notre Dame to give him every chance we could,” said his father. “But it was tough on him and tough on us too. It’s so far and there’s nothing to do there, just three or four streets.”
A shy 15-year-old when he arrived, Couturier again was put on a team with older players, Notre Dame’s AAA Midget squad. He was not as physically or mentally mature as his 17- or 18-year-old teammates.
“The whole experience was hard,” said Dale Derkatch, his coach there and a Notre Dame grad. “It’s literally in the middle of nowhere. There’s 250 people in the town. You’re far from home, don’t know anyone and you’re thrown in a room with two or three guys from anywhere in the world. Sean knew no one and coming from French Canada, it was quite an adjustment.“
Though his team — which also included two other future NHL first-rounders, Branden Gormley and Jaden Schwartz — would dominate and win the league title, Couturier was miserable at first.
When he got back to Bathurst on Christmas break, he told his parents he was unhappy and considered not returning. But New Brunswick restored his equilibrium and he went back.
“If being alone and isolated is a detriment for kids like Sean, there’s also a benefit,” said Derkatch. “He began to realize that he was there with a bunch of kids that had the same mind-set in terms of trying to excel.”
Despite the age difference, the top-flight competition and the attitude adjustment, Couturier was a Notre Dame star, collecting 56 points in 40 games.
“He was smart, coachable, willing to learn, with good hockey sense and good puck skills,” said Derkatch. “But he was still a quiet guy. You didn’t know he was there half the time.”
‘One step in the process’
Eventually, Derkatch noted, he adjusted socially too, joking and talking with the guys on the long bus rides Notre Dame’s isolation mandated, going into Regina (a 45-minute drive) with them for movies or meals.
“It was hard,” Couturier admitted in 2010, “but it was one step in the process I had to get through.”
Following a year there, Couturier returned home, finished some courses at Bathurst High School, graduated from the French school and was drafted in 2008 by Drummondville (Quebec), the second overall selection. In 2008-09, he led that team to its first QJMHL title.
“And the rest,” said his father, “is history.”
Couturier still returns to Bathurst for a few weeks each summer. He golfs, hosts a charity tournament, watches Titan training camp and reconnects with Boudreau and the few old friends who remain in a city where unemployment is at 20 percent.
The paper mill closed in 2009, the zinc mine in 2013. After the latter move, Boudreau was laid off from a refinery, but opened a bar. Many of his and Couturier’s friends departed as soon as they were able.
“It’s tough here now,” said Sylvain Couturier. “Most of Sean’s friends left for university and didn’t come back. Even the two men who coached him when he was young, they’re both gone now. That’s what happened here when the mines closed.”
Meanwhile, not long ago, Derkatch, now a Toronto Maple Leafs scout, was watching hockey highlights when he saw something he never expected.
“Sean was in a fight,” he said. “I was unbelievably shocked. He was a finesse guy at Notre Dame. But there he was, a rough, tough strong player. And I said to myself, ‘Wow!’ ”
It shouldn’t have been a surprise. Roughness and strength are great assets for a fighter, but nothing’s more important than good balance.
And that’s something Couturier acquired long ago.