For many Canadians across the country, Saturday nights begin when the Hockey Night in Canada theme song is heard and Don Cherry’s fluorescent suits fill up their television screens. For many young hockey players, watching those games on the CBC was the beginning of their hockey careers.
For Youssef Kabbaj, a defenceman for the Stingers men’s hockey team, things weren’t much different.
“I started playing hockey when I was six years old,” he said. “One day in December of 1997, my dad was watching the Habs. I wanted to watch my cartoons, but he wouldn’t let me. I ended up watching the game with him, which was the first time I watched a full game. From that day on, I fell in love with the game.”
And Kabbaj didn’t look back. After playing most of his novice and atom A hockey in Westmount, he went on to play Bantam BB in Versant-Ouest, Bantam AA in Verdun and Midget AAA in Châteauguay.
It’s every hockey player’s dream to make the NHL. For Kabbaj, it almost became reality when he was 15 and playing Bantam AA.
“It was the first time I was ever considered as being one of the top players of my age in Quebec,” said Kabbaj. “That’s when I started sacrificing vacation time during the summer to workout and get stronger.”
Kabbaj was drafted by the Chicoutimi Saguenéens of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League (QMJHL) in 2008 , which brought him one step closer to making it to the NHL.
“At first [playing in the QMJHL] was surreal,” explained Kabbaj. “You’re treated like a pro, you play with great players and become an idol for kids in the town you play in. It’s a great feeling because you know you’re not that far from the ultimate goal of playing in the NHL. It’s like a tap [on] the back of the shoulder just to say ‘keep it up, you’re almost there.’”
However, the dream took a step back when he returned to the Saguenéens’ training camp the next year.
“My coach in Chicoutimi told me I would not be an important part of his team [thereby] just blocking my dream of making the NHL without me being able to do anything about it, because he would rarely make me play,” said Kabbaj.
He was traded from Chicoutimi to the Shawinigan Cataractes and spent his last year of major junior play with the Gatineau Olympiques. His main role was killing penalties or playing against the opposing team’s top-line players.
Most players are forced to move away from home when they’re drafted at 16. Many players, like Kabbaj, move in with billet parents, families who receive money from the junior teams to care for their players.
“[Living away from home] forces you to become more responsible,” said Kabbaj. “The hardest thing was missing my mom’s cooking! [But] I learned how to be tougher and not to be shy. I learned how to control my emotions to a certain extent and maintain a composed mood.”
Now, having returned home, Kabbaj is entering his second year with the Stingers.
“The NHL was definitely the dream, [but] that faded away a bit after my [18th birthday] when I went undrafted,” he said. “I had to choose between playing in minor pro leagues with no long-term guarantees or a university degree with long-term guarantees. The choice was fairly simple to me.”
Kabbaj chose Concordia after head coach Kevin Figsby showed keen interest in bringing him to Concordia while Kabbaj was playing in Gatineau. He is currently studying political science and plans to attend law school after graduation.
“Hockey-wise, I’m a Stinger for now and proud to be. If I get a crack at the pros then why not [continue playing], but realistically I’m aiming for law school after my degree,” he said. Watch for Kabbaj in the Stingers preseason game against McGill on Sept. 12.