Monday, February 18, 2013

Claude Vilgrain: Flyers pioneer

by Bob Herpen
Phanatic Hockey Editor 

It barely registered when it occurred, but the signing of free-agent forward Claude Vilgrain on August 3, 1993 -- in the midst of a brutally-hot Philadelphia summer framed by the sizzling ascent of the Phillies to the NL East lead -- made him a pioneer in Flyers history.

The first NHLer born in Haiti, Vilgrain later became the first player of African descent to appear in a game for the Orange and Black.

His tenure here is so obscure, we couldn't find a credible picture of him in a Flyers uniform. In fact, in a Philadelphia Inquirer story culled from wire services, a former player signing with a rival got the headline. Still, that doesn't take away from his place in team history.

At 6-foot-1 and well over 200 pounds, Vilgrain was a force to be reckoned with in the AHL, going for 30 goals and 83 points in 76 games for the Hershey Bears during the 1993-94 season. 

"It was the best place I played -- and I played in a lot of places," Vilgrain recalled in a 1994 interview. "I remember the family atmosphere and the warmth and kindness of the people."

He earned his third, and final, NHL call-up for a March 12 tilt at the Forum against the Montreal Canadiens in his adoptive home province, then waited three weeks for another shot in a 3-3 home tie against the Florida Panthers. In his first game with Terry Simpson's club, a 4-4 deadlock which ended on a fluke tally by Habs center Vincent Damphousse late in regulation, Vilgrain played on the fourth line alongside Dave Tippett and Dave Brown, but the event received little official notice from Inky columnist Gary Miles in his notes section.

All told, zero points and zero penalty minutes with a minus-one. But that really doesn't matter, does it?

Originally a sixth-round draft pick of the Detroit Red Wings in 1982, Vilgrain didn't make it to the pro ranks until the 1987-88 season, where he was plucked from the Canadian Olympic squad by the Vancouver Canucks after the club signed him as a free agent the previous offseason.

That came after a 126-point season with the Laval Titan of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League and three years in the Canadian college ranks which left him little options to continue his career.

Vilgrain actually became a part of Flyers history even before he was a part of the franchise. His first NHL game was a March 1, 1988 tilt at Pacific Coliseum between the Canucks and, yep, a certain team from Philadelphia.

In that 7-3 Philly victory, in which Rick Tocchet was the star by firing home his third hat trick in a span of four games, Vilgrain netted his first career goal less than five minutes into the contest to give Vancouver its second and last lead of the night.

After five more games with the Canucks, Vilgrain was sent to their IHL farm club in Milwaukee for the 1988-89 season, then finished it with the Utica Devils of the AHL after a late-season swap of prospects with New Jersey.

Four more seasons of minor-league play came and went with only one legitimate crack at the Show -- a 19-goal, 46-point season in 1991-92 helped along by a roster spot opening due to John MacLean's season-ending knee injury -- and by the time Flyers' GM Russ Farwell decided to add depth and take a chance, Vilgrain had totaled 45 points in 57 games with the Cincinnati Cyclones of the IHL after not being able to maintain a steady spot in the AHL.

The 49-year-old was back in the news in the Winter of 2010, when a major earthquake rocked his native country and had an effect on his immediate family.

"He was visiting my sister in Montreal, but decided to come back to Haiti a little early and that was a few days before the quake. That was a stressful time because for five days, we didn't have a chance to talk to him...then finally we were able to get in touch," Vilgrain said of his father in a 2010 interview with Stan Fischler on MSG Network. "Where my Dad grew up (the house) was damaged, but where he lives (now) is OK."

Vilgrain lives in Calgary now, and coaches his daughter, Ashley, in a girls' league. Former Flyers Kevin Haller and Ron Sutter also do the same thing, for the same team, with their own daughters.

If you're looking for a touchstone, for someone whom Donald Brashear, Ray Emery and Wayne Simmonds should thank for their time in Philly, it all traces back to a fourth-line player who skated here during a down period in franchise annals.

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