This is a big sports weekend for Montreal sports fans as the NHL will hold its annual draft June 20-21 in Ottawa. But while Montreal natives will scrutinize Les Habitants' selections, Étienne Boulay will have the New York Jets on his mind.
"I played hockey with my friends on the outside rink growing up and I could skate pretty fast, but I couldn't stop so that was a problem," joked Boulay today in a Jets public relations office at Weeb Ewbank Hall.
Football was Boulay's first love. He played wide receiver and defensive back for Collège Jean-Eudes, a high school in Rosemont, Quebec. It was there where they played the American game but on a much larger Canadian field.
"We were kind of a powerhouse when I was there and they still are today," he said. "One of the rival schools is Notre Dame High School and that's probably the biggest high school rivalry in Montreal."
When Boulay, now 25, was a boy, there was no pro football team in his city. Ironically, he took to "America's Team" in the early Nineties.
"There was no Montreal team in the CFL and I was watching the NFL mostly," he said. "When I really started getting interested in football, it was the Dallas Cowboys era with Emmitt Smith and Troy Aikman and they had the dynasty. That's what got me into football and from then on I'd watch football every time it was on TV, whether it was American college, Canadian college, the CFL or the NFL."
Onto the States
Canadian high schools consist of grades 7-11. Then there is college preparatory school in grades 12 and 13. But Boulay left for the United States and went to play football at the Kent School in Connecticut. He received aide to attend Kent, but he left his family, his friends and his language behind.
"It was really hard and I thought about quitting," he said of life at Kent. "At first I knew a few words because we had an 'introduction to English' in high school and things of that nature. But football helped me a lot."
Despite running around and "guessing" for a while, Boulay, who played DB, WR and RB for Kent, got the support he needed from the staff and eventually excelled.
"My head coach, Todd Marble, helped me a lot. He spent extra time with me teaching the terms and the words. They put me in classes called 'English as a Foreign Language' to catch me up to date, but I couldn't speak any French over there and I didn't have enough money to call my parents every night," he said. "I was just surrounded by English, so I didn't have a choice but to learn."
After leading Kent to the New England Class A championship and being voted New England's Class A Player of the Year in 2001, the bilingual Boulay earned a scholarship to the University of New Hampshire.
"The first two years, we had a real hard time and weren't real good — I think we went 3-8 and then I think it was 5-7 my second year," he said of his time at UNH. "But the guys in my class and the year before really bought into the system and by the time we got to our junior and senior years, we really turned the program around. My last two years we were No. 1 in the country, and that's something that is going to stay with me forever."
Return to Montreal
Boulay totaled 13 interceptions along with 27 pass breakups in college and some NFL teams showed interest. He never received an offer, though, and was eventually selected by the Montreal Alouettes in the second round of the 2006 CFL Draft.
"I was actually hoping to get a few looks here south of the border but that didn't work out. I had a few calls but nothing concrete," he said. "That was disappointing, but I got drafted by Montreal, which was a blessing."
The Alouettes made it to the Grey Cup, the CFL equivalent of the Super Bowl, in Boulay's first season and the safety was named the league's Finest Canadian Player in 2007.
"Just being home and playing was great," he said. "I had to spend a lot of money every week just to get my family tickets, but it was all worth it."
Returning home meant Boulay would play Canadian rules for the first time. A safety and special teams contributor, he adjusted to a passing-fancy league where 12 play aside, there are only three offensive downs, presnap forward motion is encouraged, and there is plenty of room to get creative.
"They come fast and you're like, 'Oh, man, he has a lot of room to adjust his route.' It's a wide-open game and I think that's why the fans over there love it," he said. "It's really an explosive game because it's three downs. It's almost 75 percent passing and it puts a lot of emphasis on kickoff returns and punt returns."
A Chance to Break the Barrier
Back in January, the Jets asked the 5'9", 187-pound Boulay if he would be interested in working out for the club. Boulay showcased his 4.4 speed and did enough to earn an NFL contract. He participated in the Green & White's minicamps and OTAs and is now a month away from the beginning of his first NFL training camp.
"I still have a lot to improve, obviously, but I think my technique was the thing that was lacking the most because it's not the same kind of movement when you play free safety and corner," he said. "We play a lot of press here and it's something I had to work on and I still have to work on.
"The big thing is I feel like I'm getting better every practice and I know it's in my control to work hard, spend extra time on my technique, spend extra time watching film and understanding the defense."
A city renowned for its love affair with hockey, Montreal hasn't forgotten Boulay. He has filled a variety of media requests from his native land and said he gets "a lot of phone calls" and "a lot of love." Étienne Boulay's not on the frozen pond, but he's definitely in unchartered water.
"We have a lot of talent up there and people don't know it. If I can be that bridge and break that barrier that makes people think that it's impossible, I would be more than happy to," he says. "The support I'm getting is unbelievable and it's motivating."