pelletier-306

Jean Pelletier, middle, accepts New Brunswick's RBC Local Hockey Leader award, an honour extended to one hockey volunteer per province. ((Courtesy Jean Pelletier))

When players on Jean Pelletier's team skate over to the boards during practice to hear a drill, they never know what to expect.

Not even the coach is sure what language he'll use.

"Sometimes I do half French, half English," says Pelletier, who's been behind the bench for more than a decade. "I'll go from one language to another without skipping a beat, and they just follow along."

This is common practice for the coach in the bilingual town of Dalhousie, N.B.

The town of 4,000 is home to two elementary schools -- one French, one English -- but as far as minor hockey goes, the Dalhousie Minor Hockey Association is it. That means players on a team are usually all over the map when it comes to language skills.

"Not everybody is bilingual, so you have to elaborate in both languages," says Pelletier, who's coaching his daughter Mary-Jo's mixed Pewee AA team this season. "The kids that don't know both are usually able to follow, whether it's French or English. Either way, you get the hang of it eventually. Some of the younger kids may have a little harder time, but it always comes.

"I always try to explain using both languages so I don't offend anybody, and so everybody understands."

Last year, while coaching his son Robert at the Bantam AA level, Pelletier had a team made up of eight French players and five English players. The difference in language isn't a barrier, he says. It's a way of life.

"Everybody gets along," says the Dalhousie native. "We're used to it here."

The way he reaches out to his players in two languages is one reason Pelletier was named New Brunswick's RBC Local Hockey Leader in 2008, an honour extended to one hockey volunteer in each province.

Not only does he coach, but the former referee is president of Dalhousie Minor Hockey and of the North Shore Hockey Association, and he runs the local hockey school.

That's not all. When a fire claimed one of two Dalhousie hockey rinks three years ago, Pelletier brought a plan to town council suggesting another rink be built. When that plan was rejected, the father of two spearheaded a fundraising effort to pull together $13,000 to buy a divider for the remaining rink. Now two practices can go on at Dalhousie's Inch Arran Ice Palace at once, separated by a white wall.

"We needed it because the ice is always being used," he says. "When I say always, I mean 90 per cent of the time, because sometimes when the workers are shutting it down at 11 p.m., it's empty, and sometimes when the kids are in school it isn't used."

In 2007, Pelletier attended a coaching symposium to ask questions about how to adapt to the half ice, and he came back with some encouraging information for parents and coaches who were concerned that practicing on half an ice pad might limit their kids' skills.

"By the time the kids go down the full ice and back, they're not at full tilt anymore, especially when you're 4-foot-and-a-half," Pelletier says. "It's better when you're on a smaller sheet of ice. The kids practice more with their heads up and with more bursts of speed. The exercise is always at a high tempo.

"It could be a blessing that we have the divider," he adds. "I told people, you know, maybe that's why we do so well in tournaments that are outside Dalhousie."

For the past six years, Pelletier has been working on improving the local hockey school. He created a book of drills for coaches so that each age group's camp remains consistent. Now he's thinking about expanding the school into the summer months for the kids.

That's the reason he's putting in all these volunteer hours to the game he grew up playing -- for the kids.

"I love hockey, but it's about the kids," Pelletier says. "It really is.

"It helps that the arena is a one-minute drive from my house," he adds, laughing.