MAN ON A MISSION: Cotnoir Driven to Succeed
Feature story on hockey player Benoit Cotnoir.
February 6, 1999
By Pete LaFleur
When Notre Dame senior defenseman Benoit Cotnoir showed up in South Bend prior to his sophomore year, he arrived in a new mode of transportation. But it wasn't the typical vehicle driven by a college sophomore; instead, he was behind the wheel of a mini-van. "The mini-van was packed with all his stuff-it looked like he was ready for a family vacation," recalls classmate Brian Urick. "That topped it off, because we've always joked that he is way more mature than the rest of the team. He's kind of like our dad, always giving advice and looking out for you."
Like any responsible carpool parent, Cotnoir routinely carts his teammates around town. "Benoit's great about giving you a ride, and it's funny because he started calling the mini-van his 'truck'," says senior goaltender Forrest Karr. "That's just classic Benoit." Cotnoir's unique journey to Notre Dame-he signed on despite never visiting the campus and having minimal knowledge of English-is paralleled by a unique dichotomy in his personality that is a by-product of his maturity and upbringing. Two of the strongest aspects of the alternate captain's personality are rarely found in combination: an outgoing personality coupled with a blunt outspokenness. "It seems like Benoit knows everyone on campus and he's always calling people by their first name," says Urick. "He's also involved in so many of the Life Skills programs and goes to watch a lot of the other sports here at Notre Dame."
But Cotnoir is just as likely to voice his displeasure or concern over an issue as he is to make friends with a complete stranger. "Benoit is not as wild as some of the younger guys on the team but he's our designated spokesman," explains Urick. "If there's a problem with the service during a team meal or if we need to ask the coaches for something, we always go to Benoit. He's not afraid to ask anyone anything." According to Irish head coach Dave Poulin, Cotnoir's sociable nature and tell-it-like-it-is approach are not entirely polar opposites. "You might encounter other people who have both of those traits," says Poulin. "But they usually are much older than Benoit." Karr marvels at the personality of Cotnoir, who is tied to several of the goaltender's superstitions. On every roadtrip, Karr gives Cotnoir one of his goalie pads to carry in Cotnoir's travel bag. And prior to the start of each period, Cotnoir skates back to tap those very pads before the puck is dropped.
"Benoit's personality makes him unique. He wasn't satisfied to stay in Quebec. He ventured out and challenges himself every day-he still asks me what certain English words mean," says Karr. "He's just a natural leader who is very opinionated and believes strongly in what he says. We wouldn't be the same team without him."
Karr chuckles when discussing Cotnoir's study of goaltending. "Benoit loves to talk about all the great French-Canadian goalies and he's always analyzing goalies in the CCHA," explains Karr. "He'll give me tips and talk about things he's heard from famous goalie coaches. He's basically a goalie connoisseur."
True to form, Cotnoir threw in his two-cents worth on Michigan State's Joe Blackburn. "He was talking about the MSU goalie and how he is lefthanded," says Karr. "And Benoit was saying, 'If I were a goalie, that's how I'd play, with my glove in my right hand ... just like (former Edmonton Oilers great) Grant Fuhr'."
Cotnoir attributes much of his unique personality to his proud background. "American culture is far more conservative than French-Canadian society," says Cotnoir, whose hometown of Noranda, Quebec, includes 40,000 residents dedicated to Cotnoir's mantra that "hockey is No. 1". And current NHL stars such as Eric Desjardins, Pierre Turgeon and Stephane Matteau all are products of the proud hockey city.
"I've adjusted to the mindset here and have to be careful with being too up-front at times. It takes a while to learn what is acceptable." Cotnoir's outspoken nature was apparent from the first day he arrived in South Bend. "We were all wondering where this French-Canadian kid was," recalls Urick. "And when he showed up, right from the start, Benoit was really up front with everybody. He even started calling coach Poulin 'Dave'."
Cotnoir has had plenty of conversations with Poulin over the past four years, voicing his opinions about the program and where it is headed. "A lot of people felt the same way, but I voiced those thoughts," says Cotnoir. "There were some attitude problems inside the program and some people thought, 'That's just the way it is'. But for me, losing is unacceptable. That's the attitude you have to have. "There are things that this program has changed and they may seem minor, but they pile up. It's those changes that have made us a national contender."
Cotnoir and the rest of the Irish defense met the shortcomings of the team's early-season penalty killing head-on. "We've been buying into the idea of a defensive team type of thing, with the defensemen and goalies, and I push myself in practice to be the leader of that. We have a lot of pride and knew the penalty-killing had to improve. It's a very important part of the game."
As much as it might seem like it, Cotnoir did not arrive at Notre Dame simply by chance or blind faith, even though his primary visual images of the school came from the popular movie "Rudy." "That movie gave me an idea of what the place was like-the campus, the people and the spirit," says Cotnoir, who spent the previous two seasons sharpening his English and his hockey skills as a member of the Weyburn (Sask.) Red Wings.
"The thing about me coming to Notre dame 'sight unseen' has been blown out of proportion. My team was in the middle of our playoffs at the time that I could have taken a visit, but I put a lot of work into checking the school out," he adds. "I talked to a lot of people that I respected-hockey people, people who knew about the school, I even called some of the professors at Notre Dame. They all were very helpful and helped me make the right choice."
Cotnoir's transition to the life of a student-athlete in America was a challenging one. "I thought it would be pretty simple, but the whole combined experience was very demanding, especially my freshman year. It was more than I expected," he recalls.
"I was no exception, it's the same for every freshman. A senior on that team-Davide dal Grande-helped me a lot. That's something I've talked to our freshmen about. It's very good to be challenged from the start-you become stronger. But you have to be able to shift gears mentally between school and athletics. You can't let one affect the other." Four years later, Cotnoir is a big fan of his soon-to-be alma mater. "I love Quebec, but Notre Dame has been my home the last four years," he says. "This place is fantastic. You can't get the feel of it just by visiting. It's the people that make it so special." On the ice, Cotnoir has made steady improvement, particularly over the past two seasons. "Benoit's performance curve-and that of the senior class-have been very similar to our progress as a team," says Poulin. Cotnoir writes off his 9-23-4 freshman season as a "bad year for everyone" and readily concedes that he and his teammates-while becoming more competitive in 1996-97-still produced a disappointing season that ended with a 9-25-1 mark. Even last year's 18-19-4 campaign fell below his expectations.
"We showed what we were capable of last year in the playoffs at Michigan and this year the hard work is paying off. But there are still a lot of games left," says Cotnoir, who is known on the team as much for his voracious appetite as for his unique personality. "Going through a hockey season is like having a meal. We're done with the entree and the dessert is coming ... it's all a matter of whether we can finish it."
Poulin praises Cotnoir's conditioning regimen that has led to him being a "tremendously durable player". At times this season, he has skated on both power-play shifts and has amassed 45 of his 83 career points on the power play.
Cotnoir also has shown the versatility to play well with several linemates during his career. "I've learned a lot from the players I've played with. They've made me a better all-around defenseman," he says. Poulin says that Cotnoir has "maximized his opportunities at Notre Dame," while posting a 3.25 GPA during his career. He is a leader of the Notre Dame captains council and takes part in various charity works, among them a continuing role as a math tutor at the South Bend Juvenile Center. Last summer, he spent six weeks in the Western Africa country of Benin, a former French colony, as a participant in the Notre Dame Council for International Business teaching program. "It was a good life experience and truly made me appreciate what I have," says Cotnoir.
When the six-week stay in Africa concluded, Cotnoir spent the next few weeks working back into shape at a summer hockey school in Saskatchewan. Now he has helped put the Notre Dame program on the national map.
"I try to squeeze the most out of things," concludes Cotnoir. "That's just the type of person I am."