I think few would ever have surmised that Jacques Mailhot would have made it to the NHL. He never played Major Junior hockey, having reached only the Junior B level with the Shawinigan Cataractes. As a youngster, Jacques began playing hockey at age 4 recreationally, and then in organized hockey at age five, of all things, as a goaltender. But this in and of itself was not an opportunity that came by easily, since Jacques came from a very large family. Having 1 brother and 6 sisters, 5 of whom were older, Jacques really did not have anyone to help in getting him started in hockey, and it was also financially difficult too. “I remember my mom working long hours as a seamstress for little money, making sure I had a place to play and some skates. The skates weren’t new, but they were mine. So I started playing defense, but my skating wasn’t strong enough, so they put me in as a goalie”.
Jacques would play goal until he got to the bantam level (ages 12/13), when the team he was playing for fell short of players one night. “So I volunteered to play up front. I scored a goal late in the game, and I remember my older sisters paying me $10-dollars for that. I was amazed and thought that this is where I should play, since my kid brother was already a very good goalie; no need to have two in the same house”.
Growing up in Shawinigan, Quebec, when I ask Jacques Mailhot which players were his hockey heroes while he was growing up, he states as a whole, “the Montreal Canadiens”. Having been born in 1961, Mailhot grew up watching “Les Habitants” when they were arguably at their very best. Guy Lafleur, Serge Savard, Larry Robinson, Ken Dryden, Jacques Lemaire, Guy Lapointe, Steve Shutt; it was easy to see how a young boy from Quebec would idolize these Hall of Famers, these legends.
At 16-years of age, Jacques would make the local Junior B team with Shawinigan on the very last day of tryouts. Being one of the last selections to make the team was further proof that Jacques Mailhot was a longshot to have a pro career. “Five games in, we played an archrival, the Grand’Mere Selects and I got into a fight with a 19-year old named Michel Carrignan. And he kicked the sh*t out of me; bloodied my nose and my eyes were black and blue. I got home after the game embarrassed, and I did not want to play hockey ever again. I was told by my mom and dad that it was my choice, but that I would have to live with it for the rest of my life. So after getting better and learning a few things throughout the season, we (Mailhot and Carrignan) met again on the last game of the season, and it was a unanimous decision in my favor, sending me to a place where I had never got to before. So that’s where ‘The Mailman’ was born”, said Jacques, referring to his nickname that would follow him throughout his pro career, up through today.
In the early 1980s while in his late-teens and early-20s, Jacques’ renewed love for the game of hockey and his desire to play, despite being at a lower-tiered level, saw him play first at the triple-A level and then in the senior hockey leagues of Quebec with the Limoilou Titans, the Louiseville Jets, and the Joliette Cyclones. Jacques would eventually establish himself with the senior league team, the Rimouski Mariners. While Jacques would put up decent numbers offensively over his few seasons with the Mariners by scoring 22-goals and 51-points in 55-games, it was his pugilistic skills that would garner the attention of the professional leagues. For within those 55-games, Jacques Mailhot put up a staggering 426-penalty minutes. After the trials and errors of learning to scrap with Shawinigan in Junior B, Jacques found himself to be a very formidable player – plain and simple, Jacques Mailhot could now fight.
In 1987, in what would be his first year of professional hockey, Jacques would be invited to the NHL’s Quebec Nordiques training camp. The Nordiques took notice of the local scraper, and invited him so that they could have a closer look. “I fought (Richard) Zemlak one time, but also beat (Scott) Shaunessy three times solidly, and he was projected to be the new policeman for the Nordiques”. Jacques would initially be assigned to Quebec’s American Hockey League (AHL) affiliate, the Fredericton Express. With Fredericton Jacques would tally 2-goals and 6-assists, but right after Christmas he would be shipped to the Baltimore Skipjacks along with teammate and future Boston Bruins Stanley Cup winning coach, Claude Julien. “After my third fight on the ice, I was told that I had a contract. I started the season in Frederiction, but (Ron) Lapointe was promoted to Quebec (to be head coach). “BJ” (Blair) MacDonald came in to replace Lapointe, and I was not his favorite player, so that’s when I would be shipped to Baltimore to work with a great coach, Gene Ubriaco, and I flourished under him”. Jacques would play 15-games with the Skipjacks, recording 2-goals and 167-penalty minutes, before he and Julien would then be sent back to Fredericton in time for a playoff push.
Although not a particular favorite of Coach MacDonald’s, Mailhot would nonetheless be part of the Express’ run to the Finals for the Calder Cup championship. Jacques would play in 8 of Fredericton’s 15 playoff games of the 1987-88 playoff campaign. Besides possessing toughness with players like Jacques and heavyweights Scott Shaunessy and Trevor Stienburg, the Express also had a slew of future NHL talents like Mike Hough, Ron Tugnutt, Jim Sandlak, Dave Lowry and others. Unfortunately, Mailhot and his Fredericton teammates would be swept in four straight games by the Hershey Bears in the Finals.
Taking into consideration that Jacques Mailhot had never played such high level hockey previously, the fact that his first professional season saw him record 10-points in 43-games and make it to the championship round would have to be considered a great success. Speculating that the best was yet to come, the Nordiques proceeded to offer Mailhot a 2-year contract beginning with the 1988-89 season. While he would play mostly for Quebec’s newly affiliated AHL team the Halifax Citadels, Jacques would also suit up for 5 NHL games that season with the Nordiques. “It was an amazing feeling to make it there, knowing that many didn’t believe that I would”, Jacques told me.
Mailhot’s first NHL game would be bittersweet, to say the least. While in some ways it may have been a child’s dream come true to play his first NHL game against the storied Montreal Canadiens, the team he grew up emulating as a hockey youngster, on December 15th, 1988, it would also be a game that brought some sadness for Jacques. “I was called up to Quebec December 12th, 1988 and played against Montreal three days later. It was also a sad memory for me, as it was the night that coach Ron Lapointe stepped down because of cancer and was replaced by Jean Perron”. Lapointe had been a very successful coach in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League with the Major Junior version of the Shawinigan Cataractes, as well as at the AHL and NHL levels. Lapointe was someone whom Jacques held in high esteem, as did many others. In fact, the QMJHL now awards the “Ron Lapointe Trophy” each year to their Coach of the Year. Sadly, Lapointe would pass away at the age of 42 in March of 1992 after losing his 3-year battle with kidney cancer.
Throughout his 5-game call-up with the Nordiques, Jacques Mailhot would have some memorable scraps. Mailhot would officially have three NHL fights, facing off against Calgary’s enforcer Tim Hunter, Boston’s tough guy Lyndon Byers, as well as NHL legend and Hockey Hall of Famer, Cam Neely, also of the Bruins. Jacques does not recall his fight against Neely in a positive light, though. In fact, out of respect for Neely’s skill level, he really did not want to partake. “I was sent out by Jean Perron to fight him (Neely), and it was the first time a coach had ever done that to me. I did not want to fight him, but I had no choice. Neely was a great player and a class act. I had lots of respect for him, but I did it anyways. Then, I was ridiculed by the media for it and the coach never defended my actions”. Jacques was unfairly put into a predicament. Here he was trying to make a name for himself in the NHL, and the coach tells him to fight Cam Neely; it was a lose-lose situation.
Jacques final NHL game would be a 1-1 tie against the Buffalo Sabres on January 14th, 1989. And then that was it. Through his five game NHL stint, Jacques would not record any points, or even a shot on goal, but would amass a whopping 33-minutes in penalties.
After his lone NHL season with the Nordiques, Jacques would go on to play 11-more seasons of professional hockey. From 1990 to 2000, Jacques would play in 7 different professional leagues in a total of 15 different cities. Throughout his 13-seasons of professional hockey, Jacques would rack up 3,076-penalty minutes. What is almost unbelievable is that these penalty-minutes were accrued in a mere 516-games. That is an average of over 5-penalty minutes a game, or essentially, an amount equivalent to a fighting major in every game he played. When I ask Jacques of all the cities he played in, which were his favorites, he tells me playing in Quad City with the Mallards of the old Colonial Hockey League, and playing in Texas with the Western Professional Hockey League. While he played in both locations in the later stages of his professional career, Mailhot would arguably play some of his best hockey with both Quad City and the Central Texas Stampede, putting up two seasons of 14-goals, once with each team. “When I came to Texas, I got to play for former New York Islanders great, Bob Bourne, and I learned a lot from him. He even had me play in the IHL for Butch Goring at the tender age of 36. And the real reason why I love Texas so much is that is where I met my best friend that soon after became my wife!”.
When I think of all those fights and all those penalty minutes, it makes me wonder who were the toughest players that Jacques ever had to face. He rattles them off to me: “Neely, Tim Hunter, Ken Baumgartner, Martin Laitre, Sasha Lakovic, and Bruce Ramsay”. Each of them really tough customers, and I can see why Jacques lists them as the toughest he ever fought. The amount of penalty minutes Bruce Ramsay would accumulate from season to season would blow most other enforcers totals right out of the water.
These days Jacques is still involved in hockey, but mostly for fun. “I’m still playing in beer leagues in Texas with friends. I wish I could have had a chance to get more involved in coaching, but it was not in the cards”.
When I ask Jacques to sum up his career for me in a few words, I really like what he comes up with: “I wish I would have been better prepared to deal with everything; wish I had been more patient and learned to control my temper. But I have no regrets. I met some amazing people along the way, and I have stood up where many thought I would just fall”. I like how Jacques’ perseverance prevailed; that he came out on top, literally fighting to make it there when many others did not believe in him. Sure, hindsight is always twenty-twenty, but he harbors no regrets, as he said. More importantly, Jacques beat the odds. One could argue that there was nothing special enough about Jacques that would allow him to play in the best hockey league in the world. But Jacques Mailhot is living proof that if you fight hard enough for something (in Jacques’ case oftentimes literally), what others think matters very little. And in the end, Jacques Mailhot was an NHL hockey player, and that is his to be proud of for all time.