Earthquake hits home for Vilgrain

Former Devil has helped raise funds for native Haiti

Wednesday, 02.17.2010 / 10:16 AM ET / Features
By Eric Marin
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Earthquake hits home for Vilgrain
Alix Vilgrain decided to head back to Haiti a few days early.

He and his wife, Edith, had just spent the holidays in Montreal with their daughter, Chantal, and their grandchildren. Now he was going home to Fermate, 30 minutes southeast of Port-au-Prince, to set up a new home office with a high-speed Internet connection, and maybe even a satellite phone.

The family had agreed that those tech upgrades would help Alix, now retired, stay in closer touch with his three children and six grandchildren living in Canada. His son, Alix, Jr., a Microsoft employee, was supposed to arrive in Haiti shortly after him to help get everything installed.

Those simple plans were shattered on Jan. 12.

The earthquake in Haiti hit home for former Devil Claude Vilgrain.
As Alix stood in his kitchen making himself a sandwich, the walls began to shake. Plates crashed to the floor. Disoriented, he ran outside. He would later say it was as though the house was chasing him.

When it was over, Alix's home was still intact and he stood among the fortunate. He had survived the most devastating earthquake to hit Haiti in more than two centuries.

“He had never seen the house move so much,” said Alix’s son, Claude, the former New Jersey Devil. “Everything was shaking – it was kind of confusing.”

Alix, 78, managed to call his wife to tell her what had happened and to let her know he was all right. They spoke for only 30 to 45 seconds before they were disconnected by an aftershock.

For the next five days, neither side could get a call in or out. By then, images of the tragedy were everywhere.

“It was a little stressful watching CNN,” Claude Vilgrain recalled. “At one point I had to stop watching because it hit me hard.”

Like the rest of the world, he was left with questions. Among them, how Haiti, a country that shares the Caribbean island of Hispaniola with the Dominican Republic, could find the strength to cope this time.

“I know Haiti had other issues like four hurricanes in 2008, but after this one for some reason, I said, ‘Why this poor little country?’” Vilgrain recalled. “They’re just trying to survive and they just keep getting kicked down.”

Vilgrain, 46, has been more deeply affected by the earthquake in Haiti than any member of the Devils family. Now living in Calgary with his wife and two teenage daughters, he serves as a sales representative for an Edmonton-based company that designs and installs playgrounds.

When he’s not coaching his daughter’s Bantam AAA Calgary Outlaws with former NHLers Ron Sutter and Kevin Haller, he has been an active part of western Canada’s fundraising efforts for Haiti.

He has attended benefit concerts organized by Calgary’s francophone community, with all proceeds going to relief charities. He has been in touch with the Calgary Flames alumni association to discuss plans for a charity game.

The outpouring of worldwide support included Vilgrain’s former European clubs, who emailed asking what they could do to help.

Born in Port-au-Prince, Vilgrain was just 18 months old when his father relocated the family to Quebec City in order to study economics and agriculture in the provincial capital. Alix succeeded in landing a government job in Quebec and thought he’d stay for a while.

“A while turned into more than 30 years,” Vilgrain said.

Before long, young Claude was a hockey player, beginning his junior career with Laval (QMJHL) in 1980. Drafted by Detroit in 1982, he was traded from Vancouver to New Jersey in 1989. The first Haitian-born player in National Hockey League history, he posted 19 goals and 27 assists in 1991-92, his only full NHL season. 

Vilgrain headed for Europe during the 1994-95 NHL lockout and split the next seven seasons between clubs in Switzerland and Germany. He hung up his skates after four playoff appearances with SC Bern in 2001-02.

A continent removed from the events in Haiti, Vilgrain endured days, then weeks without direct word from his father. Telephone connections were too spotty to support long conversations by the time Edith, 73, eventually spoke to her husband again. But their talk gave the family hope.

Alix had safely made it into town for water. In the process, though, he saw firsthand what the earthquake had left in its wake. The island nation of 10 million people had been dealt its biggest blow yet.

“It was tough for him because he had to walk through dead people and a lot of devastation,” Vilgrain said. “That was hard.”

It was even harder for Alix to consider leaving his country behind.

“We were able to contact him a couple of more times,” Vilgrain said. “One time he was going to try to go to the (Canadian) embassy to try to fly back, but he never did. He called us and said, ‘I’m staying here.’ His house is OK. His neighborhood is not too damaged. He got food and water and he was sleeping in the car. Three of my cousins live right around him so they all stayed in one yard, in their cars, sleeping there. They didn’t trust going back into the house.

“My dad is a stubborn man and he loves his country. For him just to leave like that would be abandoning his country. I know him coming back and watching the news every day would be too hard for him.”

Then, on Feb. 2 – exactly three weeks later – Vilgrain spoke to his father for the first time since the earthquake struck. The conversation lasted 30 minutes.

“It was good hearing him,” Vilgrain said. “We started laughing and talking about the kids and stuff like that. My dad is a very positive person and he always protected me during my hockey career. If there were issues, problems, he would always be upbeat and never wanted to disturb me. If things weren’t right, there was no way he would’ve told me anyway. He never wanted his kids to worry for nothing.”

More good news: his father reported that an engineer had assessed his residential development in Fermate and found no structural damage.

“He’s sleeping in it, but with one eye open,” Vilgrain said. “He has water, he has food. His little town didn’t suffer too much damage. They’ve got some grocery stores open, but obviously everything’s more expensive. He’s staying there for now and he’ll see what his next move’s going to be, if he’s going to go back to Canada for a while. He loves his little country, so it’s tough for him.”

They had planned a phone call for the day Alix left Montreal so that Claude could wish his father a safe trip. But things came up and the call was never made. He now possesses a reminder of his father’s survival that he’s not about to let go of.

“Just before talking to him (for the first time), he had called the night before and no one was home so he left a message,” Vilgrain said. “First thing I told my kids was, ‘Nobody can erase that message.’”

For the time being, Alix is staying put at home. While waiting to figure out his next move – to stay in Haiti or return to Canada – he tended to the needs of an ill brother.

“I told him, ‘Hey take it easy,’” Vilgrain said. “What I really wanted him to do is come back and see things from over here and then go back and see how he might help. He only has his radio now, and doesn’t really know what’s going on in Port-au-Prince. The gasoline is very expensive, and you don’t want to be stranded without gasoline.”

Though the ex-Devil hasn’t been back to Haiti since the early 1980s, he hopes someday to show his daughters where he was born. With help from the global community, Vilgrain believes Haiti can turn the page.

The long road to recovery, however, has only just begun.

“I think it’s time to rebuild the country from scratch and make sure people have the proper housing, proper relocation,” he said. “One of my biggest concerns is the kids. Make sure there’s good schooling, because they’re the ones that are going to rebuild the country. Now’s the time to build a better Haiti.”

The Devils' Hat Trick for Haiti raised more than $13,000 for UNICEF thanks to generous fan donations at Devils home games. To support the American Red Cross relief efforts, visit redcross.org.