Kenai River Brown Bears defenseman JJ Boucher looks for an opening Friday, Oct. 5, 2018, against the Chippewa (Wisconsin) Steel at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex. (Photo by Jeff Helminiak/Peninsula Clarion)

Kenai River Brown Bears defenseman JJ Boucher looks for an opening Friday, Oct. 5, 2018, against the Chippewa (Wisconsin) Steel at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex. (Photo by Jeff Helminiak/Peninsula Clarion)

JJ Boucher: A player you only like if he’s on your team

The antics. The chirping. The hard and heavy play in the corners.

Every hockey fan knows the type. The player the opposition can’t stand but also the player everybody associated with his own team loves.

That’s JJ Boucher, a defenseman for the Kenai River Brown Bears.

“He was the most hated guy in the CCHL last season,” Bears head coach Josh Petrich said of Boucher’s two-season stint with the Kanata Lasers of the Junior A Central Canada Hockey League. “We picked him up for a reason.”

That reason has been apparent all season. Boucher set the tone when he was named the Midwest Division Star of the Week after a season-opening sweep of the Janesville (Wisconsin) Jets in mid-September.

Boucher had four assists and was plus-four in that sweep, but Petrich said what doesn’t show up on stats is how Boucher affects the mental game.

“There’s a mental battle as well as a physical skill battle,” Petrich said. “JJ brings a lot to the mental battle.

“He’ll let you know he’ll hit you every time you get the puck. He’ll let you know he’ll step up and stand up for all of his teammates. Suddenly, forwards are not going as hard and physical and there’s time and space opening up.”

Boucher is the son of Tom Boucher and Caroline Maynard of Ottawa, Ontario. JJ is not sure where his pugnacious brand of hockey came from, but he said it’s definitely not from his parents.

“I have two younger brothers and I did a lot of beating on them growing up,” Boucher said. “I’m sure some of it also comes from box lacrosse.”

Like most Canadian kids, Boucher was skating and had a hockey stick in his hand by age 5. Throughout his hockey career, though, he has taken the summers off to play box lacrosse, a sport that takes place in a hockey rink without the ice. Each team has five field players and a goalie.

“You can cross-check and slash as much as you want,” Boucher said. “It’s a savage sport. There’s no wimps playing it.”

Boucher also doesn’t know where he got his penchant for running his mouth.

“I’ve definitely been chirping for a while,” he said. “I started young.”

The North American Hockey League is the second-best junior league in the United States. One thing Boucher definitely didn’t start young at was playing at the top levels of the sport.

He said he played Tier II hockey until about the age of 14, when he was picked up by an AAA team.

The next step in his career came with a scary incident.

The summer of his junior year in high school, Boucher was playing box lacrosse and was taken hard into the boards from behind.

“As soon as it happened, I couldn’t feel my legs and arms, and my skin started to burn,” Boucher said. “My buddies came and asked if I was OK, and I couldn’t get up.”

Boucher said the hour ride to the hospital was the scariest of his life due to all the questions lingering in the air. It turned out he had fractured two vertebrae in his neck and would be walking within two days.

He also would need four to five months of recovery.

“All I could think about was the negative, but my parents told me everything happens for a reason,” Boucher said. “Something good came out of it.”

Boucher remade his body in those four months and made the Lasers, where he honed the style of play that would make him so attractive to the Bears.

“I was the top-hated guy by every team,” he said. “It’s nice to hear. I want to be a player that nobody wants to play against, but that all the boys want on their team.

“I definitely like it gritty.”

At 6-foot-2, 180 pounds, Boucher uses attitude more than size.

“I’m not a big kid,” he said. “I don’t have huge muscles. But I’m a psychopath when it comes to going into the corners.”

This summer, Boucher was at a camp for the Fargo (North Dakota) Force of the United States Hockey League. Bears forward Michael Spethmann and former Bears assistant Nick Sova were also there.

Kenai River was in dire need of left-handed defensemen, so Spethmann immediately told Petrich that Boucher would be a great fit. Just 30 minutes later, Sova did the same.

But Boucher and his family weren’t so sure. Ottawa is a city of almost a million people, while the population of the central Kenai Peninsula is measured in the thousands. Also, the Bears had one of the worst records in the league for four seasons running.

“I told them, ‘Hey guys, I’m going to draft you,’” Petrich said. “I only ask that you come to main camp and get to know us.”

Boucher said getting taken in the first round, third overall, definitely made a former Tier II player feel good. By the third day of main camp, Boucher had made up his mind.

“The kid looked at me and said, ‘Coach, I’m in. I’m excited. I like the way you do stuff,’” Petrich said. “That was a cool day for me.”

Boucher said he is probably the biggest city boy on the team. He also recognized the NAHL was a better place for him than the CCHL.

He said he gets more exposure in the NAHL. He also said getting away from his friends and a place where the drinking age is 18 has helped him bring a singular focus to the goal of getting a Division I scholarship.

Boucher, the billet son of Keith and Melissa Roumell of Kenai, also likes the attention the Bears get on the central peninsula because there is no NHL team around. He said there’d be 20 fans at his home games in the CCHL.

Even with just two home games on the books, Kenai River’s fans are already responding to Boucher.

“As soon as I step on the ice, my only friends are the boys on the team,” Boucher said. “I don’t make friends on the ice. That’s the last thing I want to be doing.”

Petrich compares Boucher to Lonnie Clary, who played for the Fairbanks Ice Dogs from 2012 to 2015, or Sean Muller, who played for the Brown Bears from 2010 to 2012.

“When I coached against Sean Muller, I hated him every game,” Petrich said. “He’d hit you, run his mouth and tell you to shut up. Soon, as a coach, you’re just focusing on him and forgetting about the other four guys.”

Petrich said Boucher also leads by example and leads in practice.

“We had a couple of rookies that came in pretty soft,” Boucher said. “I had to let them know that wasn’t going to work in this league.”

In order to get to the next level, Petrich said Boucher must become more consistent at things like retrieving pucks and passing. He also needs to take his fitness up a notch.

The coach also said Boucher needs to take his antics up to the line, and not over it.

“That was one of my flaws last year — going over the line,” Boucher said. “This year when JP taps me on the shoulder and lets me know the ref gave me a warning, I’m listening.”

But the most important thing Boucher can do is help the Bears keep winning.

“College coaches need to win,” Petrich said. “That’s why they go to the programs that are winning and find out what pieces are letting them win.”

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