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Michel Leroux: The special relationships forged through teaching and sport

In the world of competitive sport, where we all routinely take ourselves way too seriously, there is something wonderfully refreshing about someone who is comfortably known to one and all as "Johnny Coconut".

Michel Leroux was indeed quite wonderful, and giving, and humourous, and caring - and sadly, he lost his fight with ALS (Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis) just a few weeks ago.

A life-long educator and native of Smooth Rock Falls, Leroux had been a fixture at Ecole Secondaire Champlain from 1989 or so right through until his retirement just a few years ago.

While those involved with SDSSAA (Sudbury District Secondary Schools' Athletic Association) would associate the fervent fan of the Montreal Canadiens with his coaching exploits in both volleyball and hockey, those who knew him best suggest that Leroux' ability to create relationship with his student athletes would shine brighter than any sport specific teaching skills.

"He could always make the kids comfortable," suggested Claude Montpellier, the bus driver for so many of the tournament trips on which the Champlain Requins would embark.

Operating C & D Bus Lines for several decades and serving as primary navigator for Leroux and company for the better part of 15 seasons, Montpellier would also enjoy watching all three of his own sons grow and prosper under the tutelage of a very special coach and teacher.

"It didn't matter whether they were good players or bad players, Michel would have fun with the kids," said Montpellier, reminiscing on the countless in-bus euchre tournaments that helped to pass away hours on the road.

"He was the best I have ever seen. The kids just loved his company."

"He had such a good rapport with his athletes," echoed fellow physical education teacher Marc Venne, a workmate who arrived at Champlain just one year before Leroux, the pair sharing the small office adjacent to the gym for perhaps half of the 29 years in which the two men taught together.

"I reminded him, sometimes, that the students should call him monsieur Leroux and not Johnny - but Michel always found a way to make it work." In fact, the larger the challenge, the more the father of two would rise to the occasion.

"There were a lot of problem kids who found a good rapport with Michel, because of sports," said Venne. "Michel was able to get some of those kids involved in sports and keep them in school."

"We had a lot of kids from tough family backgrounds," added Dan MacLean, a constant volleyball coaching presence at the side of the talkative francophone gent, who loved tennis and golf (as well as hockey and volleyball), and worked for years with Lynn MacLean, spouse of the afore-mentioned co-coach.

"A lot of those kids would gravitate to him and he would find a way to put them in sport."

"Michel was amazing for that," Lynn chimed in. "He could find a spot for that student who felt like he didn't have a spot. He would find a way to make sure that kid felt wanted."

With Leroux in the mix, Champlain would establish a reputation province-wide, both in terms of producing quality teams, but also with the willingness of the local school to welcome out of town participants to Chelmsford.

"He would come back from the Franco tournaments and we would worry that he had committed to organizing the event next year," said Lynn MacLean, with a smile. "But Michel and I would make a great team."

"He was such a good leader, really good at bringing people together - even if he wasn't always the most organized," she added with a laugh. "That's where my strength came in."

"He helped put Champlain on the map," Dan continued. "We were recognized no matter where we travelled in Ontario. We shared so many memories - some which I can't repeat," he smiled.

Memories upon memories, stories to be shared, and so many laughs along the way.

"If you asked my three boys what they remember most about high-school, the first they would say is the sports - and the trips out of town," said Montpellier, who often shared the courtside bench with Leroux once tournament play began, focusing his efforts on simply cheering on "les gars".

"Michel would give everything for the kids. He would even pay the tournament entry fee for kids who couldn't afford it. That's just how he was."

In a sense, Leroux could likely associate easily with that middle of the road athlete. Despite his love of sports, and beyond his given skills in both hockey and volleyball, the jovial man who proudly called Rayside-Balfour home was not about to dominate every single athletic undertaking that he entered.

"He loved a lot of sports, but he was not always the best," suggested Venne, sharing stories of weekly tennis matches between friends. "He was just happy to go out with the boys and be swinging his clubs or his racquet."

But it was his involvement with the athletic pursuits of others where the giving nature of Leroux would constantly show itself, much to the delight of students and co-workers alike.

"His first priority was always to get as many kids involved in sports as he could," summed up Lynn MacLean. "He had such a big heart."

And whether you knew him as Michel Leroux or Johnny Coconut, that was a given.

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