The salad days of RMC basketball


22909 Kevin Dulude laughed out loud.

“Yes,” he said, he is aware that nine years after his playing career ended, he remains the leading all-time scorer and rebounder in Ontario University Athletics basketball.

“I’m 33 now, and I still play now and then,” the former Royal Military College Paladin said over the phone from Ottawa, where he was taking a break from pulling weeds in his garden.

“This year I was playing in a summer league with the current Ottawa U guys. These are guys who lost in the (national) final to Carleton this year; great players, and I don’t even need to make introductions.

“The one was presenting me to another and he’s telling him about my highest point game, my highest rebound game, where I had played, the years that I played, my record, and I’m like, ‘Are you kidding me?’

“It was humbling.”

Dulude finished a five-year career that ended in 2005 with 2,092 points. Laurentian’s Norm Hann had held the record at 1,723 points since 1993. In the years since, four players have passed Hann but none has caught Dulude, who also is still the reigning career rebounding leader, at 1,165. Guelph’s Tim Mau set the former mark, also in 1993, when he graduated with 849.

“I guess they’re a little bit more into the stats,” Dulude said. “I find it astonishing the name is still recognized, because RMC was not a powerhouse basketball team. We made some noise but we definitely never amounted to too much.”

Indeed, some would say the salad days of the RMC basketball program occurred during Dulude’s watch. His first year in Kingston was the team’s first year back in university competition, after having played in the Ontario college league. From a low of 1-21 in Dulude’s second season, the Paladins were 14-8 in his fourth year and were one playoff victory away from qualifying for the national championship tournament.

“Some have said because I was there, RMC was able to do what it did,” Dulude said, “and I will correct them.

“The reason we did so well was Craig Norman.”

Norman was the coach of those teams, and Dulude still marvels, not only at the amount of work that went into the preparation for each opponent, but for the way Norman capitalized on the strengths of the athletes at his disposal.

“We didn’t play basketball like a basketball team. We played basketball like a bunch of military people,” Dulude said. “A coach that comes in and tries to run a Princeton system or a fluid offence when you don’t have basketball players, it just doesn’t work. We had a great group of guys who really bought into a system.

“We played basketball like no other team played basketball.”

Dulude described the Paladins of the day as “a hybrid football team,” because they were basically running plays that the coach was calling from the sideline, “which was pretty funny.”

“There was no flow,” he said. “Other teams would joke about it, ‘You play like military strategists,’ but the analogy was like the military side of our training, because guys listen, guys knew how to take orders, guys knew how to work hard, guys knew how to sacrifice. You couldn’t get that anywhere else. Being around other teams afterwards … it’s just not the same. The chemistry we had at RMC is really what separated us.”

In Dulude’s first year, the Paladins finished 5-17. “We definitely felt like we belonged. It was really exciting.” The following year there were five seniors to replace and the team went 1-21 in a season plagued by the inconsistency that is typical for a young team.

“I remember losing to Brock by 70 points in a preseason game,” Dulude said. “That was utterly one of the most embarrassing moments in my life. The next day, against (McMaster), which was a ranked team, we lost in overtime.

“This team showed signs of really good basketball; on the other hand we were so young and immature we just would lose our heads.”

The next year brought a record of 6-16 and a playoff berth, followed by what Dulude called his most memorable year, 14-8 and one game away from making the CIS tournament. “That was a year of ups and downs that was absolutely crazy on the basketball court, and that was the year that Joe Grozelle went missing as well.”

Grozelle was 21 years old when he vanished in the early morning of Oct. 22, 2003. His body was found 22 days later, along the east bank of the Cataraqui River. The cause of his death was never determined.

“It’s really hard for me to speak about it, still,” said Dulude. “I can’t imagine how the family is feeling. I still struggle a lot about the process. I’m sure it was challenging for the military at the time, but I felt like things could have gone differently from an investigation perspective. That’s hindsight now, 10 years later, but emotionally it was really hard. I was a year ahead of Joe and it was crushing to have somebody so close to you die, but that period where we didn’t know what had happened was extremely confusing, emotionally draining. Trying to go to school at the same time was a write-off and trying to play basketball at the same time — you could say that it allowed us to grow as a group together because of the hardship, but it was really hard.

“I’m extremely sad and I still wish I knew what happened. It’s tough to talk about it. I haven’t been able to rationalize my thoughts about what would have made sense.”

Dulude graduated the following spring but his chosen military occupation, as a healthcare administration officer, required him to take a course at the military school at CFB Borden. One week out of three he would be in Barrie; the other two at his posting in Kingston. He wondered about using his fifth year of intercollegiate eligibility, coaching somewhere, or possibly playing someplace else. “I was going through a lot because Craig Norman leaving meant a lot to me,” he said, “but the guys on the team meant a lot to me as well, so I was trying to see if there was a way I could play.”

Dulude eventually convinced himself that he could. With an undergrad Business Administration degree in his pocket, he cobbled together enough courses at RMC to make himself eligible. “I was trying continue the building journey of this basketball team,” but the year proved to be a horrible experience. On weeks when he’d be in Barrie on course, he’d jump in the car and drive to games when he was done. “I would show up on the Friday, having not practised with the team, and I’d be literally driving into the gym at 7:30.

“One week, we were in a tournament at Concordia, playing Virginia, and I couldn’t get out of my military course before 4:30. I had to drive to Toronto, I flew to Montreal, and I literally showed up 10 minutes into their warmup to start playing this game. That’s not really setting yourself up for success.”

Born and raised in Ottawa, there was no military pedigree in Dulude’s family, and RMC entered his horizon only after his high school basketball coach contacted Norman, who came the very next day to watch Dulude play. An athlete who had played football at a high level but no basketball outside of high school — he attended Garneau, a French language Catholic school in Gloucester — Dulude describes himself as a “raw” basketball player at that point, who was entertaining the possibility of attending Ottawa or McMaster, where he figured he’d fight for a spot by walking on with both the football and basketball teams. “All of a sudden RMC popped its head up,” he said. “I didn’t know anything about the school.”

“You’re a teenager and there’s about a million things going through your mind. I loved the idea of playing sports in university but I was still very aware that I wanted a solid academic foundation. I was not a blue-chip athlete (and) I felt with RMC, on the basketball side, it was a good fit to play.” After speaking with former athletics director Bill Oliver and some senior cadets and the military aspect intrigued him.

“I (thought), ‘Wow this is not just university, I’m talking about life, I’m talking about preparing myself for the future, talking about a job after graduation’ … that’s where I was able to shift my focus from the short term, ‘I want to be a university athlete,’ to how can sports help me to get further ahead.”

From the time he was in high school, Dulude said he wanted to get a business degree and use it to work in the healthcare field. As a student at RMC, Dulude admits he was a good basketball player. “I humbly have to say I was not a good student. My priorities were the cadet life and the varsity experience.”

Dulude got his first taste of the military posting experience in 2006, after he finished his course at Borden. On the day he was going to look for lodging for his new job, in Ottawa, he got a call from his career manager. “He said I have some news. When you’re driving up the 416, you might as well turn left at the Kanata split because the postings have changed and you’re no longer going to Ottawa, you’re going to Petawawa.

“I was shocked. That was a bit of a wrinkle. Ha. This is the military?”

Dulude was posted to a field hospital and his first deployment was to Kandahar for 10 months. After Petawawa he was sent to Montreal and 4 Health Services Group Headquarters. It was there where he was exposed to workplace rules and regulations and his appetite was whetted for entering law school, with an eye to specializing in labour law.

“I knew that my undergrad grades at RMC were too poor for law school,” said Dulude, who was making $200 a week playing for a semi-professional team called the Montreal Sasquatch and helping to coach at McGill on the side. Sure enough, he failed to gain admission on his first try, so Dulude had a chat with the law school dean at McGill. “He said you just need to do something that shows us you can be a good student, so you need to park basketball for a bit and do some schooling.”

Dulude pursued an MBA at the University of Montreal, and left the Forces in 2011. He finished law school in the spring, passed his licensing exams in July and is now articling at the Ottawa firm Emond Harnden, where one of the partners is former Queen’s Golden Gaels star Jock Climie.

Dulude was married in August, 2012, to Mylène Gagné, a girl who went to the same high school but who he never knew until many years later, after she watched a Fifth Estate story about Joe Grozelle. Dulude had been interviewed for the piece and she extended her condolences.

“I vaguely remembered her,” Dulude said, but with the communication link open, when he was in Ottawa a couple of weeks later he invited her to go out for coffee. “It was just really weird,” he said. “You live three streets over from somebody your whole life who you didn’t even know, and you meet 10 years later and you have all this stuff in common.”

Gagné is a physican, completing her residency in family medicine.

“If we’d known each other back then we wouldn’t be together right now,” Dulude said. “Life allowed me to mature.”

Dulude remains disappointed that the basketball program at RMC was cancelled in 2012. “I was pretty bitter,” he said. “I still am,” but he believes it was inevitable.

“The end of the basketball program was kind of written on the wall when they let Craig Norman leave. (We had) a team that’s on the verge of making nationals, and … the fact that they weren’t able to keep him there and brought in junior coaches at a time when we were peaking, really stalled the program.”

Not to have found a replacement of Norman’s calibre — he was the CIS coach of the year in 2004 —left RMC with no choice but to cut that program, Dulude believes.

“I can handle a team losing. I can handle a team losing by 70 (points). I can handle a team going 0-22, but that team was losing its identity and wasn’t representing the school’s image anymore. I was starting to struggle with that.

“When they are at that stage in 2012, they were left with shambles. The team hadn’t been competitive for years. They’d become a laughing stock not only in the basketball community, but across the CIS. By then they didn’t have a choice, but they had choices early on. They weren’t recruiting the right players and they weren’t going in the right direction. I felt there was a lot of potential to get, maybe not a blue-chip athlete, but the great all-around athletes with a focus on basketball who are career oriented.

“I didn’t think I was that much of an anomaly at the time that I would be able to sacrifice the social life that an 18-year-old would have elsewhere and go to RMC but I guess in hindsight it’s harder to recruit that four-pillared athlete.”

Dulude, who graduated not just with a degree but 70 stitches on his face from playing at RMC — “in little seven-stitch, five-stitch groupings” — says it was his dream to have the basketball program be better after he left than it was when he was there. “That was truly my motivation every day,” he said. “The talent that was coming in in the years after was way better than I was out of high school. I really felt that there was more potential for the long term.

“Unfortunately the program went astray when it let Coach Norman go. It’s sad.”

Nonetheless, Dulude says he wouldn’t trade his RMC experience.

“I loved RMC. I loved to death the school, I love my peers who are still (serving). There are just so many different backgrounds molded together. It breeds, I don’t want to say powerful, because maybe that’s too strong, but … a lot of people who are going places, staying in the military and when they choose to get out. There’s a huge group of alumni who have made some serious careers. It’s pretty impressive.

“I didn’t know that going into the school but I’m definitely grateful for the experience that I got from RMC, without even knowing that’s what I was going to get.”

 Previous Kevin Dulude e-Veritas article – October 31st, 2007