Pandemic pauses top prospect’s plans


The stars appeared to have aligned perfectly: Alexis Lafrenière would walk up to the stage in late June in his hometown of Montreal after hearing his name called out as the No. 1 pick in the NHL draft.

There would be cheers and tears from family and friends in the sold-out Bell Centre as they watched the 18-year-old hockey phenom take the biggest step in his young career.

Storybook stuff, really.

And now? Who knows? All league activities are on indefinite pause due to the COVID-19 pandemic, with no timetable for a resumption. There’s “best-case scenario” talk of the regular season and playoffs potentially resuming in July and running as late as September if the global health crisis improves by then.

The draft will naturally take a back seat until the more pressing business can be concluded, with the league formally announcing Wednesday that event, along with the scouting combine and awards show, have been postponed. And whether the annual teen hockey talent show eventually goes ahead in the traditional format, or is done in a more scaled-down manner, such as online or for TV-only, remains to be seen.

As for who might be handing Lafrenière his first-ever NHL sweater, your guess is as good as mine. For example, would the Winnipeg Jets have a shot at adding the high-scoring winger to the fold? Maybe. Maybe not.

Let’s say the league wipes out the remaining three weeks of the regular season and goes right into the usual 16-team playoff format whenever they get the all-clear from medical officials. Given that teams had played a different number of games, the fairest format would be to use winning percentage. That means the Jets would, by the slimmest of margins, be on the outside looking in, even though they currently sit in a post-season spot, based on points.

A tough break, for sure, especially since the team’s players had finally returned to health and were playing their best hockey of the season at the time of the interruption. But as one of the 15 non-playoff teams, the Jets would go into the usual lottery for a shot at moving up to pick Lafrenière, touted by some as the next “generational talent” in a similar vein as fellow Rimouski Océanic alumnus Sidney Crosby.

Hey, maybe lightning could strike around here a second time, the way it did in 2016 when the non-playoff Jets moved all the way up to No. 2 and snagged Patrik Laine. A gift from the hockey gods for all they’ve endured this season?

Of course, there’s also talk of an expanded playoff format with more than 16 teams getting in, so the bidders for Lafrenière’s services are clear as mud right now.

Bottom line is, nobody knows where all of this is headed. Including the man whose big night might not exactly play out the way he’s been dreaming of. I wanted to see what this all looked like through Lafrenière’s eyes, which is why I jumped on a conference call with him Wednesday along with a handful of other North American hockey writers.

Give the kid plenty of credit. He appears to have a good head on his shoulders, repeatedly playing down any suggestions of personal disappointment with his focus on what’s happening in the world around him.

“I really take it day by day, try to control what I can control. For sure, the most important thing is to stay healthy,” he said.

Nobody would blame Lafrenière for being a bit sour. He’d just learned less than 48 hours earlier, along with all other junior players in Canada, that their seasons will not resume at any point this spring or summer. And that also means that for the first time in Canadian history, the prestigious Memorial Cup won’t be awarded.

Rimouski’s Quebec Major Junior Hockey League team appeared to have a solid shot, with a 38-18-8 record. And with Lafrenière, who had an incredible 112 points (35 goals, 77 assists) in 52 games, anything was possible.

“It was tough news for me. For all the team. We had a great team this year and believed we could do something special. For sure, it’s a little bit sad, but we have to make sure everyone is staying healthy,” he said.

He was most upset for some of his teammates, who were in their final season of eligibility and, unlike him, won’t be going on to what should be a long and successful career in pro hockey. For some of the “20s,” as Lafrenière called them, this is likely the end of their journey.

“They wanted to try one last time to have a run and try to go for the Cup. For sure, it was hard for them to see their season end. But we all understand the reason and it’s serious,” said Lafrenière.

Like all pro — or about to be — athletes, staying in shape is proving to be a challenge. Rinks and gyms are closed, and getting together in groups is strictly forbidden. For Lafrenière, that means plenty of home workouts right now while with his family in Saint-Eustache, a Montreal suburb.

His trainer has given him programs to stick to and adding a bit more muscle to his 6-1, 203-pound frame to get ready for NHL competition is his top priority.

“Just trying to work as hard as I can and gain some strength so that when it comes back I’ll be ready,” he said. “It’s different, but I think I can get stronger, even if I train at my house.”

If there’s a silver lining to all this, it’s the fact Lafrenière is getting some bonus time with his family. He hasn’t seen a lot of them over the past couple of years, having competed in the world junior championship over the past two Christmas holidays, most recently winning a gold medal with Canada, which he called a “dream come true.”

They’re filling their time with board games, movies and nightly dinners that will become scarce again once life gets back to normal and Lafrenière begins the next chapter in his new hockey home, wherever that might be.

And if that magical Montreal moment doesn’t come, Lafrenière will take it in stride. Like all of us right now, he’s just rolling with the punches.

“I think the most important thing is to control what you can control,” he said. “It’s still an honour to get drafted by an NHL team, it’s really special. I’m living day by day. We’ll see what happens.”

 

mike.mcintyre@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @mikemcintyrewpg

Mike McIntyre

Mike McIntyre
Reporter

Mike McIntyre grew up wanting to be a professional wrestler. But when that dream fizzled, he put all his brawn into becoming a professional writer.

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