MONTREAL – The nearly-packed Bell Centre went wild with cheering and chanting as the Montreal Canadiens gave their fans what they wanted – home town forward Louis Leblanc.
The Canadiens used the 18th overall pick in the NHL draft on Friday night to select the Montreal native who opted to skip major junior hockey to play last season in the U.S. Hockey League with Omaha. He plans to attend Harvard University in the fall.
“It was impressive,” the 18-year-old said, looking nervous in his Canadiens jersey as he was beseiged by a hoard of reporters. “I had goosebumps.
“They were my team growing up and to get to wear this jersey is unreal.”
The six-foot, 178-pound forward is known as a hard working player with offensive skill. Leblanc helped Canada’s under-18 team win gold at last summer’s Ivan Hlinka Memorial tournament in the Czech Republic.
“He participates in all the action,” said Canadiens scouting director Trevor Timmins. “He’s a hard-nosed player, he likes to get his nose dirty in the corners.
“And he’s a natural goal-scorer. He can play with high-end players. He’s got a lot of development left, but he’s got a great future ahead of him.”
Leblanc had 28 goals and 39 assists this season for Omaha, two more than his American linemate Danny Kristo, who was Montreal’s top pick in last year’s draft, although he went in the second round.
Leblanc grew up in the Montreal suburb of Kirkland, and fans were thrilled to see the team select a French-Canadian in the first round, which they hadn’t done since they picked Eric Chouinard in 1998.
That draft is now seen as a disaster, because Chouinard never made it as an NHL player while his Quebec Remparts teammate Simon Gagne, who was picked later, became a star with the Philadelphia Flyers.
Montreal will likely have to wait for Leblanc, who expects to play at least a couple of years playing at Harvard under coach Ted Donato.
“I need to get bigger and stronger and a few years at Harvard won’t hurt,” he said. “And then when I’m ready, I think I’ll leave and try to make this team.
“I’ll start there and see how it goes. You can always take summer courses or go back and finish my degree later on. But I’m looking forward to the challenge on and off the ice.”
Harvard is in Cambridge, Mass., a suburb of Boston – home of the Canadiens long-time rival Bruins.
“Some guys in Boston will probably bug me about it, but I’m a Montreal guy and always will be,” Leblanc said with a laugh.
Timmins said playing U.S. university hockey in the east is a drawback because those teams generally play fewer games than in the west, but Harvard gets extra games playing in tournaments and exhibitions against other Boston institutions.
“And he will go to the Canadian world junior camp in August and (if he makes the team) that’s a bonus,” he said. “He’ll get to play at a high level and it will help him get more games.”