MONTREAL – It’s no surprise that Nathan Beaulieu looked right at home in his first sessions on ice at the Montreal Canadiens rookie camp.
The 18-year-old defenceman who was drafted in the first round last month has spent a lot of time around hockey rinks, not only as a player but as the son of junior coach Jacques Beaulieu.
His father was assistant coach on a London Knights team that won a Memorial Cup and was coach and general manager of the Saint John Sea Dogs when they drafted Nathan, although he was abruptly fired in 2009 before the team went on to their Memorial Cup triumph this season.
“I remember when I was a kid around that London Knights dressing room with Corey Perry and Rob Schremp and all them,” the six-foot-one 182-pound Beaulieu said Thursday. “I used to look to them and now I could potentially play in the same league as them.
“It’s pretty crazy. It’s been a long road. I think being around those guys helped me so much.”
Beaulieu was among 12 players, including eight defencemen, on the ice with skating instructor Paul Lawson at the Canadiens suburban practice facility for the second phase of the team’s summer development camp. A larger group took part in the first phase last month.
He came across as surprisingly mature and well spoken in his first meeting with the media in Montreal since the draft.
He was ranked fifth among North American skaters but Montreal got the rushing defenceman 17th overall in the draft. He is unlikely to crack the Canadiens lineup, and will likely return to Saint John for another run at a junior championship with a powerhouse team.
It is a squad he was close to leaving two years ago when, at 16 years old, his father was fired. But a chat with incoming coach Gerard Gallant convinced him to stay.
“Very close, I’m not going to lie,” he said. “It was very tough to see what happened, but I give a lot of credit to Gerard Gallant.
“He helped me a lot. I just thought that I went to war with 20 guys all season. I didn’t respect the management decision, but I was a piece of that puzzle and I wasn’t jumping out, so I felt I showed some character by staying. Obviously it worked out.”
Jacques Beaulieu returned to his old job as assistant in London, but in May signed on as the new coach and GM with the Sarnia Sting.
With his father gone, Beaulieu developed into one of the top rearguards in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. He was a finalist for the award for the league’s best NHL prospect, won by Drummondville star Sean Couturier.
“I feel my dad is a lot like the coaches (the Sea Dogs) have now,” he said. “He built that hockey club and I played for it.
“When he left, it was obviously tough on me and my family, but my main goal was to grow as a player and be the best I can be. Just because my dad was there wasn’t going to help me or pull me back at all. I was a hockey player and he was a coach.”
Along the way he also collected some impressive NHL pals, including league MVP Perry of the Anaheim Ducks.
“I gave Corey a shout out when I got drafted and he sent me a text the other day thanking me,” said Beaulieu. “I guess I should send one back with him winning MVP and all.
“He’s been a mentor for me. He’s an unbelievable hockey player and an even better person off the ice.”
Beaulieu grew up in Strathroy in Southern Ontario and it was a surprise to Canadiens fans that, given his French name and that he plays in the QMJHL, he speaks only English. He appeared apologetic about it, and vowed to change.
“I’m going to take a French class next year in Saint John,” he said. “It’s something I want to do for the people here.
“There are a lot of French speaking players on our team so I’ll come back next year and you’ll see an improvement. I know French people expect it and they should. Being in the Quebec league, there’s no excuse any more, so I’m going to buckle down and learn my French and we’ll see how it is.”
Beaulieu has joined a team where nearly all the best young prospects are defencemen.
P.K. Subban is coming off a brilliant rookie season with the NHL squad, and this summer they signed promising defencemen in Rafael Diaz from Switzerland and Alexei Yemelin from Russia.
Their first rounder last year was defenceman Jarred Tinordi, and there’s a solid prospect with AHL Hamilton in Brendan Nash.
That’s not to mention the eight at this week’s development camp, who include 2009 draft pick Mac Bennett of the University of Michigan and Magnus Nygren, a 21-year-old from the Farjestad club in Sweden taken in the fourth round last month.
All those prospects at one position could make it tough eventually to make the team.
”You’ve just got to work harder,” said Bennett, a five-foot-11 183-pound puck-moving rearguard. ”If I can get through that it will be a good challenge.
”Eventually I want to make it here. If I have to beat all the other guys, well that’s what I’m working for.”
Bennett is the grandson of Harvey Bennett, the Boston Bruins goalie who allowed Maurice (Rocket) Richard’s 50th goal in 50 games in 1945. His uncles Curt and Harvey Jr. also played in the NHL.
He expects to play at least one or two more seasons at Michigan before turning pro.
Nygren was told by general manager Pierre Gauthier to return for another season in Sweden before trying to crack the NHL.
”I was really surprised (to be drafted),” said Nygren. ”I thought my chance was gone, but I’m really glad to be here.”
The six-foot-one 190-pound Nygren played on the top defence pair for the Swedish league champions last season.
Other defencemen in camp were 2011 picks Josiah Didier of the USHL, Darren Dietz of the Saskatoon Blades, and U.S. high school skater Colin Sullivan, as well as Greg Patreryn of Michigan and try-out Josh McFadden of the Sudbury Wolves.
The forwards were drafts picks Olivier Archambault (the 2009 QMJHL first overall pick who Montreal got in the fourth round), six-foot-three Czech Daniel Pribyl and John Westin of Sweden. There was also try-out Etienne Brodeur, generously listed at five-foot-nine, who was the QMJHL’s only 50-goal scorer last season with Lewiston.