Guillaume Latendresse, a bruising 19-year-old power forward, became Montreal’s newest golden boy when coach Guy Carbonneau decided the local francophone deserved the last available spot on the team.
News of his signing spread quickly, and became the major story of the day for French-language media.
Latendresse, who will earn US$850,000 a season, was still incredulous following his first practice session as an official member of the Canadiens, the team he cheered for growing up in Ste-Catherine, Que.
“Maybe I’m going to believe it tomorrow,” he said. “Right now I’m in the sky, I’m just dreaming.”
Latendresse, selected 45th overall in the 2005 NHL draft, was among the final cuts at the Canadiens training camp last year, surprising many with his combination of physical play and deft touch around the net.
In six pre-season games this year, Latendresse once again grabbed the spotlight, scoring three goals and registering two assists.
Bell Centre crowds even took up the familiar chant of “Guy, Guy, Guy” whenever Latendresse touched the puck, recalling the traditional reception showered on the last francophone forward to electrify Montreal fans, Guy Lafleur.
Carbonneau said he was well-aware that Canadien supporters wanted Latendresse on the team, but stressed his play was the only deciding factor.
“The fans wanted him more than anyone else, but in the end he played well every game,” the coach told reporters following Friday’s practice. “Under pressure, he performed and he deserves the spot he’s in right now. That’s the only reason why he’s still here.”
With the decision to keep Latendresse, rookie Andrei Kostitsyn was sent down to the Hamilton Bulldogs of the AHL.
“Since I was young, my first dream was to play in the NHL and the second one was to play with Montreal,” Latendresse said. “Both came (true) today. It’s really special for me.”
The hype aside, many questions still surround Latendresse. He is coming off a mediocre season with the Drummondville Voltigeurs of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, and saw limited ice time at the world junior championships.
Latendresse also suffered a concussion during the QMJHL playoffs last year, and was sent home early from the Canadian junior team camp this summer with “concussion-like symptoms.”
On top of all that, he will have to deal with the enormous expectations of Montreal’s notoriously fickle fans, many who have been clamouring for a greater francophone contingent on the team.
But Alain Latendresse, Guillaume’s father, said his son is well equipped to deal with big-league pressure.
“Guillaume’s off to a good start,” he said as his son took his first strides as an NHLer in a practice facility south of Montreal. “I sense he’s confident, I sense he’s comfortable. I really feel like he’s in his element.”
Even Lafleur had some advice for Latendresse.
“(He has) to keep on working like he’s been doing since the beginning of training camp,” the Hall-of-Famer said. “That’s the only way he’s going to survive during the regular season.”
Lafleur also cautioned about placing too much importance on Latendresse’s Quebecois roots.
“What people want is a winning team regardless of the player’s family name,” he said. “All the better if he’s a francophone, and if he’s not, it’s not more serious than that.”