Stu Cowan: Canadiens call-up Alex Belzile shows anything is possible

Stu Cowan: Canadiens call-up Alex Belzile shows anything is possible

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“Don’t stop believing in it,” the 31-year-old journeyman says of Rocket’s recall and the unlikely path to the NHL paved by a lot of hard work.

Boston Bruins goaltender Jeremy Swayman stops Montreal Canadiens’ Alex Belzile while Charlie McAvoy defends in the third period on January 24, 2023 in Montreal. Photo by Pierre Obendrauf /Montreal Gazette article content

Owen Beck made his NHL debut at the age of 18 with the Canadiens Saturday in Ottawa.

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Alex Belzile had to wait until he was 28 to make his NHL debut with the Canadiens in the 2020 playoffs, when he played in six games.

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Belzile played two more games with the Canadiens in the 2020-21 season and 11 games in 2021-22. With the Canadians transitioning to a youth movement during a rebuild under new GM Kent Hughes, Belzile likely figured that would be the case for him playing in the NHL.

But he never stopped working his ass off with the AHL’s Laval Rocket. With nine Canadians on the injury list, Belzile got another unexpected chance this season – as did Beck as an emergency call from the junior – and the 31-year-old is making the best of it with four assists in four games since his high call-up.

“Don’t stop believing that,” Belzile said in the Canadiens’ locker room last Thursday after accumulating two assists in a 4-3 overtime loss to the Detroit Red Wings.

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Belzile’s trip to the NHL was an unlikely one. He grew up in Saint-Éloi, a tiny community in Quebec’s Bas-Saint-Laurent region. Because his hometown is so small and only has enough players for one team, Belzile had to play at the low midget double C level. The nearest town with a Double-A team was a 90-minute drive away and he was disqualified from a Triple-A test.

Belzile played for the Champlain Cougars in the Quebec junior Triple-A league in the 2009-10 season before being called up to the QMJHL’s Rimouski Océanic, where he played for three seasons. He was not drafted in the NHL and played four seasons in the ECHL before making the AHL with the San Antonio Rampage in 2015-16. He joined Laval for the 2018/19 season and was named Rocket captain that season.

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“I worked hard,” Belzile said. “In my early 20s my skating was a problem. I’m not stupid… I know my way around now. I just got better. It’s June, it’s at the gym. Every rep counts. That was my attitude to try and get better. The results won’t show up in a week or two, but after five or six years we’re doing something now. I’ve done that all my life. I still think I’m improving, so that’s good.”

Since being called up by the Canadians, Belzile has been part of a very effective fourth line with Rafaël Harvey-Pinard and Michael Pezzetta. They were linemates in Laval last season.

“Honestly, it was fun,” Belzile said. “When you’re comfortable with someone, you don’t think that much on the ice. We read each other, we feed each other. When the chemistry in life is right, it’s worth its weight in gold and we’re having good results right now, we’re playing well. The ultimate challenge in hockey is starting over every day, so we’re going to do that.”

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Harvey-Pinard has 3-1-4 totals in six games since he was called up by Laval, while Pezzetta has 1-2-3 totals in the last four games. Harvey-Pinard, selected by the Canadians in the seventh round (201st overall) of the 2019 NHL draft, has as many goals as Joel Armia (three goals in 32 games) and Jonathan Drouin (zero goals in 28 games) combined .

Hard work can often trump talent.

“We all have to prove that we deserve a place in this line-up,” Rafael-Pinard said of his line. “We give 100 percent every night and that helps us do good on the ice.”

The Laval Line has impressed teammate Kirby Dach.

“Belz comes to the rink every day with a big smile on his face and is always hooting and yelling,” Dach said. “It was a great time being with him. The same goes for Rafael. He was phenomenal. Every time these guys get called up, they’re here to work and they’re here to prove themselves and earn a spot, and they do.”

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The Canadians will have plenty of young talent in the years to come and I asked head coach Martin St. Louis after last Thursday’s game what they could learn from watching the Laval Line, who scored seven points that night.

“I think there’s a lot,” St. Louis said. “It’s a tough question because they’re three different types. But you’re thinking of Belzile, a senior veteran who’s been a pro for a while. He’s getting an opportunity to play in the NHL now, and as well as these guys played tonight, they’ve been in the NHL for most of the year now. I think it shows you how hard it is to get into the NHL.

“It’s not always the most talented that come or stay,” he added. “So it’s something to learn that doesn’t take anything for granted. You have to show up every day.”

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