Like most folks, his is a tale of near-misses and the kindness of others.
It’s just that Jean-Gabriel Pageau’s life story has a few more fairy tale elements to it than yours or mine.
By now, any sentient hockey fan has seen the slightly-built Ottawa Senators centre’s sublime hockey skill, and learned he wasn’t expected to make his hometown team’s minor-league club, let alone score a playoff hat trick seven months later, in his first NHL postseason home game.
The fact that he made it to the NHL at all is a function of the 20-year-old Gatineau native’s talent, certainly, but it also owes greatly to serendipity, family acquaintances, and the closeness of small cities.
Pageau’s uncle, Paul, was a goaltender who had a cup of coffee with the Los Angeles Kings in the early 1980s (in his only NHL start, he gave up eight goals). Another uncle, Marc, made it as far as major junior.
Through Gatineau’s minor hockey and baseball coaching scene, the elder Pageaus got to know Serge Haché, the Gatineau Olympiques head trainer for the past 26 years. Haché is the one who made the undersized Pageau his personal project.
“Serge is really the guy who made it happen. He called me up one day and said there was this kid I had to see in bantam,” said Olympiques head coach Benoit Groulx, whose dad coached the Pageau brothers. “That was the first time I saw Jean-Gabriel Pageau.”
The following year, Groulx left to take a job in the AHL, but by then Haché had convinced Groulx and former Olympiques general manager Charlie Henry to take a flyer on the frail local kid with the freakish hockey sense.
The Olympiques would pick him, but not until the seventh round of the QMJHL draft.
Being little means you don’t require much of an opening, and it didn’t take long for Pageau to squeeze through.
When Groulx returned to Gatineau a year later, he quickly noticed he had a special player on his hands.
“He’s got the ability to slow the game down and play it at his speed. It’s a rare gift,” Groulx said. “He’s got a good shot, he skates well, and more than anything, he competes … some people have been saying Jean-Gabriel has a look in his eyes like he can’t believe what’s happening to him. I look at his eyes and I see burning fire.”
The Senators forward, generally listed at 5 foot 9 and 163 pounds, is certainly a competitor. It’s what allowed him to carve a niche with the Binghamton Senators of the AHL, starting as a fourth-liner and defensive specialist.
But since his call-up to the NHL in mid-April – he notched an assist in his first game and scored in his second – he has quickly established himself as an offensive threat.
Since the playoffs began, he’s been seeing time on the Sens top line, his break-out game last Sunday solidified that position.
“He’s made a strong impression since he got here, he has a ton of talent, he has excellent hockey sense, he’s always in the right position, he gets around the ice,” teammate Guillaume Latendresse said.
He also has a flair for the dramatic: Both of Pageau’s regular-season goals were game-winners, as was the first of his three Sunday, a night where his parents and relatives were treated to an arena chanting “Pa-geau, Pa-geau, Pa-geau.”
“It was a special moment … the crowd was incredible,” said Pageau, who grew up idolizing fellow Gatineau native Daniel Brière of the Philadelphia Flyers – the two are now close friends.
After the game, he handed his stick to his uncle, Marc, so it could be passed along to 10-year-old cousin, Mikael, a cancer survivor.
“He’s a real warrior,” Pageau said. “He’s a real source of motivation, I want to keep pushing for him.”
Hockey allegiances in Gatineau are often divided between the Senators and Canadiens; it’s fitting somehow Pageau’s play has helped the hometown team take command of the first-round series with the lordly Habs.
After all, his goal on the last day of the season sealed the first-round matchup.
And he was almost a Hab – the Canadiens have made little secret of the fact they were about to draft Pageau with the 97th choice of the 2011 draft (Ottawa picked 96th).
It’s a near-miss they may rue for a good long while.
According to Elias Sports Bureau, only four other NHL players in the post-expansion era have scored playoff hat tricks before their 21st birthday – Wayne Gretzky, Peter Zezel, Patrick Kane and Sean Couturier.
Not bad company.
“It’s added motivation, for sure, they’re great players,” Pageau said. “I want to have the chance to follow in their footsteps.”
BRENDAN GALLAGHER GARNERS CALDER NOD
Four short months ago, he wasn’t in his team’s immediate plans. All of a sudden, he is central to them.
There can be no greater testament to the importance of Brendan Gallagher, the Montreal Canadiens’ industrious 5-foot-9 dynamo, than the fact he is being singled out for harsh, unremitting punishment by his opponents in the playoffs.
“That little guy,” Habs head coach Michel Therrien observed, “takes a lot of abuse. A lot of abuse.”
That he accepts it with a smile and comes back for more is all the more galling to the NHL’s other teams, but his tenacity has also drawn notice around the league, to the point he was named Monday as one of the three finalists for the Calder Memorial Trophy for NHL rookie of the year.
Unlike fellow nominees Jonathan Huberdeau of the Florida Panthers and Brandon Saad of the Chicago Blackhawks, Gallagher wasn’t a first-round pick.
A healthy scratch in the season opener, Gallagher was in uniform for game 2 and rewarded the Montreal brain trust with 15 regular-season goals in 44 games, adding 13 assists.