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Frank Seravalli

TSN Senior Hockey Reporter

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NEW YORK — Alexis Lafreniere stepped out of the tunnel and skated onto the pristine Madison Square Garden ice for pre-game introductions and raised his stick high.

He slid over to fellow Quebecois Julien Gauthier at centre ice, the only player introduced before him, and they shrugged - surely at the surreality of the moment.

Lafreniere just saluted the World’s Most Famous Empty Arena, where the Garden faithful was substituted by soulless blue tarps blanketing the lower bowl.

That wasn’t how this moment, the NHL debut that he’d spent his first 18 years on this planet chasing, felt in his dreams. The reverberating roar of full-throated New Yorkers wasn’t supposed to be replaced by the dull hum of fake crowd noise.

There was no ritual “Potvin Sucks!” chant, no Liam Neeson or Susan Sarandon celebrity sighting, and for the first Opening Night since 2006, there was no Henrik Lundqvist in net.

None of it felt right.

“You know, we knew there weren’t going to be fans. You think you’re prepared for it, but boy it is eerie,” Rangers coach David Quinn said. “You walk onto the bench and you don’t hear a peep.”

Then again, none of it has felt right for a while for Lafreniere, in a year unlike any other for an NHL No. 1 overall pick thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic. No Memorial Cup, no Draft Combine, no Draft Day experience in a buzzing building, no preseason games to get comfortable. 

Thursday night was more of the same.

And as NHL debuts go, this one was forgettable. The Rangers were throttled, 4-0, by the rival Islanders. They trailed by three goals in the first 13 minutes - barely enough for Lafreniere to get a few shifts under his belt - and Barry Trotz teams don’t let opponents off the mat.

“Obviously, a tough first game,” Lafreniere said.

But a long journey is rarely remembered by the first step.

Lafreniere finished with one shot, one hit and was a minus-1 in 15:27 of ice time. His only point was the accent grave on the name bar on his No. 13 jersey, the Great Quebec Hope paying homage to his French-Canadian heritage.

Quinn said it “wasn’t the rookies that were the problem tonight.”

“He played with confidence, he’s not intimidated by the big stage. He’s got a swagger about him,” Quinn said of Lafreniere’s debut. “It was a tough night but you can see the skill that he has, the talent that he has, but he has all of the other things that make him a good player.”

Even without the crowd, Lafreniere admitted that there were still nerves.

Heck, because of Covid restrictions, Lafreniere had not even been to Madison Square Garden until a few hours before puck drop. He spent a few minutes before warming up soaking it all in, wearing a mask.

“A lot of nerves, but after a couple shifts, it felt a little better,” Lafreniere said. “As the night go on, you forget about it a little bit. Next game will be better.”

It is that attitude, that ability to find the silver lining, that has kept Lafreniere buoyed during unprecedented times.

Without the pandemic, Lafreniere probably wouldn’t even be a Ranger. It was actually the Winnipeg Jets’ original odds slot that won the Draft Lottery - that then opened the door for the unusual second lottery for the eight teams that got bounced from the playoff bubble in the qualifying round.

Restrictions eliminated development camp, in-person sponsorship obligations and the whirlwind gauntlet typically reserved for No. 1 picks.

So Lafreniere used all of those quiet months wisely. He learned how to golf. He spent time being just another kid in his hometown, back for the first time since he was 15. He added 10 pounds of muscle and arrived in suburban New York ready to take a bite out of the Big Apple.

Upon arrival, he formed a bond with billet roommate and fellow rookie and first-round pick K’Andre Miller. They navigated the strangeness together - moved into an apartment together once Miller made the team out of camp - and took their customary NHL solo debut lap at the Garden together.

That one NHL tradition, the pre-game hot lap, provided nearly the only normalcy on the night.

There were decisions to be made: How do you cope with something no one else in your shoes has ever experienced? 

In a pandemic world seemingly out of control, Lafreniere took control of his perspective.

On Thursday night, His parents, Hugo and Nathalie, watched from a locked down Quebec alongside sister Lori-Jane. There was no party, just the NHL television package to view Alexis from afar.

This wasn’t the experience any of them envisioned. But the family’s focus now, playing in a division sans Montreal, is on the first time - whenever that comes - that Lafreniere visits the Bell Centre to face the Canadiens. The building will be buzzing.

They’ll celebrate then with family and friends. It will be his long awaited, true Welcome to the NHL moment - and it will be everything.

Contact Frank Seravalli on Twitter: @frank_seravalli​