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Frank Seravalli

TSN Senior Hockey Reporter

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For Alexis Lafreniere, June 26 was more than just a date circled on the calendar.

It was slated to be his moment – the projected No. 1 overall prodigy with franchise-changing ability stepping onto the stage, slipping on his new sweater for the first time.

Not just any stage, either.

The planned arrival of the next Great Quebec Hope inside a roaring Bell Centre was either a stroke of luck or a stroke of choreographed genius by the NHL to host the 2020 Draft in Montreal – a stone’s throw from the suburb where he grew up in Saint-Eustache, Quebec.

Draft week was quickly coming into focus. A dinner reservation was set for his family and the proud agency representing him in the Old Port. Key sponsor events were lined up. Family and friends were ready to snap up tickets.

And now ...?

The NHL officially postponed the 2020 Draft and Draft Lottery on Wednesday. With the season's end undetermined, it is unclear when either will take place, or if a scaled-down version will be required – like the one held in late July of 2005 in a downtown Ottawa hotel where the Pittsburgh Penguins picked Sidney Crosby coming out of the 2004-05 lockout-cancelled season. It is also unclear whether Montreal would still host the Draft, whether it would be open to fans, or whether it might be conducted via video conference online.

There is no doubt that would bring disappointment, but it’s a brave new world since the COVID-19 outbreak and Lafreniere says he isn’t sweating the details.

“You know, for sure, it would be a little bit different,” Lafreniere said on Wednesday on a conference call with reporters when asked about a Draft different than he might’ve envisioned. “I think it’s still an honour to get drafted by an NHL team. It’s really special.

“Maybe it’s going to be different, we don’t know yet. But day-by-day, we’ll see what happens.”

Just about the only certainty is that Lafreniere will be the first player chosen in the NHL Draft, whenever and wherever that occurs. He emerged from the World Junior Championship in January with a gold medal and as the undisputed No. 1 overall prospect.

Since the Canadian Hockey League announced last week the cancellation of the remainder of the major junior seasons, league playoffs and Memorial Cup tournament, coupled with the IIHF’s previous cancellation of the World Under-18 tournament, no one else will be able to mount a challenge.

Lafreniere, 18, finished his final season of junior hockey with a staggering 35 goals and 112 points in just 52 games. His number 11 will one day be hanging in the rafters among the other Oceanic greats, including Crosby and Vincent Lecavalier – in a veritable No. 1 pick factory in Rimouski.

When asked whether he thought he’d done enough to carry on that tradition, Lafreniere responded: “I tried my best to play as good as I could in every game I was in. There’s some really good players around the world. You never know who is going to go No. 1, but I tried my best to play as good as I could.”

The tougher pill to swallow, Lafreniere said, was not being able to mount a challenge for the Memorial Cup. The Oceanic had been building towards this season for three years.

“For sure, it was tough news for me. We all understand and it’s serious,” Lafreniere said. “It’s a little bit sad that the season came to an end quickly like this. We had a great team this year and we believed we could do something special.

“It went by really quick. It’s sad that I won’t get to play with these guys again, but it’s hockey and you’ve got to move on at some point.”
Really, the COVID-19 outbreak and resulting cancellations were a cap for Lafreniere’s rather strange draft-eligible campaign. He was suspended twice in the QMJHL for illegal checks and also suffered a knee injury while playing for Team Canada that kept him out of two games at the World Junior Championship.

He also showed scouts an impressive physical edge in the Czech Republic that helped cement his status, notching 10 points in five tournament games, along with a gritty return from what appeared to be a gruesome knee injury.

Lafreniere was looking forward to translating that win on the world stage to a win on the Memorial Cup stage.

“It was a really big moment for me,” Lafreniere said of the World Juniors. “Growing up, you dream about it and last year [2019] we didn’t get the result we wanted. To be able to win that, that was for sure one of the big moments in my career so far.”

So now, Lafreniere waits – like the rest of the hockey world. He believes he can be ready to step into the NHL next season with the help of the exercise equipment at home in Saint-Eustache.

“I think I can get stronger even if I train at my house,” Lafreniere said. “I stay in shape, you know, just work as hard as I can to try and gain some strength so when [hockey] is going to come back, I’m going to be ready.”

He is getting reacquainted with his family, familiar faces that he hasn’t had much time with since he’s been living with a billet family in Rimouski for the last three seasons. And he is cracking the books. Lafreniere is hunkered down and studying to complete his high school courses on time.

Most importantly, Lafreniere is handling everything with the proper dose of perspective.
Whether he ends up with the Ottawa Senators or Detroit Red Wings, or the Draft is held at a packed Bell Centre or via teleconference, it’s all out of his hands.

“I really live it day-by-day and try to control what I can control. If the Draft is online, it will be different for us, but we’ll still enjoy our time and be happy.” Lafreniere said. “The most important thing is that everyone stays healthy.”

Contact Frank Seravalli on Twitter: @frank_seravalli