Stu's Slapshots: A special weekend for Canadiens and their dads

Players share hockey memories from their childhood ahead of father’s road trip to Boston for game against Bruins.

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This will be a very memorable weekend for the Canadiens and their fathers.

It would be even better if they can beat the Bruins on Saturday in Boston (7 p.m., CBC, SNE, TVA Sports, TSN 690 Radio, 98.5 FM).

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The fathers attended Thursday’s morning skate at the Bell Centre and were in attendance for the game at night when the Canadiens lost 6-5 to the Vegas Golden Knights. The fathers were in Brossard to watch practice Friday morning and in the afternoon flew with their sons to Boston, where they will be in attendance for Saturday’s game.

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Last season, the Canadiens held a mother’s trip with the moms travelling with their sons for games in Washington on New Year’s Eve and Nashville on Jan. 3. The Canadiens lost both games — 9-2 to the Capitals and 6-3 to the Predators.

“It’s a different vibe, for sure,” captain Nick Suzuki said after Thursday’s game about having the dads with them this year instead of the moms. “The moms are really happy to be there. The dads are pretty down to business. They like the hockey side of it. We had them in our (pregame) meeting just so they can see what we kind of go through on our daily basis. It’s cool to experience this with them and headed to Boston will be fun, too.”

The fathers were in the locker room before the game against the Golden Knights.

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“I was tying my skates and my dad asked me if I needed any help, joking around,” Suzuki said with a grin. “They never got to come in the locker room since I was like 10. So for him to experience this and the flight tomorrow and see what we get to do every single day will be cool.”

Suzuki’s father, Rob, operates his own dental clinic in London, Ont. Suzuki said his dad comes to about five or 10 games each season at the Bell Centre. His father prefers to stay at home when both his sons are playing at the same time so he can watch both games on TV. Suzuki’s younger brother, Ryan, was activated from the Carolina Hurricanes’ injured non-roster list on Thursday and assigned to the AHL’s Springfield Thunderbirds after recovering from a shoulder injury that had sidelined him since the start of the season.

“We spent a lot of hours in the car together,” Suzuki recalled about his days with his father in minor hockey while growing up in London. “He used to be kind of hard on us when we were younger and as we got older he realized that wasn’t really helping and he would just be there for support after games. Never grilled me in the car. I just remember him being a supportive dad. If we wanted to talk about (the game) we could and if we didn’t we didn’t have to. He’s always been that good role model for me and someone that I always looked up to.”

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Coach’s dad not on trip

Head coach Martin St. Louis’s father, Normand, attends most of the games at the Bell Centre, but he didn’t travel with the players’ fathers to Boston.

“He’s on a dad’s trip all year,” St. Louis joked after practice Friday.

Instead, the trip to Boston will allow St. Louis to be a dad himself.

St. Louis’s wife, Heather, still lives at the family home in Connecticut with their youngest son, 15-year-old Mason, who plays in the Mid-Fairfield Youth Hockey Association, where St. Louis coached before joining the Canadiens. Their oldest son, 20-year-old Ryan, plays for Brown University, while 18-year-old Lucas plays with the USHL’s Dubuque Fighting Saints.

“It’s hard,” St. Louis said about being away from his family so much. “My wife was here a couple of weeks ago. I haven’t seen my boys. We’re playing the Bruins tomorrow and the only game I can see my oldest son play at Brown University is tonight. I’m (also) going to see my youngest son. He doesn’t have hockey this weekend. So I’m going to get to see two of my boys today … one of them is going to play. My youngest one and my wife are coming to the Bruins game. It’s going to be nice to check out for a night and go enjoy watching my boy play and enjoy the family.

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“In today’s world you’re still so connected with the phones and FaceTime and that kind of stuff,” St. Louis added. “So I speak to my boys a ton. I watch all their games, but not live. But I watch them all. So I don’t feel like I’m not connected to them. It’s just nice to have some face-to-face time.”

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Proud hockey dad

As a kid growing up playing minor hockey in Laval, St. Louis said his father was always positive with him in the car after games.

“We never got in the car and he told me: ‘You should have done this … should have done that,’” he said.

St. Louis said instead his dad would ask if he had fun and if he didn’t play well his father would tell him it was OK because there was another game coming up.

“There was never a critique … a lot more support,” said St. Louis, who went on to have a Hall of Fame career as a player despite never getting selected at the NHL Draft.

St. Louis’s father grew up on a family wood mill in Mont-Laurier, the 10th of 14 children, and started working at age 8. The only hockey he played was on the outdoor rink on weekends with his brothers and other kids in the neighbourhood.

St. Louis understands how much this father’s trip means to the players and their dads.

“Being a father of three boys, I loved playing the game,” St. Louis said. “I like watching my kids play more than I liked playing the game. So I think for them to share … this is a great league and the kids have worked really hard to be here and it starts at home. The early mornings, the travel. So it’s a way to give back a little bit and make (the fathers) feel part of it because they played a big role in why their sons are doing what they’re doing. Were trying to give them a little insight inside of what their day-to-day’s like on game day and stuff. I think it’s a great opportunity for the players to give back to the ones that helped them the most, probably.”

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Some good advice

Cole Caufield’s father, Paul, is still the all-time leading scorer at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point with 126 goals and 128 assists in 148 games. Paul later coached in the college ranks before taking the job he has now managing the Ice Hawks Arena in Stevens Point, Wisc., where his two boys learned to play. Caufield’s older brother, Brock, now plays for the ECHL’S Newfoundland Growlers, a farm team for the Toronto Maple Leafs.

“He always told me once you’re satisfied it’s time to quit, and that’s something that sticks with me daily,” Caufield said about his father. “There was a lot of hours in the car growing up as a kid. We were usually driving to Michigan or Chicago, which is four or eight hours. I don’t really know how he did it or why he did it. But I can’t thank him enough for everything he did. It’s pretty special.”

Was his father intense when it came to hockey?

“Oh, yeah,” Caufield said with a smile. “It was pretty scary. It’s a good thing now. Looking back on it I wouldn’t want it any other way. But in the moment you kind of hesitate a little bit or don’t know if you want to do it. But looking back on it I’m very happy with the way he handled things.”

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Would Caufield act the same way if he becomes a father?

“Not a chance,” he said with a laugh.

A homecoming trip

Canadiens defenceman Jordan Harris is from the Boston suburb of Haverhill, Mass., so the father’s road trip isn’t much of a trip for his dad, Peter.

“It sucks for my dad because he doesn’t get to see a new city,” Harris said. “But for me it’s just cool to have him around in general. If we had been going to Florida he wouldn’t be complaining about that to get on the beach. But it’s exciting, nonetheless.”

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Great memories

The Canadiens’ Sean Monahan was only 18 when he played his first NHL game with the Calgary Flames in 2013 after they selected him with the sixth overall pick at that year’s draft. He still remembers his father, John, attending that game.

“I wasn’t sure if I was going to be in the lineup or not,” Monahan said. “It was in Washington and I remember he drove out there (from Brampton, Ont.), got there just in time for the game and I ended up playing. We played the next night or the night after in Columbus and he made the drive out there, too. He got to see my first assist, my first NHL game, first goal. Those are memories I’ll always remember.”

Monahan said this will be the fourth or fifth father’s trip for his dad in the NHL.

“It’s always a special time,” Monahan said. “They’re your biggest supporter so it’s nice to have them around.

“I just enjoy talking to him,” Monahan added. “He watches every game. I wouldn’t say he critiques me or tries to coach me or anything like that. He’s there to support me and I enjoy talking hockey with him.”

St. Louis has said that coaching is a lot like being a father, especially with a young, rebuilding team.

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“Even with older guys,” Monahan said about coaches being like fathers. “They’re there to support you. Not every day is going to be your best day and not every game your team’s going to be playing their A game. So they’re there to support you, guide you and push you to be your best. Coach’s want the best out of you. If you talk to your dad, they want you to be the best, too. So I think it’s that same kind of mindset.”

Monahan added what makes St. Louis unique from other coaches he has had is his ability to communicate.

“Super relatable and really easy to talk to,” Monahan said. “I played against him. He’s got a young mind, he’s really smart. He’s a lot of fun to play for.”

Xhekaj and father make trip

The Canadiens have listed defenceman Arber Xhekaj as day-to-day after he suffered an upper-body injury in the second period of Thursday’s loss to the Golden Knights.

Xhekaj didn’t practise with his teammates Friday and it looks like he might not play Saturday against the Bruins. But Xhekaj and his father did make the trip together to Boston. Xhekaj’s father, Jack, works as a welder in Hamilton for National Steel Car, building trains.

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Xhekaj appeared to injure his left shoulder after taking a big hit from the Golden Knights’ Ivan Barbashev and crashing hard into the boards before falling to the ice. Last season, Xhjekaj had surgery on his right shoulder after injuring it in a fight in February.

Xhekaj is 6-foot-4 and 240 pounds, while Barbashev is 6-foot and 198 pounds.

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“Barbashev, if you watched the playoffs last year, that’s the first time I really watched him,” Canadiens defenceman Johnathan Kovacevic said after practice Friday. “He did that a lot. He’s really good at reverse hits. He doesn’t look like a really big guy, but he’s really solid. Maybe Arber did get caught by surprise a bit. Sometimes when someone’s strong and they’re a little shorter than you they kind of have that angle to knock you off your feet a little easier.

“It was a big hit,” Kovacevic added. “I’m sure (Xhekaj’s) probably more annoyed at the injury. He’s the kind of guy who’s a physical guy — he can dish it and he can take it. Sometimes you just get hit the wrong way. … He’s laid plenty of those hits in his career.”

The Not So Great One

Sticking with the father theme, Wayne Gretzky shared a funny story during the first intermission of the TNT broadcast of Wednesday’s game between the Philadelphia Flyers and Carolina Hurricanes. The Great One talked about taking his son to the Hall of Fame in Toronto when the boy was 9 and didn’t know a lot about hockey.

Gretzky put on a hat and sunglasses so he wouldn’t be recognized and watched as his son went four-for-five on an interactive shooting game. Gretzky’s son asked him to try and after the Great One went 0-for-3, a young kid working at the Hall of Fame suggested Gretzky move his hand farther down the stick, which would help. At that point, an upset Gretzky threw off his hat.

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Gretzky scored a record 894 goals during his career. But if you took away all his goals, Gretzky would still be the NHL’s all-time points leader based only on his 1,963 assists. Jaromir Jagr ranks second in career points with 766 and 1,155 assists for 1,921 points.

Ylönen providing offence

Jesse Ylönen has only played 10 of the Canadiens’ 17 games this season, but with three goals — including two against Vegas — he has more than teammates Josh Anderson (zero), Rafaël Harvey-Pinard (zero), Juraj Slafkovsky (one) and Jake Evans (one) combined. Ylönen also has two more goals than Joel Armia scored during his six games with the Canadiens.

I wasn’t surprised when Armia cleared NHL waivers and was sent to the AHL’s Laval Rocket to start the season. On a young, rebuilding team there isn’t really a spot for the underachieving 30-year-old in the Canadiens’ lineup. I was surprised when the Canadiens called Armia back up. He scored a goal in his first game back and then went back to becoming almost invisible on the ice, going five games without a goal before being sent back to Laval.

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Ylönen was made a healthy scratch for five of the six games Armia played. Ylönen, 24, should be part of this rebuilding process and taking valuable ice time away from him to play Armia doesn’t make sense to me. After practice Friday, St. Louis said he wouldn’t rule out the possibility of using Ylönen on the power play in the future.

“I can see him getting some reps there,” St. Louis said. “I know he’s got that (scoring ability) in his game.”

Armia has one more season after this left on his contract with a salary-cap hit of US$3.4 million, which makes him basically impossible to trade. Leaving him in Laval seems the best option at this point to give younger players like Ylönen a chance to play and develop.

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Changing the lines

St. Louis has kept his veteran line of Monahan between Tanner Pearson and Brendan Gallagher intact since the start of the season.

It made sense when that trio was the Canadiens’ most effective line, but it looks like it’s time to switch things up now. Pearson has gone 12 games without a goal, Monahan hasn’t scored in seven games and Gallagher has one goal in the last six games.

When the Canadiens were in Detroit last week, TSN analyst Dave Poulin — who played 13 seasons in the NHL — spoke with St. Louis about how when he was playing he hated it when he was doing well and his line was playing well and the coach would break it up in order to get another player going.

“As a player I experienced that, I didn’t enjoy that,” St. Louis told Poulin. “But the well-being of the team is always more important than the individual. It is tempting (to break up that veteran line) and you have to be careful. But it’s always tempting and something that we juggle and talk about.”

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