BROSSARD, Quebec -- A little over a year ago Zachary Fucale was living a dream.
Coming off a Memorial Cup championship with the Halifax Mooseheads of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, Fucale was the first goaltender selected at the 2013 NHL Draft. And the team doing the selecting was his hometown Montreal Canadiens.
Life could not have been much better.
What has transpired since the draft, however, could be described as a nightmare.
And Fucale is ready to wake up.
"It's a new year for me," Fucale said this week during Canadiens development camp. "I'm more mature. I'm strong. I've developed my game mentally and technically on the ice.
"I'm better than last year. I feel good."
Since being selected with the 36th pick of the draft, Fucale was the starting goaltender for Canada at the 2014 IIHF World Junior Championship and for the Mooseheads in their quest to repeat as Memorial Cup champions.
Neither mission ended very well.
At the WJC, Fucale allowed four goals on 22 shots in a 5-1 semifinal loss to Finland, the eventual champions, and two goals on 32 shots in a 2-1 loss to Russia in the bronze-medal game. It was the second straight year Canada left the tournament without a medal.
The QMJHL playoffs began well for Fucale when he won eight of his first nine starts to breeze through the first two rounds, allowing more than two goals twice in those nine games. Then things went sideways.
Facing the Val-d'Or Foreurs with home-ice advantage, the Mooseheads outshot them 64-43 in the first two games yet lost by a combined score of 9-4, with Fucale allowing eight goals.
In Game 3 in Val-d'Or, Fucale allowed three goals on four shots and was pulled 3:28 into the game; Kevin Darveau replaced him and backstopped Halifax to a 6-5 overtime victory.
Darveau was tabbed by coach Dominique Ducharme to start Game 4, snapping a streak of 46 straight Halifax playoff games with Fucale as the starter.
Darveau made 31 saves in a 5-4 Mooseheads win to even the series 2-2, but Ducharme went back to Fucale for the rest of the series. He allowed 11 goals in the final three games, including three goals in a 3-2 Game 7 loss where the Mooseheads outshot the Foreurs 41-16.
That Game 7 loss was Fucale’s 212th in a Mooseheads uniform, and it came one month before his 19th birthday. When you add in national-team camps and his preparation for the draft, that is a lot of hockey to pack into three years, and it's possible it all caught up to Fucale at the worst possible time.
But Fucale is convinced he will be a better goaltender as a result.
"For sure there were ups and downs in the playoffs," he said. "It happens to everyone. I think it was a positive thing that it happened; you take away so many things out of it. You take that experience and you work at it. It's good for me. It was hard to accept but it's good for me because whenever you do face those downs it shows how you've got a long way to go, you've got a lot of work in front of you. It's been a good learning experience.
"It's going to force me to work hard and continue improving."
Fucale has not had a wealth of experience in dealing with disappointments like the ones he lived through last season, not with a young career that almost exclusively has been glittered with success to this point.
But he's had a lot of help with his mental approach to the game, largely from his goaltending coach with the Mooseheads, Eric Raymond.
"It happens to every goalie where you have some great patches, you feel like everything's going great, and some other times it doesn't go your way even though you're working hard," Fucale said. "You talk to your coach, you get some feedback, and you get back to the basics and build from there.
"I had some talks with my goalie coach and we got down to work ethic, habits and preparation. Those are the things that will get you through those bad patches and will help you maintain the good patches. For me those are the three things that will help you get though those things."
The Canadiens development camp marks the beginning of an important stretch for Fucale. The 2014-15 season will be his fourth and final season of junior hockey, and it's likely he'll be the starter for Canada again at the WJC, with the tournament this year in Montreal and Toronto.
The Mooseheads will be entering a second straight season recovering from the loss of a superstar-caliber player to the NHL; Nathan MacKinnon to the Colorado Avalanche last season and, in all likelihood, Jonathan Drouin to the Tampa Bay Lightning in October.
But in spite of the difficult playoffs Fucale had last season, Ducharme said he considers himself lucky to have Fucale back for a fourth straight season as his starting goaltender, a rare feat for a junior goalie.
"It's part of the process to have some highs and some lows," Ducharme said. "He's been incredible for three seasons and he might have had about 10 days where he wasn't at his best. But those are things you have to get through. It's part of the learning process. He wants to become an NHL goalie, and to get there he needs to work on his game as a whole.
"There isn't one facet in particular that he needs work on; it's his total game. He knows that and he knows it's something that he needs to do on a daily basis. That's why I have a lot of confidence that he's going to show a lot of progress right up until he reaches the National Hockey League and he will have a nice career, because he understands those things.
"Success doesn't affect him too much and he doesn't get too low when things don't go that well."
Fucale said he's eager to get going on a new season and put some of the lows of last season behind him. But there is one thing in particular he will take with him from that difficult season, and it should serve him well in the seasons to come.
"This whole process of chasing a dream is a hard thing," he said. "It's not easy."
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