TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. - Mark Bernard remembers the exact moment he knew Alex DeBrincat was ready to play in the NHL.
The Blackhawks Vice President of Hockey Operations/Team Affiliates had just watched DeBrincat track a puck that had ricocheted off the end boards and bat it out of mid-air to score the game-winning goal in overtime of the championship game of the 2017 Traverse City Prospect Tournament.
"Right there you knew, 'OK, this guy is special,'" Bernard said. "A lot of players would have tried to swing at it early or they wouldn't have even made contact with it, they wouldn't have been able to track the puck back off the glass. This guy always finds holes; he puts himself in areas to get his shot off. He was great all tournament, but especially in the final game he took his game to another level."
That eye-opening moment further opened the eyes of the Blackhawks hierarchy and paved the way for DeBrincat to have a strong training camp that led to a spot on the Opening Night roster for the 2017-18 season. The rest, as they say, is history as DeBrincat went on to score 28 goals that season and followed it up with a 41-goal effort in '18-19 that established the now-21-year-old as one of the NHL's premier offensive talents.
The 2017 Traverse City Prospect Tournament wasn't the only reason DeBrincat made the leap to the NHL that season, but it went a long way.
"My end goal the year was making it to the NHL and I think that tournament was definitely a big stepping stone and the start of that season for me," DeBrincat said. "I think I proved to them that I could score maybe versus anyone and play the game and I just tried to carry that into camp."
DeBrincat scored five goals during the '17 tournament and also displayed some grit when he engaged in a fight ("I wasn't going out there to show them I could fight-I just had to step up") that showcased his all-around skills.
"You could see when he hit the ground running in Traverse City that he was a notch above everybody," Bernard said. "The way that he played the game both ends of the rink, his shot, his release and the puck was always around him. We recognized right there that if he comes into Training Camp like that he's going to have a special season and that's exactly what he did."
A new group of Blackhawks prospects will look to make their next strides toward the NHL when the 2019 Traverse City Tournament kicks off Friday, featuring top prospects from eight NHL teams in a tournament that includes three divisional games before a championship round on Tuesday.
"It's a good tournament," DeBrincat said. "You're playing against really good guys. A lot of great prospects are on the teams there. If you can compete against them, it really sets you up for the season.
"It prepares you for the speed of training camp," DeBrincat continued. "Everyone in the NHL is a fast player and when you're a young guy it's a little bit tougher to catch up to that speed but that tournament is pretty competitive and really helps you with training camp."
Twenty-four current Blackhawks prospects are in Traverse City, Mich. hoping to do a little showcasing of their own talents prior to training camp that opens Sept. 13 in Chicago. Included in the group are three prospects considered by many to be closest to reaching the NHL, Kirby Dach, Nicolas Beaudin and Adam Boqvist.
It is their moment to take that next step in the evolution of their game with many of the Blackhawks brass on hand to witness it.
"A lot of players use this as it's a pro-type game," Bernard said. "Even though they are exhibition games, they're high-paced and they are almost American League Hockey level games so you get a good read on how they're doing against players of their own age group. The players know that this is an opportunity. They need to make the most of it to kind of make a first impression and get off on the right foot. A lot of them do take advantage of that opportunity."
DeBrincat said impressing team officials wasn't foremost on his mind during his Traverse City experiences, which included also participating in the 2016 tournament soon after the Blackhawks selected him with the 39th overall pick in the 2016 NHL Draft following a stellar season with Erie of the Ontario Hockey League.
"I feel like you're just trying to win games," DeBrincat said. "Obviously, when you're there it's another way they can look at you but when I was there I was focused on winning. Maybe it shouldn't have been the most important thing but it was the most important thing to me. When the team is winning, everyone looks good."