MONTREAL - Alex Belzile refers to himself as a "late bloomer". And he couldn't be more grateful for the saying, "Better late than never".
On Friday, the 27-year-old forward signed a one-year, two-way contract with the Canadiens for the 2019-20 season - his first NHL contract, no less. The deal comes just weeks after Belzile wrapped up a season to remember, one in which he set career highs in goals (19), assists (35), points (54), power play goals (8), and game-winning goals (3) en route to being named an AHL All-Star for the North Division.
The journey to get to where he has was a long and winding one for Belzile, who hails from Saint-Eloi. If you look at a map of North America, Belzile has played on virtually all four corners of the continent with stops in Georgia (Gwinnett Gladiators - ECHL), Alaska (Alaska Aces - ECHL), and Texas (San Antonio Rampage - AHL) - among others - dotting the map alongside his native Quebec (Laval Rocket - AHL).
Belzile may be the very definition of what it means to be a hockey journeyman, but he knows himself well enough to believe that an All-Star, career season and subsequent NHL contract were always within reach.
"My goal is still to play in the NHL. I've never been the guy who tried to move three steps ahead instead of going step by step," explained Belzile, who noted he'd gone from healthy scratch to dominant force in both the ECHL and AHL along the way. "I trust my process, I trust my mentality. I'm a late bloomer. I know myself. I still know that I'm getting into my peak, getting into my best seasons right now. I think it's really positive with my late development: my best years are not behind me. It's the opposite: they're ahead of me."
With optimism like that, Belzile was due for a breakout sooner or later and he pointed to his mindset as the major contributor towards his personal success in 2018-19.
"Honestly, I think it's the confidence. It's an answer as simple as that. Yes, there are a lot of other things and when you add everything up together, it makes you better as a hockey player," outlined Belzile, who enjoyed 11 multi-point outings last season in Laval. "But if you don't have the confidence to do it, it gets tougher."
Belzile used that self-assurance to challenge himself to take on new responsibilities on both ends of the ice, which helped put him on the radar - and was in turn even more of a confidence boost as an added bonus.
"Last year in Laval, I had a real chance and I took it more on the offensive part. I've been offensive all my life and I've never had a real chance in the AHL to prove that I can play a really good two hundred-foot game. But being on the power play, that helps you being confident," he shared. "A lot of people didn't really know me, but most of the time that's the way I like it - being in the shadows and just doing my thing and working hard every day in practice. I know, it's cliche, but I think that's the right approach."
That approach did lead to Belzile getting noticed, as he was selected for the 2019 AHL All-Star game in Springfield, MA. Belzile was both flattered and surprised by the nod.
"It was a big honor. I didn't really expect it when they announced me back in January," he recalled. "That was not a life goal, but it was really fun to be part of. And I got to know more people around the league. Maybe people started to know me and notice me more."
Belzile will be spending his summer training at Université Laval in Quebec City with a group of AHLers and NHLers that includes Habs centerman Phillip Danault. And for those fans who aren't familiar with Belzile, he says he likes to model his game after his friend and offseason workout buddy.
"I'm really versatile. I can play every single role, on every single line. Last year in Laval, I had good numbers. I'm a great two way player. I love the way [Danault] plays. It's really efficient. I would say I'm a really efficient, consistent player. I think my biggest asset is my hockey sense. Regardless of the time of the game, or the situations I'm in, I will find my way to adapt," concluded Belzile. "And my hockey sense will help me, obviously. So I think that's my biggest asset."