MONTREAL - Leadership. It's the quality Antoine Waked prides himself on the most.
During the Rouyn-Noranda Huskies' recent QMJHL postseason run, the 20-year-old undrafted right winger valiantly displayed that all-important character trait after suffering a broken left hand in the first period of the playoff opener against the Halifax Mooseheads.
"When I blocked the shot on the PK, I just arrived at the bench and I knew something was wrong. But I wanted to finish the game, so I tried to play with one hand. I couldn't help my team, though. It was very hard for me to play like that," said Waked, who wrapped up a four-year stint with the Huskies before signing a three-year contract with the Canadiens as a free agent on April 28. "We decided that it was better for me to be in a cast for four weeks and I would try to come back for the semi-finals."
Despite having Waked on the sidelines, head coach Gilles Bouchard's club ousted the Mooseheads in six games, before finding itself on the brink of elimination in Round 2 against the Chicoutimi Sagueneens, down three games to two. That's when the Saint-Bruno-de-Montarville native stepped to the forefront again, looking to give his teammates a much-needed boost with their season on the line at home.
"I asked my coach if I could be behind the bench. I thought guys could have used a few of my tips and experience in the League in the playoffs," said the Huskies' assistant captain, who claimed the President's Cup with Rouyn-Noranda in 2015-16. "I think the guys were maybe a bit too nervous. I wanted to be there to calm them down, to make sure everybody was on the same page and everybody had a good attitude. That was basically my role."
The Huskies crushed the Sagueneens by a score of 9-2 in Game 6 to extend the series, but ultimately dropped the seventh and deciding contest 4-3 in overtime with the IAMGOLD Arena faithful looking on, which obviously made the defeat even tougher to swallow.
While things didn't go as planned for the defending QMJHL champions this spring, Waked's regular season campaign was nothing short of remarkable. He put up a team-leading 39 goals and chipped in with 41 assists to finish tied for top spot on the roster with 80 points. That represented a 42-point uptick over 2015-16.
"I knew it was one of my last chances to impress everybody as a 20-year-old free agent. I worked very hard last summer to make sure that I had the best year of my life," explained Waked. "When our team went to the Memorial Cup last year in Red Deer, I learned a lot from players like [San Jose Sharks forward] Timo Meier and [Colorado Avalanche forward] A.J. Greer. They taught me how to play the game the right way. This year, I was trying to do the same thing they did."
Being given the opportunity to attend the Winnipeg Jets' Rookie Camp as an invitee last September also helped him get his final QMJHL season started on the right foot.
"It was huge. I didn't know what to expect when I got there, but I learned what I needed to improve to make sure that I could play pro one day," said Waked, who competed in the 2016 Young Stars Classic in Penticton, BC, along with prospects from the Vancouver Canucks, Calgary Flames, and Edmonton Oilers. "After coming back from camp, I knew I wasn't very far off from going to the pros. I worked on all of the things that were missing from my game so I could sign with Montreal."
All of that hard work clearly paid off, and it ultimately led to a moment Waked won't soon forget: inking his first pro deal with his hometown team.
"It was just a dream come true. I've worked all my life for this moment," said Waked, who put pen to paper on his first NHL contract at the Bell Sports Complex in Brossard. "It's tough to say how thankful I am to everybody who helped me along the way. I can't wait to get started."
While his hand is still on the mend, Waked expects to receive the green light to begin his offseason training program in roughly two weeks. That will give him six weeks of all-out training time to prepare for his first shot at impressing the Habs' brass on the South Shore in early July.
"I'm going to Development Camp. That's the next step for me. It's a great chance," said Waked, who will spend the summer working out at the Canadiens' practice facility with skills coach Francois Borduas. "I want to work on my training this summer. That's the first thing; work hard every day. Then I'll arrive at camp and give everything I've got. You never know what can happen. I think we've had good stories in Rouyn-Noranda the last few years, guys that are surprising people and cracking [NHL] lineups. I think I can learn from them and maybe do the same thing."