MONTREAL - If anyone understands what Mikhail Sergachev has been experiencing over the last few weeks, it's Mathieu Schneider.
When he was selected ninth overall this past summer at the KeyBank Center in Buffalo, Sergachev couldn't have imagined that he'd be making his NHL debut in that same building just three short months later.
After all, only three other 18-year-old defensemen had previously managed to accomplish that same feat in the 107-year history of the Canadiens. Prior to Sergachev, the last player to do it was a young American hailing from New York who was selected in the third round of the 1987 draft named Mathieu Schneider. And just like Sergachev three decades later, Schneider certainly didn't expect to get his start in the NHL ranks so quickly.
"I had no idea after I got drafted that I would start the following year in the NHL. I went to camp with zero expectations. I was drafted from a Junior team that wasn't great. I think that worked to my advantage since I got a tremendous amount of ice time in Cornwall," recalled Schneider, who amassed 36 points in 63 games with the Royals in his first Ontario Hockey League season. "When I got to Montreal, I had a really strong camp and I was able to stay up. It was the point in my career where I thought I had a legitimate chance to be an NHL player. Before then, you're always kind of guessing."
Having primarily earned that audition because a spot on the blue line opened up when Larry Robinson suffered a polo-related injury that summer, Schneider's performance at training camp persuaded head coach Jean Perron to give him a real shot to prove what he could do in the big leagues. Though he was only used sporadically by Perron, the fact that he was playing alongside so many big names afforded him the opportunity to learn what it took to have success in the NHL.
"I was certainly overwhelmed walking into the locker room. Especially back then, there were guys like Larry Robinson, Bob Gainey - who was the captain - Chris Chelios, Guy Carbonneau. I was watching them the year before on Hockey Night in Canada and I wanted to be like them," said Schneider, who on October 8, 1987, became the third-youngest player in franchise history to suit up and play for the Canadiens.
"One of my favorite stories that I love telling younger players today is about Larry, who was a hero of mine when I was a kid. One time when we were on the ice, we skated for 30 or 40 minutes after practice. When we were done, I started picking up the pucks and he came over to help me. I told him it was a rookie's job and that I had it covered. He told me, 'Mathieu, we do everything as a team together here.' I couldn't believe it when he said that," added Schneider. "It was so special. That meant so much to me. Here was this perennial All-Star picking up pucks with me. Those kinds of things stick with you and that becomes ingrained in you. That's what you end up passing on to the kids who come after you. That's what made being a Montreal Canadien so special."
Nevertheless, Schneider's audition lasted just four games - in addition to watching two games from the press box - after Robinson's sooner-than-expected return and the acquisition of Larry Trader during the first few weeks of the regular season. Following his return to Cornwall, the learning process continued for Schneider in the Junior ranks over the course of two seasons before spending half a season in the American Hockey League with Sherbrooke. When he made it back to the NHL in December 1989 at the age of 20, he was the first one to admit that he felt a lot more comfortable on the ice going up against the top players in the world.
"When I look back, 18 is really young, especially for a defenseman. To play in the NHL as an 18-year-old is a huge, huge jump. Forwards can blend in a little easier. They don't get exposed as quickly. Defensemen tend to mature much later in their careers," stressed Schneider, who gives plenty of credit to former defense coach Jacques Laperriere for making him a more complete blue-liner, when he was far more offensive-minded at the outset of his career.
"I was much more ready that second time around," added Schneider. "When I got to the NHL, I knew I was an NHL player. For how long was the question."
In the end, Schneider played 1,289 games over the course of his NHL career - including 383 with the Canadiens - while also helping the Habs claim the Stanley Cup in 1993. Between his on ice experience and his current work with the National Hockey League Players' Association, Schneider is well aware of what Sergachev is going through at the moment. With three NHL games already under his belt, the young Russian rearguard still doesn't know whether he'll spend the rest of the season in Montreal or be returned to the Windsor Spitfires.
While the only thing Sergachev can control is his play on the ice, Schneider would like to see the rookie D-man remain with the big club a little bit longer. That way, he'll continue to be exposed to something he won't find anywhere else: veteran guidance.
"I hope that he lasts longer [in Montreal] than I did in my first year. If I could give him one piece of advice, it would be to listen to the veterans, the guys with experience in the room," concluded Schneider. "Listen to them, watch them, learn from them, and don't try to do too much. Don't try to overdo it. That's a big part of it. That's what becoming a professional is; it's about learning from your mistakes and getting better."