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Struble: 'You know you're playing for something more'

Jayden Struble will always cherish his Little League World Series experience as a member of the Cumberland Americans

by Matt Cudzinowski @CanadiensMTL / canadiens.com

MONTREAL - Prospect Jayden Struble was front and center for one of the most memorable coaches' speeches in recent years.

It came just moments after his Rhode Island-based Cumberland Americans were officially eliminated from the 2014 Little League World Series in Williamsport, PA. 

Surrounded by his players, manager Dave Belisle knelt down and delivered a heartfelt address that ultimately went viral and touched viewers across the globe.

Sporting No.15 for the New England Region representatives, a 12-year-old Struble can be seen on camera at different points throughout the three-and-a-half minute talk.

Watch: Youtube Video

Five years later, Struble still remembers Belisle's words of consolation and encouragement.

"That's just the type of guy he is. He cared about us a lot. We were a brotherhood," recalled Struble, who was selected in the second round, 46th overall by the Canadiens at the NHL Draft in June. "Our run was over and we were young. You needed someone like that to give that very emotional type of 'It's o.k.' speech. He was the perfect guy to do it. You see it on commercials now and you think back, 'I was in the huddle and that was my coach.' It's pretty surreal."

Equally surreal was Struble's play heading into the Little League World Series, capping the District 4 playoffs with a walk-off three-run homer in the title game before hitting another three-run bomb in the semifinals of the New England Regional.

In other words, Struble was a clutch performer eager to rise to the occasion.

"He's a big-game player. He always came through for us. Jayden was one of the biggest reasons why we got there, because he was a huge factor. He was one of my big guns," mentioned Belisle, who was thoroughly impressed by Struble's baseball skill set. "He had speed, good instincts and a very good arm, along with a lot of power. He could easily stretch a single into a double. He could play outfield, especially center field, and he could go get anything. He was just that athletic and could run like a deer. I had to put him at first base because he hurt his arm, but he adjusted quickly."

That being said, it was Struble's attitude that caught Belisle's attention from the start and gave him a good indication that his future was extremely bright.

"I knew he was going to be good because he had a chip on his shoulder. He had that feistiness," praised Belisle. "He was tough on himself, too. That was his only issue. You could see he was a perfectionist. But, he was a very, very good teammate. He never said a bad thing about an opponent. He always had respect for the game and was always driven."

Speaking of Struble being a good teammate, Belisle's favorite moment coaching him at the Little League World Series exhibited that aspect of his make-up to a tee.

It followed the Americans' dramatic come-from-behind victory over the Southeast Region squad from Tennessee.

Watch: Youtube Video

"I remember Jayden picking up my son John like he was a piece of paper and holding him up in the air. I don't even know if I could've lifted him that high. That's how strong Jayden was," remembered Belisle. "That's a vision I'll never forget. After we won, Jayden picked up my son like he was nothing. That's a memory that will always last for me. That's the type of kid he was, always wanting to be a good teammate and celebrate with his teammates."

While the Americans didn't come away with the coveted title that year, Struble took lessons aplenty away from the experience that have clearly served him well since.

"There's the learning to play under pressure aspect of it, because you're on national TV and so many people are watching. There's also the idea that you can't try to do too much just because there's a big crowd. You have to keep your head in the game and focus," explained Struble, an incoming freshman at Northeastern University (NCAA) this fall. "We had no quit on that team with all those walk-offs. There were a lot of games that people thought we were going to lose, but we still came out on top. You learn that you can't take any games off and you have to always play to the best of your ability."

The 17-year-old Cumberland, RI native will certainly be watching the events at this year's event unfold as the tournament begins on Thursday.

He proudly displays his New England jersey on his bedroom wall and his hat on his trophy case as a reminder of the journey that special group enjoyed together - and the items always bring back good memories.

"It was an unbelievable feeling to represent Cumberland. There's so much support. You know you're playing for something more, something bigger than yourself," indicated Struble. "One of my favorite things was the atmosphere, walking around the stadium and you're like a mini-celebrity wearing that hat. I still remember some of my at-bats and looking up ino the stands. It's such a cool event."

Talking hockey

Only four youngsters who've participated in the Little League World Series have also played in the NHL.

One of them is former Canadiens captain Pierre Turgeon. He represented Rouyn-Noranda, QC in 1982 alongside Stephane Matteau.

The others are Ray Ferraro in 1976 with Trail, BC, and Chris Drury, who helped Trumbull, CT win the championship in 1989. 

No doubt Struble would relish the opportunity to join that prestigious class at some point down the road, and he took a giant step in the right direction when the Canadiens plucked him from the crowd at Rogers Arena.

A longtime hockey coach at Mount Saint Charles Academy in Woonsocket, RI - and a lifelong Habs fan - Belisle was thrilled to see his former pupil added to the system.

"When Jayden was selected, my whole family was going nuts. Jayden and John are still friends. I have three other boys, and they were just as excited about it. When I called him, I told him how proud I was and my second comment, which made him chuckle, was 'Welcome to our team now.' He started laughing hysterically," said Belisle, referencing Struble's now-former allegiance to the Boston Bruins. "I also told him that he was going to be all Canadiens red, white and blue going forward. He said, 'Absolutely, coach. I'm all in.'"

Video: Jayden Struble's first day as a Hab

Belisle actually has a rather interesting connection with one Canadiens alum, in particular, through his work at Mount Saint Charles Academy. 

"My heart is always with the Canadiens because my father Bill and I coached Mathieu Schneider. He was one of our more outstanding players. His first goal, he gave the stick to my father. He still has it in his office alongside all of his trophies," revealed Belisle, whose dad is a member of the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame. "When the Canadiens won the Stanley Cup in 1993, Mathieu invited my dad and my mom up to Vermont for a celebration. We're still very good friends. Seeing the Canadiens win all those Cups in the 1970's was special, but my greatest moment was seeing Mathieu lift the Cup. There was no better moment than that."

As for Struble, Belisle is adamant that the Canadiens have secured the services of a special kid with incredible potential.

"You can tell by his physique and by what he did at the Combine that he's always prepared. You're going to see a very aggressive defenseman, someone who isn't going to relax for one minute. He wants to play. He wants to bang. He wants to hit. He wants to engage. He wants to be in the flow of things," concluded Belisle. "First and foremost, Jayden will be extremely strong defensively, strong in front of the net and in the corners. But, he's also going to be a puck mover. Overall, it's his physical and athletic ability - and his work ethic - that people are going to be most impressed with."

Excited to officially be a Husky #NLI

A post shared by Jayden Struble (@jaydenstruble_) on

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