|Gatineau native Francois Brassard, who plays for former NHL legend Patrick Roy and the Quebec Remparts, is getting the chance to pursue his biggest dreams at home with the Senators (Ottawa Senators Hockey Club).
So many times, Francois Brassard had plenty of reason to give up hope.
But something burning inside the young goaltender from Gatineau simply wouldn't allow that to happen, wouldn't let the doubters keep him down for good.
There is nothing complicated about it, the Ottawa Senators goaltending prospect will tell you now. Just the fire that drives many a young Canadian hockey player to keep the dream alive.
"Just the love of the game, I guess," the 18-year-old Brassard said when asked what motivated him to keep going through the rough times in the early part of his career. "I just love playing. I love being competitive and I love winning. That's what kept me going. I wanted to get to a higher level and now here I am."
Sounds like a perfect fit for Patrick Roy, the fiery former National Hockey League legend who backstopped the Montreal Canadiens and Colorado Avalanche to a combined four Stanley Cups — and won the Conn Smythe Trophy on three occasions as the most valuable player of the playoffs. Today, Roy is the coach/general manager of the Quebec Remparts, the team Brassard happens to play for in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League.
Like a lot of aspiring young francophone goaltenders in Quebec, Brassard idolized Roy growing up. That he now plays for the man who is still the god of goaltending for so many fellow Quebecers — he is the revered "Saint Patrick," after all — yeah, that took a little getting used to.
"I was very excited," Brassard said of the day the Remparts made him a sixth-round pick in the 2011 QMJHL draft. "You're kind of nervous and you're not sure how to talk to him because he's in the (Hockey) Hall of Fame. I was nervous about that, but he's a pretty nice guy."
Though Roy is arguably the greatest netminder the game has ever seen, he leaves most of the work with the Remparts' stoppers to goaltending coach Pascal Lizotte.
"Sometimes, (Roy) will do a one-on-one session with shooters, so that's fine," he said.
Ask Brassard why Roy was such a hero to him and the answer is rather simple.
"He was a winner. That's why I loved him," said Brassard. "He was my favourite goalie. He was very special."
That he would have a chance to perhaps follow Roy into the NHL someday wasn't always a sure thing. Cut three times by bantam teams in the Outaouais and twice more by the Gatineau Intrepide midgets, it appeared his career was at a crossroads. But salvation came in the form of the Lac St-Louis Lions, who claimed Brassard in a "special draft" involving players who had been released by their home organizations.
Starting with consecutive shutouts in his first two games — a first in the 35-year history of the Quebec midget AAA league — Brassard backstopped the Lions to the league title and an eventual bronze medal at the Telus Cup, the Canadian midget championship. It was enough to attract the attention of Roy and the Remparts, who gave him 37 games worth of duty in 2011-12, during which he posted a 20-10-3 record with a 2.80 goals-against average and .905 save percentage.
Somewhere along the way, the Senators also took notice and made him a sixth-round selection (166th overall) in the 2012 NHL Draft in Pittsburgh. That he is at the team's annual summer development camp this week is sweet vindication for everything Brassard has been through.
"Francois is a battler. That's who he is," said Senators amateur scout Trent Mann. "He battles on the ice, he battles off the ice. When somebody like Patrick Roy picks you for his team, you have to assume there's something there. Patrick was very comfortable playing him this year — if he wasn't, he would have moved him on."
Now, Brassard is set to become the Remparts' starter next season, when he'll get plenty of opportunity to play in front of the biggest crowds in junior hockey. With an average gate of 11,724 at the fabled Pepsi Colisee, Roy's team led the Canadian Hockey League in attendance in 2011-12 by a wide margin.
"I love it," Brassard said of playing in the building that once housed the NHL's Quebec Nordiques. "The fans make a lot of noise and it gets you into the game. It's really fun."
Of next season, Brassard said "I'd like to play maybe 50 games. I want a nice run in the playoffs and maybe win something there. That's what I expect next year."
That also sits well with the Senators, who are willing to give the 6-1, 154-pound netminder some time to develop (Brassard freely refers to himself as "probably a project for the organization"). But no matter how long it takes, Brassard is still very much a part of the game he loves and that's what matters most of all.
"Now he's right there in the thick of things (in Quebec) and he's going to start next year," said Mann. "He's going to get a chance to prove that people have been wrong about him in the past. He's been passed over and passed over and now he's getting his chance. And we'll give him his chance and we have some time.
"There's no rush on him and he'll have an opportunity to work on his game, work with our coaches and get better as time goes on. We expect a big year from him in Quebec City. They'll have a good team next year and he'll have every opportunity to show what he can do."