NEWARK, NJ — Jean-Gabriel Pageau is being watched. As the local product on the Ottawa Senators, raised across the Rivière des Outaouais in Gatineau, this happens often. Fans chant his last name at Ottawa’s Canadian Tire Centre, matching the rhythms to the olé-olé-olé of soccer matches. They stop him on the sidewalk and say hello. He was a legend by his third NHL playoff game, between romping a rival, notching a hat trick, and losing one lateral incisor in a bloody mess. Linemate Curtis Lazar describes Pageau’s popularity like this: “Everyone loves him, the little French-Canadian hometown guy.”
At this moment, though, the audience is relatively small, condensed to a few fellow Senators inside the visiting locker room at Prudential Center. All of them are eyeing Pageau, who is conducting an interview at his stall, and all are wearing smug smiles. As a 23-year-old center on the league’s fifth-youngest team, Pageau takes plenty of good-natured heat like this on a regular basis. But he was also shirtless after practice Wednesday afternoon. And he was just asked to explain the tattoos covering his right arm—angel wings near the shoulders, a skull down the forearm, a dove in the middle.
“He’s in a biker gang,” forward Chris Neil chirps from near the door.
“The Gatineau biker gang,” defenseman Mark Boroweicki says from one corner.
Here among the Senators, just like in the outside world of Ottawa, Pageau is forever linked to his home. In juniors, he led the Gatineau Olympiques to the QMJHL final with 29 points in 24 playoff games. Now, he anchors the checking line for the Senators, leads all of the team’s forwards in penalty kill ice time, and tops the entire NHL with four shorthanded goals. He can also drive across the Portage Bridge, over the river from Ontario into Quebec, and see his family on a day off. Lasagna, shepherd’s pie and tourtière, a French meat pie, are the best things his mother makes. “I’m on the ice, they’re in the stands, it gives me that little extra boost to keep working hard,” he says of living so close.
It was also Gatineau that helped Pageau connect with another local household name, Daniel Brière. Both Pageau, then a teenager, and Brière, then with the Philadelphia Flyers, had family friends in common, so Pageau wound up meeting Brière after a playoff game. Pageau had come to a practice at Wells Fargo Center, then called Wachovia Center. He and Brière talked about stick curves in the hallway and Brière gave him a tour of the locker room. “He had those big eyes, trying to take it all in,” Brière recalls.
Years later, as Pageau bounced between Ottawa and its minor-league affiliate in Binghamton, Brière was always available for few quick texts to talk things through. Brière saw some of himself in Pageau, not only thanks to their similar statures—both are generously listed at 5' 10"—but their career paths. Both suited up for the same triple-A team, Gatineau L'Intrépide. “He had all the records that I had no chance to beat, not even close,” Pageau says. And like Pageau, Brière was confronted with demotions early in his career.
“We all want more as players,” Brière says. “We always want more responsibilities and when you’re young it’s tough to be patient. I’d get sent down and come back and be pouting a little bit, kind of depressed. Ironically, that’s when things started going better for me, the last time I got sent down. I went with the attitude of, I’m here to work as hard as I can to make my way back up.”
If Pageau indeed struggled during those stints near the Pennsylvania border, while he was still learning English, Brière never noticed. Neither did Luke Richardson, Pageau’s coach in the AHL. Pageau first arrived in Binghamton during the lockout season. A 2011 fourth-round pick by Ottawa, he could have returned to the QMJHL as an overager but turned pro and reported to the minors. He started in a fourth-line role, easing into the lineup. But by the time Ottawa inquired about recalls before the playoffs, Richardson was steadfast in his recommendation.
“They called and asked for your best players, someone who can give us a spark,” Richardson says. “That’d be Pageau. They said, ‘Are you sure? We like this guy, he’s big, this guy can skate.’ I’m telling you. This guy (Pageau) has been our best player for the last month in all areas. He’ll give you a spark.”
Even Richardson couldn’t have predicted how much spark. A few weeks later, he watched from the press box in Ottawa as Pageau hung three goals on the Montreal Canadiens in Game 3 of the opening round. On the first goal, Canadiens defenseman P.K. Subban’s stick clocked Pageau in the mouth right as he fired. His goal celebration included a raised arm, bloodied mouth, and missing tooth. (“It’s still not repaired,” Pageau says. “I’ve got to talk to our dentist soon. Maybe I’ll get a gold one.”) By the third period, the chants were roars. Pageau-Pageau-Pageau-Pageau. At home, Lazar watched on television and asked himself, “Who is this guy?”
“That opened the book for the story of his career,” Lazar says.
And like any good story, there were hurdles in the way. Before the 2013-14 season, Pageau was again sent to the minors. “[GM] Bryan Murray told him, you should be here, but we can’t have you, because you don’t have a one-way contract,” Richardson says. In Binghamton, Pageau took advantage of Richardson’s open-door policy and expressed some frustration at the situation. But, he added, “Don’t worry. It won’t affect my play. I just want to talk about it.”
For proof that Pageau kept to his word, Richardson points to a weekend last February when Pageau skated for Ottawa on a Friday, then scored three goals in two games for Binghamton on Saturday and Sunday.
“Disappointed? Absolutely,” Richardson says. “Did he show it in his play? No. Best teammate on the ice. The next night, best player on the ice again. Then they call him right back up. That’s the determination of him. He doesn’t let it get to him and break him and take his livelihood. He takes it and looks at his own game and makes it better, makes him more driven.”
Pageau went scoreless for the Senators during their six-game, opening-round loss to Montreal last postseason, then re-upped with Ottawa for two years and $1.8 million over the summer. The key element of his contract, which will return him to restricted free agency once it expires, was that it was a one-way deal.
“We play for Ottawa as a team, but it’s our job too,” he says. “I wanted to sign another contract. I think the way we ended the season, I wanted to sign a one-way too to be part of a winning team. It helped me a lot, too. My agent did a great job signing a one-way, now I just try to enjoy.”
So he does. Though the Senators’ penalty kill ranks 29th in the NHL, Pageau’s next shorthanded goal will make him the first player with five since Michael Grabner in 2010-11. He is trusted by head coach Dave Cameron for more than two shorthanded minutes each night and is often the first forward over the boards at five-on-three. In the crowded, competitive Atlantic Division, where six teams are within seven points of each other, Pageau will be counted upon during the playoff push to help Ottawa go where he took the Olympiques five years ago.
“It’s almost that little ball of energy,” Lazar says. “He’s small in stature but big in the heart. He pays attention to the detail in the defensive zone first, before cheating on the offense. I think he understands that part, knowing you have to shut down the other teams, and I think he’s really embraced that.”
Whenever the season ends, Pageau plans on returning to the tattoo parlor to get his left arm sheathed in ink. He has an idea, but just needs the time.
“There’s going to be more done,” he says, like a man with a big world ahead of him.