Minor hockey is getting very complicated. At the top levels, the battle for talent is constant and the CHL's feeder leagues don't just involve local kids – you also have international flavor. For example, Russian-born player Nikita Korostelev, the Toronto Maple Leafs prospect who currently skates with the OHL's Sarnia Sting, was not considered an "import" by the league, because he played two years of minor hockey for the Toronto Jr. Canadiens. This year, the same squad boasts several Russian-born players, including Kirill Nizhnikov, who is expected to go very high in the OHL draft.
And at the OHL Cup, the victorious York-Simcoe Express were backstopped by goalie Andrei Berezinskiy, himself Moscow-born.
Which brings us to Alexis Gravel, who competed at that same tournament with the Mississauga Senators. A 6-foot-2, 195-pound netminder with great athleticism and a dad who played pro, Gravel would be a dream for any OHL team – but they can't have him.
See, Gravel is actually a top prospect for the Quebec League. His father, Francois Gravel, was also a goaltender, rising as high as the AHL after being drafted 58th overall out of the 'Q' by the Montreal Canadiens in 1987. Francois spent a lot of time in Europe and with French citizenship, even made the Olympic team in Nagano. Alexis was born in Germany and spent six years in Italy before moving back to Montreal, though his international flavor admittedly goes only so far.
“Unfortunately, all my family speaks Italian, but not me," he said. "Just French and English.”
Gravel's adolescence continued to be travel-filled when his mom's work with a Quebec company took her to Mississauga. Gravel began playing for the Senators and with his mom going back and forth between provinces, the youngster ended up living with his Senators coach, Gary Camilleri. Needless to say, Gravel has been a good tenant.
“The kid’s amazing," Camilleri said. "He’s focused. He’s a hockey player. Not just in the way he plays, but in the way he acts. I’ve had a lot of billets over the years and I’ve had some great goalies play for me – Scott Wedgewood played for me – and he’s got all the traits.”
The Greater Toronto Area and its minor hockey league, the GTHL, continues to churn out top-end talent, from Connor McDavid to Robby Fabbri and Sam Bennett, so Gravel saw excellent competition with the Senators. His size is naturally a big advantage, but he also tracks the puck well and has a good does of athleticism, like idol Jonathan Quick. A voracious mind helps, too.
“He already knows who Gump Worsley is, he knows who Gerry Cheevers is – he studies his profession," Camilleri said. "The kid is the real deal.”
Hockey Canada agrees. When the national program was putting together an under-16 squad for the Youth Olympic Games in Norway recently, Gravel was tabbed as part of the goaltending tandem with Oliver Rodrigue – the other top netminding prospect in the QMJHL. Gravel started the gold-medal game against the powerful Americans, but couldn't be faulted on the early goals Team USA concocted en route to a 5-2 victory.
Overall, however, the experience was great for the young man, especially since his dad had played in a World Championship in Oslo – just two hours away from Lillehammer, where the Youth Olympics were held.
“That was so high-level," Gravel said. "All the teams were so good and we had to step up our game.”
And the next step for Gravel will be the QMJHL. The draft will be held on June 4 and while the youngster is nervous, he will be in demand. And hey; we know travel won't be an issue for him.