Rather than bother with fielding selfie requests at the grocery store or having his shoulder tapped in a dark movie theater, Jonathan Drouin decided to simply leave Montreal altogether. He rented a furnished house about two hours away in Mont-Tremblant, Quebec, not far from his home village of Huberdeau, and spent several weeks enjoying the lush forestry and ample golf courses with friends. He logged off Twitter, disconnected from the news, relished the peace and privacy. “Just wanted to get away and live my life like before the trade,” Drouin says. And did he succeed? “Kind of. Even up north, they’re obviously big Canadiens fans too.”
If nothing else, Drouin at least owed his buddies an extra round of 18 holes. On June 15, he had been driving to meet them when agent Allan Walsh called and advised Drouin to turn around. Not only had Tampa Bay traded away the dazzling 22-year-old center and his restricted free agent rights, Walsh explained, but his presence was needed for a press conference with his new team posthaste—an hour and a half away, at the Bell Centre, where Drouin would be announced as the newest member of the Montreal Canadiens.
Ten seconds of silence greeted this news. Finally, Drouin spoke: “This is a dream come true.”
So he bailed on golf and headed south instead, tracing a familiar route toward downtown. As a kid, Drouin would return from school and wait for his father, a security guard, to finish work around 4:30 p.m. Then they would park near Bell Centre, devour chicken wings and pizza at a sports bar, and watch their beloved bleu blanc rouge. He remembers Saku Koivu’s triumphant return from cancer treatment in April 2002, the Canadiens’ five-goal comeback against the Rangers in Feb. 2008, and how no matter where he ventured last offseason, everyone wanted to talk about P.K. Subban-for-Shea Weber. “Hockey fanatics all over the place,” Drouin explains, helping educate a reporter who hails from northern Virginia. “Radio, taxi drivers, that’s all they talk about. I’ve never seen anything like it, to be honest.”
Which means that he also acutely understood the new celebrity that awaited him after getting dealt for prospect defenseman Mikhail Sergachev, another straight-up summer blockbuster brokered by Canadiens GM Marc Bergevin. “Being French-Canadian,” Drouin says, “I knew it was going to go up a level. And it definitely did.” Foresight led to the vacation retreat, far from talking heads and selfie-seekers. Here is the truth, though: Drouin wasn’t escaping Montreal so much as taking one final deep breath before plunging into a challenge for which he feels entirely prepared. “I’ve always thrived on pressure,” he says. “I always feel like I’m into it more. And when you get 41 games at the Bell Centre, you’re going to feel pressure every night.”
This was already true for anyone on the Habs, regardless of nationality, from captain Max Pacioretty and all-star goalie Carey Price down to the roster depths. “But with Drouin it’ll be maybe five times bigger,” says Cedric Paquette, a fellow Quebecer and former Tampa Bay teammate. “The fans are all going to have their eyes on him. For them, it’s huge. It’s something they didn’t get since probably Guy LaFleur. And it’s big for him too. I think he can make a name for himself and be a superstar in Montreal.”
When the franchise was founded in Dec. 1909—“NEW FRENCH CLUB IN LEAGUE” read the Gazette headline, sandwiched between ads for Cuban cigars and dry ginger ale—other owners in the recently formed National Hockey Association swore off signing French-Canadian players until manager Jack Laviolette could complete his roster. It was born a Francophone team for Francophone fans, but the pool of worthy talents had dried in recent decades...at least until a puck wizard unexpectedly came home.
“His style is spectacular and we need that,” says Paul Gagné, who has trained Drouin in Montreal for the past five summers. “They’re hungry for a Quebec guy that will make them rise up. There’s always that tribal behavior. They haven’t been spoiled by super players since Patrick Roy.”
“This community needs another Guy LaFleur, another Jean Beliveau,” says former Canadiens GM Serge Savard. “A new local hero in town. It’s the history of this team."
Beliveau...LaFleur...Roy...quite decorated company for someone who just reached his 99th and 100th career NHL points in Tuesday night’s 5-2 loss against San Jose, which sank the Canadiens to 1-4-1. Then again the 99th was a two-touch pellet that whizzed past goalie Martin Jones’ glove-side ear on the rush, illustrative of why teammate Charles Hudon calls Drouin “a great magician.” He is among the league’s fastest skaters and possesses “off-the-charts hands” according to Paquette. Like most young centers thrust into top-line duty, Drouin could stand to improve in the defensive zone; certainly it helps when no one can strip the puck from him.
“When you’re Francophone here, it comes with responsibilities,” says former Montreal forward Vincent Damphousse. “A lot of people want it, but they can’t do it. To perform and be the leading scorer, you need a special talent. Jonathan certainly has that. We’ve been looking for that number one center for years in Montreal, someone who can take this team to the next level. He’s still learning, still improving, but he has all the tools to be able to do it.”
More than most, Damphousse can relate. Much to the delight of the entire province, he joined his hometown Habs before 1992-93 and promptly led them in playoff scoring en route to the Stanley Cup, which still stands as their most recent.. He met Drouin not long ago, during a dinner at Bell Centre with alumni, season-ticket holders and sponsors. During their brief chat, he saw something familiar. “I grew up a Canadiens fan, just like Jonathan,” Damphousse says. “I loved the pressure. I loved playing for them. Jonathan came in with the same attitude. He’s super happy to be here.”
Indeed, it takes a certain attitude to flourish in Montreal. But Drouin has never lacked for self-belief or determination. Why else would he have requested a trade from Tampa Bay in Nov. 2015, refusing to report to the minors and instead stomaching a suspension? “He put a major bet on himself,” Walsh says. “And there’s very few people willing to do that at any stage in their career.”
The Lightning never found a suitable partner at the time, though enough fences were mended for Drouin to excel during their run to the 2016 Eastern Conference Final and string together a 73-game, 53-point season in 2016-17. “I think he got more mature when he left, it seemed,” Paquette says. “When he came back, he was a little bit different. He came to the rink earlier, he was one of the last to leave the rink, taking care of his body more. I think it was good for his maturity. He was really good. I think he helped him a lot.”
But with paydays due this offseason for other core members like Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat, Tampa Bay made its choice and scored the No. 9 pick from ‘16 as a return prize. Once the deal was consummated, as Drouin changed direction from the golf course, Walsh and Bergevin spent three straight hours hammering down his six-year, $33-million extension. The press conference had already been scheduled for 5 p.m., and Bergevin expressed a desire to announce a new contract and a new player simultaneously. “Wouldn’t it be great?” he said.
When the chaos eventually settled, Drouin told Walsh that he wanted to immediately “lay down roots in the community” with a charitable effort. With guidance from Savard, a former Canadiens captain who helped steer fundraising efforts for the Centre hospitalier de l’Université de Montréal (CHUM), Drouin settled on donating $500,000 over the next 10 years, plus promising to assist in raising $5 million more. “I wore two hats, because I was speaking about the hospital,” Savard says, “but I told him how great that thing would be for him, if he would do such a thing in Montreal and probably be the next big French-Canadian hero in the years to come. I’m pretty proud of what he did. It’s big in this community.”
And yet Drouin insists that little has changed; he already lived downtown during the offseason, working out alongside Pacioretty and fellow Francophone like Florida’s Jonathan Huberdeau. Sure, shopping takes longer. Movie night might get interrupted. He supposes he’ll start avoiding Twitter after losses, a wise idea. But these are the small tolls for this life-sized dream. “When you’re young, you don’t know if you’re going to make it that far,” he says, “but you see yourself being at the Bell Centre, playing for the Canadiens. For that to be true is pretty surreal.”