Alex Belzile’s road to the pros
by Marc Dumont
MONTREAL — It’s a long road to the top if you want to rock and roll.
Gwinnett, Hamilton, Anchorage, Boise, Fort Wayne, San Antonio, Loveland, and Laval.
While it’s common for hockey players to visit a myriad of cities throughout their careers, very few end up playing their home games in eight different cities over the course of eight years, in addition to playing in two different leagues with an eye on a third.
Then again, the career path that led Belzile to Laval was anything but standard.
The undrafted forward’s professional career was in limbo before it even began.
The year is 2012. The NHL lockout is in full swing. Hundreds of NHL players pack their bags for various leagues around the globe, with a focus on filling the ranks in the AHL.
A surplus of NHL players in the AHL leads to a surplus of AHL players in the ECHL.
And while the professional veterans settled into a familiar role, many players were left hanging in the balance.
Players like Belzile.
Brad Treliving, the former Portland general manager, was assembling a list of players that would be sent to the ECHL to play for the Coyotes’ affiliate, the Gwinnett Gladiators. The bulk of them had NHL or AHL contracts.
Alex Belzile’s name was not on the list.
But Treliving wasn’t done with him just yet.
“We have this really intriguing kid from Quebec. I want you to take a look at him,” he told head coach Jon Wroblewski, the same coach who would go on to watch over Cole Caufield’s impressive 72-goal season with the U.S. National U18 Team in 2018-19.
“I did a little digging and took Trev’s advice,” said Wroblewski.
They settled on a rookie contract, eventually, but even then, it took an injury from a roster player to open up the possibility of a contract.
But alas, despite the overflow of players and a lack of roster spots, Belzile earned his first professional contract.
And was about to learn a very important lesson.
Skill can only bring you so far.
“He was a step behind the play. There was no way around it,” explains Wroblewski. “But you could see he had the individual skill.
“He tried to utilize that individual skill too often, initially.”
A slow start gave way to Wroblewski sending Belzile to the press box to watch the game as a healthy scratch.
“He took it like a pro,” said Wroblewski, “At the same time, you could tell there were probably some choice words going on in his head. To his credit, his reaction exemplifies the kind of person he is. It goes to show his ability to persevere. He wasn’t going to let a little bit of bad news bring him down. He didn’t allow it to fester, but he used it as motivation.”
Keep in mind this is a young player arriving in Georgia from the “megapoli” known as St.Eloi, a Francophone town bordering the St-Lawrence river, that’s home to a little over 200 people.
But his attitude towards the language barrier and culture shock, as well as being a healthy scratch, would go on to epitomize the forward.
“There was a learning curve, and I didn’t understand everything, but it took me out of my comfort zone, and that paid off long term.
“I understood. I just arrived in a new league, on a new team, and I was starting at the bottom rung of the ladder. It’s part of the process for a young player. It’s not always due to a lack of production that you’re a healthy scratch, and that’s a good lesson for younger players. The coach doesn’t hate you when he makes you a healthy scratch. It’s often the opposite. For me, it sent the message that I had to improve, that I had to do better.”
And improve he did.
Following a very slow start to the year, Belzile would go on to become one of the best players on the team, lending credence to coach Wroblewski’s assertion that Belzile was a player worth investing in.
But there was one particular shift that stood out. A shift that would remain vivid in Wroblewski’s memory to this very day.
The Gladiators were facing the Florida Everblades on the eve of the NHL lockout ending.
Across the ice from Belzile stood two established NHL defensemen who happened to be playing in the ECHL at the time: Ryan O’Byrne and Mark Stuart.
“So, this rookie strips O’Byrne, an NHL defenseman, then drives the puck deep and scores out of nowhere.”
A revelation to all, except perhaps Belzile.
“That’s when I knew,” said Wroblewski. “This kid can play! He can jump a level, and who knows how high he can get.”
An undrafted player dangling around veteran NHL defensemen is one thing, but as per usual, Belize’s climb was far from over.
A serious injury, the first concussion of his career, set his career back following an impressive stint with the Hamilton Bulldogs.
He moved on to Alaska —where he was once again made a healthy scratch — Idaho, Fort Wayne, San Antonio, and Colorado, before settling on a contract with the Laval Rocket, where he has established himself as one of the undisputed leaders of the locker room. That status remained unchanged last season, even if Belzile missed the bulk of the year due to a pectoral injury, from which he’s completely recovered.
“It’s always helpful to have someone like that in the room,” explained Jake Evans, who finished second in team scoring behind Belzile in 2018-19. “He’s not just happy when he does well, he’s happy whenever someone else on the team does well. He’ll always come up and talk to them.”
Having dealt with adversity himself, Belzile is quick to comfort any lost rookie, or even a slumping veteran, even though there’s a real possibility they may pass him in the depth chart thanks to his help.
At 28, Belzile knows he’s no spring chicken. He’ll have to work hard to make the Canadiens roster. The same type of hard work that earned an invite to the 2018-19 AHL All-Star weekend. But as per usual, his unwavering positive attitude usurps any notion that he’s not getting a fair shake.
“Any time I get to the rink, I’m in my element,” said Belzile. “I’m immediately in the right mindset to perform. And it all starts with positive energy.”
Beyond his ability to preserve, Belzile casts a bright light everywhere he goes. It starts when he gets to the rink, where he’s rarely seen without a beaming smile, even if he’s watching his team practice while his arm is in a sling.
“It really doesn’t take much for a veteran to speak to younger players when they’re feeling insecure or nervous,” he said. “And sometimes, it’s very easy to get to the rink and not have much motivation to go out there and give your all. But injecting a positive attitude into the mix tends to fix those problems.”
His positive outlook, combined with a supreme confidence in his abilities, has served him well.
He qualifies his time in the ECHL and the AHL as a building block towards his ultimate goal: making the NHL.
“I see it as a passport to improvement,” said Belzile. “I learned and improved in every single city. Facing adversity at a young age has led to nothing but good things or me.”
Though we’re quick to point to the value of leadership, especially at the AHL level, it would be a mistake to write off Belzile as simply a good veteran.
He is a good veteran, absolutely.
But he’s also a very good hockey player, a player that still has a lot left to offer.
“He works so hard and battles for everything,” said Evans. “That is what makes him such a great player, he’s so hard to play against. It’s really hard to knock the puck off him. He’s good defensively, great at getting the puck back, and he can put the puck in the net. He’s a really smart player.
“That guy just goes after it. He doesn’t stop until he gets it.”
Wroblewski, who hasn’t coached Belzile in over eight years, was quick to offer a similar opinion.
“I definitely remember his tenacity, grouped with his ability to strip pucks and make a good play out of it,” said Wroblewski. “All the sudden, the puck is in the back of the net. He’s extremely skilled and a really hard worker.”
“But what really stood out was his love of the game.”
Ah, the love of the game.
It can be a cliché. It can mean nothing. And it’s quite often overused.
But once in a while, it resonates perfectly, succinctly epitomizing an athlete’s career.
“I’m not trying to be anyone else,” said Belzile. “I’m just me. I love helping out, I love being surrounded by people. It’s just passion. I still love it as much as I did when I was a 10-year-old playing on the community rink in St.Eloi.”
“I get to do what I love in life. It’s why I won’t ever stop. But every day I get to the arena I have a goal: I am going to get better.”