OTTAWA — For Jean-Gabriel Pageau, there was little chance that instant National Hockey League success last spring would go to his head. His idol, 14-year veteran Daniel Brière, wouldn’t let him get ahead of himself.
Brière, now playing for Montreal Canadiens, offered Pageau plenty of sage advice during the summer.
“One of the mistakes I made in my second and third year (of pro hockey) was that, when I was sent down (to the minors), I had the tendency to pout a little bit,” says Brière, a Phoenix Coyotes first-round draft choice in 1996 who needed five seasons to establish himself as a full-time NHL player. “I would think, ‘I was there last year, why can’t I stay this year?’ And that’s what I warned him against. Whatever happens, you’ve got to keep pushing. Even if you get sent down, you’ve got to show them that they made a mistake, and there are 29 other teams watching, so you never know.”
Pageau, the Ottawa Senators rookie centre who already has a playoff hat trick to his name, took those words to heart.
Just in case you weren’t paying attention during training camp, Pageau was one of the Senators’ top players. Fittingly, perhaps, he scored the team’s final goal of the pre-season in Sunday’s 4-1 loss to the New York Islanders. He also made a loud statement with his determination to shut down Toronto Maple Leafs centre Nazem Kadri early in the exhibition schedule, smashing him hard into the boards and ending up in the middle of a scuffle that ended with blood dripping down Pageau’s cheek. That came after a standout rookie tournament in London, where Pageau dominated.
If Pageau hadn’t delivered, it likely would have been him and not Mika Zibanejad, who heard the disappointing news about a demotion back to Binghamton of the American Hockey League on Monday as the Senators pared the roster to 22 players.
“Danny gave me good tips,” Pageau says. “Just to make sure I give everything I have and do all the sacrifices. I think he’s really good for that. During the summer, we played summer hockey together, and I just tried to apply his tips.”
They may be almost a generation apart and Brière is at the tail end his career while Pageau is just getting started, but the similarities go on and on.
Brière, who turns 36 on Sunday, is a supremely gifted, but undersized centre (5-10, 181 pounds) who eventually found a way to succeed against the bigger boys in the big leagues. Pageau, 20, is a two-way centre whose size (5-9, 172 pounds), hasn’t stopped him from working harder than his competition.
From the beginning, Pageau followed in Brière’s skate marks. He attended the same Gatineau high school and played for the same Gatineau Intrépide midget AAA team as Brière had before embarking on his own junior career with the Gatineau Olympiques.
While Pageau grew up watching Brière put up big numbers in Phoenix, Buffalo and Philadelphia, the two didn’t meet until Pageau was 15. Brière’s Gatineau’s contacts told him about the rising teenage star, so he invited Pageau and his uncle to Philadelphia to watch him play a Game 7 playoff game against Montreal.
“You hear about the best player in the area and he drove down to the game,” Brière says. “He came to the dressing room and I gave him a stick. And, after that, you started hearing more and more about him. From everyone around, all I kept hearing was how mature he was for his age, how dedicated he was, how serious he was in wanting to play in the NHL. When you see a kid like that, that really wants to take it to the next level, it’s great. You try to help them.
“You can tell in his attitude. He’s one of those kids that always wants more. He’s very competitive. And one thing I told him, ‘It’s one thing to get to the NHL. There are a lot of guys who get there. It’s also about moving forward, about staying there for many years.’ ”
Pageau remembers everything about that first visit. As fate would have it, Pageau made his NHL debut in Philadelphia last spring, five years after meeting his idol for the first time. The only unfortunate part of the story was that Brière was injured and didn’t play. That time, Brière came to see Pageau.
“I think that (playoff game) gave me a little push, that I really wanted to play there one day,” Pageau says. “Last year, I had my chance. Danny wasn’t playing, but he came to see me after the game and he congratulated me. It was nice of him.”
Briere understands that Pageau was driven, like himself, to prove people wrong when they suggested size would keep them from making it to the highest level of hockey.
“Even sometimes I say, if I had been 6-2 or 6-3, I’m not sure I would have been an NHL player because that was my drive, my motivation. You’ve got to find that little extra kick in your step, but it’s funny because I don’t really know how much I helped (Pageau).”
Pageau begs to differ.
“We’re both from Gatineau and we’re about the same size and he’s the kind of player I want to look like,” he says. “I would like to have the same career. He told me it’s the same every year. You need to compete and fight for your spot.”
As much as they have become friends and respect each other for what they’ve accomplished, expect the competition to be fierce if they go head-to-head when the Senators and Canadiens play.
The only time they’ve faced each other so far was in the Senators’ 2013 regular-season finale, on April 27, when Philadelphia visited Ottawa.
“I took a faceoff against him and I won it,” Briere says, with a smile. “So, that was the bragging rights for the summer. You can mention that to him.”