When he participated in his first training camp with the Montreal Canadiens more than 25 years ago, Jean-François Houle did not have the chance to experience a rookie camp like the one he would lead. here Monday. That doesn’t mean that he doesn’t understand the importance of these next few days for 27 young prospects in the Habs organization.
” What I like [d’un camp des recrues], is that it is the first time that the players wear the Canadian jersey. For them, it’s a great showcase to showcase themselves against players of their age. I think the “fun” is great,” declared the head coach of the Laval Rocket in a press scrum Wednesday morning at the CN Sports Complex in Brossard.
Houle as well as his assistants Martin Laperrière and Kelly Buchberger paraded in front of a handful of journalists on the occasion of the inaugural day of this camp, while the players underwent a series of physical tests and medical examinations.
Thursday morning, the players will participate in a brief on-ice training session in Brossard before flying to Buffalo at 11 a.m.
Starting Friday, they will play three games in four days against the prospects of the Buffalo Sabres, the Boston Bruins (Saturday) and the Ottawa Senators (Monday).
Houle, Laperrière and Buchberger will be behind the bench during these three matches.
An important step
Like Buchberger when he took his first steps in the NHL with the Edmonton Oilers in the late 1980s, Houle was invited directly to the NHL team’s main training camp — without any prior step. It was 1997, but he still vividly remembers how he felt.
“I was nervous. Very nervous. For a young man who had been drafted by the Montreal Canadiens, it was impressive to see all these great players,” Houle recalled, while admitting that he would have liked to experience such a camp.
“It allows them to get their feet wet a little, to test their equipment, to feel like they’re on the ice with players your age. I think it’s a beautiful thing,” he added.
Nervousness will certainly be present among the Habs’ young prospects during the matches in which they will participate in the coming days. For this reason, Houle, Laperrière and Buchberger will not focus on imposing too rigid a structure on them.
“It’s not a tournament that is super easy mentally, because the players want to perform so well,” remarked Houle.
“We want them to play with their heads free. We don’t give them too much structure. We think it’s important to let them play, to see what they can give us, see what they can do and allow the leaders to evaluate them. It’s an important moment for them,” he added.
Houle also recalled that such a camp can offer the opportunity for a young player to get noticed to the point of progressing more quickly than one might have anticipated. In this regard, he gave the example of defender Arber Xhekaj last year.
“He played freely, he didn’t worry about anything. He went on the ice and played hockey. He gave good, hard checks, made good passes, played within his means. He had a good camp last year, which allowed him to earn a position with the Canadiens,” recalled Houle.
“That’s what rookie camp is for. You want to leave a good impression on the leaders who look at you, and this is a start. It’s an important element for a young prospect in an organization,” he added.
This rookie camp could also allow Houle and his assistants to have a clearer idea of the players who will join the Rocket during the next season.
And as will be the case with the team in Montreal, growth will be the main theme for the Habs farm club in 2023-2024.
“The growth is going to be very significant. We want all our young players or our veteran players to be ready when a call comes to play in Montreal. We will work with the National League instructors here in Montreal, with the Canadiens, to be on the same wavelength, to be sure that all our players are ready when they are called up,” mentioned Houle.
“We are going to have a good team. We’re going to be young. The progress will be significant. We take it day by day. In the American League, there are so many uncertainties, with guys who can get called up. But I think that after Christmas, we want to see good progress from our young players,” he concluded.