Belzile still adding new chapters to remarkable story

Photo: Vitor Munhoz / Arena du Rocket Inc.

📝 by Patrick Williams

The play happened in roughly nine seconds, but it was 11 pro seasons in the making for Alex Belzile.

The Laval Rocket captain will now always be in the National Hockey League record book as someone who scored a goal at the game’s highest level.

On recall to the Montreal Canadiens and facing the Edmonton Oilers in a Sunday matinee at Bell Centre, Belzile went to the net, just like he does each night with the Rocket. After tumbling into the right goal post pursuing a loose puck eight minutes into the first period, he recovered, hurried back to the slot, and then whipped an off-wing shot over Oilers goaltender Stuart Skinner’s left shoulder.

It was a goal that followed more than 500 professional games, including 319 in the AHL, for the energetic forward who first joined the Canadiens organization via an AHL deal with the Rocket in 2018.

“It’s my fifth year with the Montreal organization, and it’s the team that gave me a real chance,” Belzile said last week during the 2023 AHL All-Star Classic, where he represented the hosts in Laval.

At 31 years and 165 days old, Belzile became the oldest Hab to notch his first NHL goal since Herb Gardiner (35 years, 35 days) did so back on Dec. 7, 1926.

Another familiar Rocket name, Rafaël Harvey-Pinard, later picked up his sixth goal in nine NHL games this season as the Canadiens defeated Edmonton, 6-2.

Belzile, who made his NHL debut during the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs, played 11 games with Montreal last season but did not make his 2022-23 debut with the NHL club until Jan. 20. Since then, he has found his place in the Canadiens lineup, playing seven games and contributing four assists to go along with Sunday’s goal.

Not a bad afternoon of work for an undrafted forward like Belzile and a seventh-round pick in Harvey-Pinard. And not a bad weekend for the Canadiens, who also took a 4-3 overtime decision from the New York Islanders on Saturday afternoon. And meanwhile in Laval, the Rocket returned to action with wins over Syracuse and Utica, continuing to ascend the AHL’s North Division standings.

This was a Rocket club that looked out of sorts earlier in the season, losing 11 of its first 14 games. But they are now above .500 for the first time all season, and a 7-1-2-1 charge in the last month has put the Rocket into the playoff race. They have slipped past Rochester to take over fourth place, and are just five points behind the second-place Comets. Laval opens a five-game road swing on Friday with the first of three consecutive games at CAA Arena in Belleville.

A pair of key late-December wins against Syracuse set up the Rocket for a strong January. They also sparked Belzile, who entered the Christmas break with three goals in 19 games but scored in both games with the Crunch, starting a run of 10 goals in a nine-game stretch that included his first career AHL hat trick in a Jan. 14 win over Cleveland.

A week later, he was playing against the Toronto Maple Leafs on Hockey Night in Canada.

A native of Saint-Éloi, a small village of just 300 people on the St. Lawrence River well north of Quebec City, Belzile’s path to that spotlight had been a winding one. He played midget hockey at the low CC level, but would earn a roster spot with Rimouski in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League and signed his first pro contract in the ECHL in 2012, earning 14 games with the Canadiens’ former AHL affiliate in Hamilton.

Photo: Vitor Munhoz / Arena du Rocket Inc.

He played for five different teams in the ECHL and got his first prolonged look in the AHL with San Antonio, playing 131 games over three years with the Rampage and finally opening an opportunity to come to Laval in 2018. Upon joining the Rocket, Belzile posted new AHL highs with 54 points (19 goals, 35 assists) in 74 games in 2018-19 and was selected for the AHL All-Star Classic. He parlayed his AHL deal into a one-year contract with the Canadiens in 2019, and three one-year extensions with the NHL organization have followed.

But even then, there were obstacles. He was limited to 20 games with Laval in 2019-20 before undergoing season-ending surgery in December. He spent much of 2020-21 on Montreal’s taxi squad, playing only 19 games combined between the Rocket and Canadiens. Another injury held him to 32 AHL games last season. But a strong postseason run in which he unnerved opponents with an abrasive, grinding style helped the Rocket all the way to a Game 7 in the Eastern Conference Finals.

Belzile was named captain this fall following the offseason departure of Xavier Ouellet to the Pittsburgh organization. Taking on the Rocket captaincy required a shift in thinking.

You can be a leader for others, Belzile explained, but “you’ve got to work on yourself as well. If…you don’t work on your game, on your own pathway, it’s going to be tough.”

The role of an AHL captain does require considerable tending to young teammates’ needs adjusting to the pro lifestyle and its demands, especially in a market as demanding as the one in which the Habs and Rocket exist daily.

“Most of the time when you’re comfortable off the ice, you’re going to be comfortable on the ice.”

On the ice, his long path and time in the NHL provide additional credibility when helping those younger teammates. His message?

“I would just say the work ethic and those little details,” Belzile said. “I think when you’re in junior, sometimes you don’t have to really play a pro game. Like, you don’t know it yet. But if you look at the NHL, the details are unbelievable, and every rep matters. Every shift matters. You cannot have a couple of shifts off.

“I think that’s a difference, that mindset for younger guys to try to be as consistent as possible and to just to work. We were all young once. You’ve got to improve your game. You’ve got to improve your strengths, and there are a lot of areas that you can get better, and that’s what we try to do here.”

Whether it is in Montreal or Laval, Belzile dons the organization’s bleu, blanc et rouge proudly.

“It’s fun to play in front of family and friends as a French-Canadian,” Belzile said. “That’s the dream growing up.”