Belzile thriving ahead of ‘special’ return to Laval

Photo: John Mrakovcich

by Alex Thomas | AHL On The Beat

On July 1, 2023, Alex Belzile did something he had not done in exactly five years: change organizations.

On the first day of free agency, Belzile inked a two-year contract with the New York Rangers that ended a five-year stint in the Montreal Canadiens organization. This opened a new chapter for the Hartford Wolf Pack forward, one that he is embracing in the early going.

Belzile sits second on the Wolf Pack in scoring with 21 points (seven goals, 14 assists) through 20 games. That point total is good enough to tie him for eighth in the entire AHL in scoring. He’s been clutch too, as his three game-winning goals are tied for the Wolf Pack’s team lead.

Belzile left the organization he had called home since 2018, the first organization he signed an NHL deal with, and his hometown team. And he hasn’t missed a beat.

“Things have been good so far this year,” Belzile admitted. “We have a really good team here; we are well coached. We have a good mix of youth and older guys, and we are playing the right way. It is nice to come onto a new team that is already mature and running like a well-oiled machine.”

It’s not like things are completely new in Hartford, though. Belzile admitted to having at least one familiar face when he joined the team in October for training camp. The native of Saint-Eloi, Que., already had a good relationship with one of the Wolf Pack’s key players and leaders.

“I played and lived with Louis Domingue during our first pro year (2012-13 with the ECHL’s Gwinnett Gladiators),” Belzile pointed out. “It is always nice to know some guys when you arrive at a new team. It helps the transition.”

Also helping with the transition is Belzile’s natural leadership ability and love for the game. Belzile previously held the captaincy for the AHL’s Laval Rocket. In Hartford, the respected veteran immediately was bestowed an “A” as he jumped right into the club’s strong leadership group.

“We have a lot of great people in this locker room,” Belzile said. “We are having fun while working hard every day. We all want to get better and move up to the next level.”

In typical leadership fashion, however, Belzile was quick to deflect his role and shine the spotlight on another veteran newcomer.

“Having a guy like Riley Nash with us helps a lot,” he said of the 627-game NHL veteran. “We are very lucky to have him around us every day. His resume speaks for itself.”

With things going well for Belzile both on and off the ice on a personal level, the only box left to check from his first two months in Hartford is team success. And you can consider that checked off too. The Wolf Pack currently sits second in both the Atlantic Division and the Eastern Conference with a 14-4-2-0 record. Their 30 points are good for a third-place standing in the entire AHL, just one point behind the second-place Calgary Wranglers and six back of the league-leading Hershey Bears.

“Things are always better when you are winning,” said Belzile, who won two championships in the ECHL and made his NHL debut during the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs. “We are playing the right way every night, which is important. We know how competitive the league is, especially our division. The hardest thing to do is to be consistent. We are trying to stick to our plan every night and so far, the process has been really good for us.”

With things going smoothly in the present, Belzile will get a chance to tap his stick to the past this weekend. It’ll be a special road trip for the forward because, for the first and only time this season, he’s going home.

The Wolf Pack will travel to Laval on Thursday, then play two games against the Rocket on Friday night and Saturday afternoon.

For Belzile, it will be his first time back at Place Bell, and the first time facing the franchise for which he is the all-time leader in games played (174), goals (54), assists (76) and points (130).

Photo: Vitor Munhoz/AHL

“First of all, I am excited,” Belzile said. “I had five great years in Laval. It is the organization that gave me my first real chance in the AHL and also in the NHL, so I will be forever grateful to them. It will always be special to come back to Laval.”

The focus for Belzile, and teammates like fellow Quebec natives Domingue and defenseman Nikolas Brouillard, will certainly be on the four points that will be on the table. Still, the return trip to face his former team in his home province will certainly bring back memories and stir up emotions.

“It is nice to look back at those five years,” Belzile admits. “To develop a culture from a new team in the league to now being a place that players want to play is pretty amazing. I met a lot of people who influenced my career in a good way while I was there. I was fortunate to spend five years with the organization.

“I had a lot of great memories in Laval. The long run in the Calder Cup Playoffs that we had two years ago sticks out. I still remember how loud it was at Place Bell during those playoffs, the ‘white-out’ crowd was pretty cool. I’m excited.”

The excitement will almost certainly be shared by the passionate fans who will pack Place Bell for both games this weekend, as they welcome their former captain back home. When the puck is down and the game begins, however, the excitement will turn to business.

For Belzile, his special trip back home will allow him to pay tribute to his past five years, while also continuing to excel in his current situation as a key contributor and leader with the Wolf Pack.