NHL

Jonathan Drouin growing into the local star Canadiens fans crave

Things are going well to start this season for Canadiens forward Jonathan Drouin, but it hasn't been all flowers and standing ovations since he was traded to Montreal two years ago.

24-year-old has grown comfortable with the pressure of being a Canadien

Jonathan Drouin says he has grown comfortable with being in the spotlight in a hockey-mad city like Montreal. (Getty Images)

Jonathan Drouin was about to answer a routine question during a post-game interview after a recent win over the Stanley Cup champion St. Louis Blues when the crowd spontaneously erupted into cheers. 

For more than 30 seconds the Bell Centre faithful showered the kid who grew up only an hour and a half away from Montreal with love — as the fans roared you could almost see a metaphorical weight lifting off Drouin's shoulders. 

"I tried to cherish that moment. It was pretty emotional for me as well and it's something I'll remember for a while," Drouin said this week. 

Things are going well to start this season for Drouin, but it hasn't been all flowers and standing ovations since he was traded to Montreal from Tampa Bay in June 2017.

Far from it. Drouin's first two seasons in Montreal were a roller-coaster of up and down play, hate and love from the fans, and praise and sharp criticism from the media.  

As a local francophone playing for the Canadiens, the spotlight on Drouin is stronger than most other players on the team. He grew up north of the city in Sainte-Agathe-des-Monts.

"It's around what I expected," Drouin, 24, said. "I saw it as a young kid and it kind of got me a little more ready for this." 

Drouin only needs to look up at the rafters of the Bell Centre to understand how important star players from Quebec have been to the Montreal Canadiens. The retired numbers of the greats hang over him each time he steps on the ice for a home game and the pressure to live up to names like Guy Lafleur, Maurice Richard and Jean Beliveau is ever present. 

"You can't deny the fact that there is pressure. [If you do] you're just lying to yourself," Drouin said. 

Now in his third season wearing the CH, Drouin said he has a deeper understanding of what it really means to be "the guy" for one of hockey's most important and historically rich franchises. He's also developed a keen understanding of how dramatically the pendulum of emotions can swing among Habs fans. 

"It's been all over the place," Drouin said. "When you give effort and all that you have, fans are going to respect it no matter what and that's something I've come to realize." 

As a hometown francophone player, Drouin is under more scrutiny than most players in Montreal. (Ryan Remiorz/Canadian Press)

Drouin said that he's learned not to take criticism from the fans too personally. He said former local players have told him it comes with the territory. 

"A lot of players back then still got booed, it's just an occurrence here. It's something you live with. It's nice to talk to ex-players and know I'm not the only one. It's happened in the past and I'm not going to be the only one in the future, either." 

Habs management has been patient with Drouin. Head coach Claude Julien said during the pre-season when Drouin's play was being scrutinized in the media that the organization understands he's under a different kind of pressure than most other players on the team. 

He does media in two languages — which takes more time — and as one of only a few players on the team who speak French he's under a sharper microscope in Quebec. 

Learning to navigate this environment takes time and therefore Drouin had longer leash during slumps in his first two seasons. 

"It makes my job easier, because there is pressure," Drouin said. "For me I think I've handled it better this year. As the years go on I get better with certain situations that I was in the past." 

So far this season it appears the patience is paying off as Drouin is averaging nearly a point per game. But while marking up the score sheet is nice, it's his improved play on the defensive side that his teammates have noticed and appreciate. 

Canadiens captain Shea Weber, right, says Drouin's speed is key when it comes to playing defence. (Getty Images)

"It's been the work away from the puck that's led to more opportunities for him," Habs assistant captain Brendan Gallagher said. "He's skating so well right now. His energy has been so high." 

Habs captain Shea Weber agrees.

"One of his biggest attributes is his speed when he's really skating, not only on the offensive side of the puck, but he's working back for us and cutting guys off on the backcheck and that's resulting with pucks to go the other way as well," Weber said. 

Drouin has had strong runs of play to start previous seasons. His numbers last year after 10 games — three goals, five assists — aren't far off from the numbers he's put up so far this year. 

But long slumps, like finishing last season with only one goal in his final 26 games, have derailed him. He hopes his experience will prevent him from falling into a prolonged slump again.

"Looking back, sometimes that one [bad] game lingered a little too much for me in my head," he said. "There is some games that are not going to go your way. You can't let one game become two bad weeks or four bad games."

NHL players often say they try to block out distractions so they can focus on hockey — Drouin avoids any social media — but that doesn't mean players don't know what is being said about them. So moments like the one between the fans and Drouin after the game against St. Louis can go a long way to lifting the pressure.

"That was special and we know how much that meant to him as well," Gallagher said. "We do hear what's going on outside in the city as much as we try to pretend we don't."

It's still early, but Drouin seems to have figured out what went wrong in the past and if he can avoid the pitfalls of previous years there could be more touching moments between the Habs fan base and their local hero to come.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Douglas Gelevan is a national award-winning journalist who has been a member of the CBC team since 2010. In addition to his role as host of CBC Montreal Weekend News, Doug also covers community sports and sports news.

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