AHL uncertainty offers new trial for Canadiens’ Harvey-Pinard to overcome

Rouyn-Noranda Huskies' Rafael Harvey-Pinard hoists the Memorial Cup after defeating the Halifax Mooseheads. (Andrew Vaughan/CP)

MONTREAL — When news broke on Monday that the American Hockey League had cancelled the remainder of its season, and when president and CEO David Andrews followed that up by telling Sportsnet the league couldn’t afford to operate for any sustained period of time without fans in the seats, the first person I thought of was Raphael Harvey-Pinard.

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And that’s not to detract from the fact that this is a devastating blow for the 750-plus players currently plying their trade in the NHL’s biggest talent incubator. Every professional hockey player has a limited window to carve out a career for themselves at the highest level of the sport, and the COVID-19 pandemic is stealing precious time away from all of them. It goes without saying that my thoughts were with every single AHLer when Monday’s news hit.

But I think the reason Harvey-Pinard was front and centre in my mind had everything to do with his lifelong journey to establish himself as an NHL player screeching to a halt right when he was on the cusp of taking that pivotal next step toward the AHL, and how difficult it must be for him to live with the uncertainty of his situation. And yes, there are many other players in the same situation, but not all of them have been through the trials and tribulations he has in order to arrive at this destination.

We’re talking about a former eighth-round selection pick in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League in 2015, a 21-year-old player who was twice passed over by all 31 NHL teams before the Montreal Canadiens moved up in the seventh round of the 2019 draft to make him a member of their organization. He’s a player who showed up to Canadiens rookie camp last fall and stole headlines with his incredible drive and determination, but also one that was sent back to junior without being given the chance he unquestionably earned to attend main camp.

All to say that Harvey-Pinard has dealt with considerable adversity every step of the way and now, with his junior days wrapped and no concept of when or where his career will resume, he might be facing the biggest obstacle of his hockey life.

“I’m for sure concerned by the situation, and I want to get back on the ice as quickly as possible,” Harvey-Pinard said when I spoke with him and his agent, Cutting Edge Management’s Chad Levitt, on Monday. “I’m thinking about what the next season has in store for me.”

They’re hopeful it’s a job in the AHL, but that’s anything but guaranteed.

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Andrews told Sportsnet that the league has been working with the NHL on various models for the 2020-21 AHL season, and though he all but guaranteed the league would resume, he cautioned that it likely would be in a different capacity than we’ve ever seen before.

“We need to prepare for all of those scenarios and whether it’s a full league operating for a full season or whether it’s some critical mass of teams operating for less than a full season or whether it’s regional competitions,” Andrews said on Hockey Central at Noon. “We’re going to have to find a solution as we go along.”

As Sportsnet’s Chris Johnston reported Monday, it’s doubtful the AHL will resume play with all of its 31 members operating.

Fewer teams playing means fewer jobs available, and that has to be at the root of concern for a player like Harvey-Pinard, who has yet to establish himself in the league.

Does that mean he’ll turn to Europe?

“That’s not our objective,” said Levitt. “It’s definitely a bit premature considering they announced today the AHL season is cancelled for this year. Is the opportunity of going to Europe something we’ve thought about? 100 per cent. As an agent, it’s my responsibility to explain to our players what the different opportunities are to keep them on the path of where they want and need to be, but I think May 11 is a bit premature to say Europe is the answer.

“I don’t want to talk out of turn, but there is talk circulating that some European leagues will resume playing as early as September. We don’t know for sure. But as we get deeper and deeper into the summer, if European leagues are indeed playing, I think you’re going to see a lot of players from North America start to look at those options.”

With so much uncertainty in the air, Harvey-Pinard is just focusing on himself.

“There isn’t much I can do about this other than train and train as hard as possible so I can be ready,” said Pinard, who accumulated 262 points in 248 games split between the Rouyn-Noranda Huskies and Chicoutimi Sagueneens over the last four seasons.

“I’m just going to double down on my efforts in the gym and wait for news on next season.”

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That should be music to the ears of Laval Rocket coach Joel Bouchard, who said on a conference call Monday that this extensive pause represents a unique opportunity for his players and Canadiens prospects alike.

“I know this is a time where we feel on standstill a little bit and for an athlete, more than anybody else, you feel when you cannot do your craft that you’re stuck, you’re done, you’re not going to be able to do anything,” Bouchard said. “I disagree… If I was a young 18, 19-year-old guy, there’s no reason I wouldn’t have a six-pack. That’s what I talk to the guys about all the time. Why can you not be a better athlete coming out of this? It’s beyond me. And it all comes down to attitude, will. And I always say this, when I talk about scouting or I talk about evaluating a certain player, the No. 1 skill is passion for the game, it’s passion to get better. And we’ve seen it again this year with guys that defeat the odds, that find a way to play a game in the NHL or get themselves up by doing a little extra. So I just see it as: What are you going to do when your competition is on the couch? And I think that’s what the guys should be thinking also.”

It’s certainly what Harvey-Pinard has on his mind.

He’s gathered all the necessary training equipment, worked vigorously on the regimen the Canadiens gave him once the CHL announced the cancellation of its season and he’s biding his time and anxiously hoping for rinks to reopen and for a clear path to emerge for him to continue his development.

“I think all throughout life I‘ve worked extremely hard to reach this goal,” the Jonquiere, Que., native said. “It started when I was really young, watching the Canadiens and building this dream to play for the Canadiens. As of that moment, I started working hard everywhere just to get to that level. I’ve had many obstacles in my life, but I learned to get past those hurdles and I’ll get through this one, too. I was cut twice when I was younger, and when I arrived in major junior I proved to everyone that I was more than an eighth-rounder and that I had my place in the league. And for me to get drafted by the Canadiens after two missed chances was really huge. I worked my whole life for that, and I’ll never give up until I get to that goal of playing there.”

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