MONTREAL— Picture this if you can: Keith and Lisa Primeau step through the entrance of section 114 at the Bell Centre and as they make the walk down to their seats warmup is just getting underway, the Montreal Canadiens are taking to the ice, and their son Cayden, wearing that prestigious uniform, is skating over to the boards by the penalty box.
The kid, who’s appearing in his first-ever NHL game, is just 50 feet away from his parents, hunched over in a full stretch. They’re standing at their seats, snapping pictures and shooting them off to the rest of the family via group text when suddenly he pops up and heads to his net. They look at each other and shake their heads in unison.
"This is real," says Lisa, fighting back tears.
What a night for Keith and Lisa Primeau, celebrating son Cayden’s first win as a Montreal Canadien. pic.twitter.com/QtdE1cLjwM
— Eric Engels (@EricEngels) September 17, 2019
The Primeaus had an inclination Cayden would be making his NHL debut on Monday when they got a text from him at 4:45 p.m. ET on Sunday.
"I’m dressing tomorrow but I’m not playing, he said," explained Keith, who split 15 years in the NHL between the Detroit Red Wings and Philadelphia Flyers—appearing in over 900 games and registering over 600 points over his career. "I said, ‘That’s great, that’s awesome. Congratulations. Who’s playing?’ And he’s like, ‘Carey (Price).’ So now it’s like, ‘Are we going to go up? Are we going to fly? He’s not playing but he’s dressing.’ And then I think, ‘Wait a minute…’
"I text Cayden and say, ‘How did they tell you? Did they say Carey’s playing and you’re backing up?’ He says, ‘Nono. It was just Price and Primeau on the board.’
"So I started thinking, when I played early exhibition games they split goalies. And I went back and looked at last year’s early exhibition games and the Habs split the goalies. So I didn’t even tell him, I just told Lisa that he was going to go in and I felt confident he was going to get some time. So we packed up in like 45 minutes and we were in the car by 6:00 p.m. and on our way and we pulled into Montreal at 3:00 a.m. this morning."
It was a tense day for all three of them. Keith, who’s a part owner in a Montreal-based company that sells recycled cardboard boxes, spent it at the office keeping his mind occupied as best he could. Cayden tried to treat it like it was just any other gameday when it was anything but that.
And then there was Lisa, who was left to her own devices.
"She was a basket of nerves and she said she almost felt like throwing up and that she had tears in her eyes all day," said Keith.
In Lisa’s mind, the moment she was preparing to witness later in the day was 20 years in the making.
"I don’t want to sound like that mom," she said moments before getting to her seat at the Bell Centre. "But I saw how hard he worked for this. I couldn’t imagine that he wouldn’t achieve it. I always knew he would."
It was anything but guaranteed. It wasn’t that long ago that Primeau and his parents were sitting in Chicago’s United Center, waiting to hear Cayden’s name called at the NHL Draft. They thought he’d probably go in the fourth round, and then it seemed like he wasn’t going to go at all.
Relief came for the family when the Canadiens made a trade with the Flyers for a seventh-round pick and finally selected Cayden 199th overall.
His rise since that June day in 2017 has been meteoric. First it was on to Northeastern University, where he stole the net from the starting goaltender within a month of being there. He authored a remarkable rookie season and then followed it up with an even better sophomore year.
At the end of it, Primeau signed his entry-level contract with the Canadiens. Thirteen days later he took home the Mike Richter Award as the NCAA’s best goaltender. Then it was off to the world championships with Team USA.
Before he knew it, he was back in Montreal.
On Monday, Primeau watched from the bench as Price made eight saves to help the Canadiens preserve a 2-1 lead through the first 30 minutes of their game against the New Jersey Devils.
"I was just trying to take it all in," he said. "It was my first time experiencing something like this."
His parents were on pins and needles.
"He just needs to feel the puck early," Keith said moments before Cayden took off his baseball hat, pulled on his mask and skated into the action.
Seconds later, Devils superstar Nico Hischier came streaking down the left side of the Canadiens zone on a 2-on-1 break with Blake Coleman. Hischier waited for the opening, put a perfect pass on Coleman’s stick, and Coleman ripped a shot at what he thought was an open net.
That’s when Cayden slid across his crease and stuffed Coleman’s shot with his left pad. The crowd roared, "Primeau! Primeau! Primeau!"
"I was just trying not to cry," said Lisa.
"That’s not what I meant when I said he just needs to feel the puck early," said Keith.
They were beaming with pride.
"His first game for the most storied franchise ever? It’s surreal," said Keith. "Right from the first day I saw him play goal, he could stop a puck. I said, ‘He’s a good seven-year-old,’ and my friends agreed. And then it was, ‘He’s a good 12-year-old, and he’s a good 15-year-old, and he’s a good 18-year-old, and now he’s a good 20-year-old.’ For me, that’s all it’s ever been."
In the third period, Cayden made 11 more saves. His best one came on a half-break for Kyle Palmieri, who shifted quickly from forehand to backhand and tried to beat him on the blocker side. This came just a few minutes after he had scrambled out of his net to stop a rim-around on the glass and the puck had taken a horrible bounce to the slot to give Mike McLeod an easy goal to tie the game 2-2.
"There’s bounces here and there and sometimes you’re on the right side and sometimes you’re on the wrong side," Cayden said. "It’s part of the game."
— Eric Engels (@EricEngels) September 17, 2019
He shrugged it off and kept the Canadiens in the game before Jake Evans scored a short-handed goal to put them up 3-2.
Nick Cousins added one to secure the 4-2 win for Montreal.
Afterwards, Cayden was all smiles.
"This was pretty special," he said.
Then Cayden showered up, put on his suit, and walked past security to find Keith and Lisa.
Lisa hugged him tight. He shared a laugh with off-season goaltending coach Chris Kanaly, who grabbed a 3:00 p.m. flight from Philadelphia just to be there, and he embraced Keith’s partner Brian Young.
And then it was a high-five and a big hug from Keith.
"You can always dream, but that was something special," Cayden said.
It was all that and more for his 31-year-old brother Corey, his 24-year-old sister Kylie and his 22-year-old brother Chayse, who all found a way to watch from home.
It was pure magic for Keith and Lisa to witness it live in person.