Pelham’s Blanchard brothers looking for playoff success

BY JARED SLOAN
Special to the Voice

With the Sherbrooke Phoenix on a power play in the third period of a tie game, a failed clearing attempt is gloved down by a defenseman just inside the blue line. When a converging checker bites on the threat of a pass to the right, the defenseman keeps the puck and darts left into open space, and now it’s a green-light special. He wheels to the top of the faceoff circle and then, with the graceful power of a Freddie Couples drive, he hammers the puck high and glove side, net-bound in a meteoric blur. “Un laser,” as it is aptly described on the French-language broadcast. It holds up as the game-winner— or in these parts, le but gagnant — in a 4-3 victory over the Rimouski Océanic.

That was Maxime Blanchard, unassisted, on November 6, 2021. It is several weeks later when I first see it, in the midst of a late-night rabbit hole of Sherbrooke Phoenix highlights and box scores, following the eyebrow-raising realization that said team was leading all others in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League (QMJHL) standings. I’m filing this one under Developing Stories with a Solid Local News Angle.

You may remember Max Blanchard and younger brother, Alex, appearing on the front page of this newspaper last February. I’ve known Max since our Grade 11 year, his first at Ridley College. I got to watch him and Alex — both left-shot defensemen — play a handful of times in high school, including a home game vs. Appleby in 2019, where I did play-by-play commentary for the livestream. Didn’t gain very much insight into their defensive abilities on that night, as Ridley won so overwhelmingly that the scorekeepers stopped updating the score.

But I think it’s safe to assume these guys can play, based on how things have turned out. In 2019, with Max as captain and Alex as the heir apparent, Ridley’s Varsity Hockey Team played for two league titles, emerging as winners of the Midwest Prep Hockey League and runners-up to St. Andrew’s College in the CISAA playoffs. Max then moved on to Junior A, joining the CCHL’s Ottawa Jr. Senators with an eye towards earning NCAA scholarship offers. But when Covid-19 cut short his season and placed the next one in jeopardy, he decided to pivot to major junior, accepting an offer from the Sherbrooke Phoenix with the hope that the QMJHL would be able to put on a legitimate season.

Max made his regular season debut for the Phoenix on October 2, 2020. Unfortunately, that turned out to be one of just five games the Phoenix were able to play in the Covid-ravaged pre-2021 portion of their schedule. Even more unfortunately, they lost all five games. That was apparently enough to convince management to divest at the trade deadline, with veteran players being dispensed in exchange for draft capital. In search of players to fill the vacated roster spots, the team asked Max about a Junior A defenseman with whom he had some familiarity. On January 11, 2021, Sherbrooke officially announced the acquisition of Alexandre Blanchard.

On January 11, 2021, Sherbrooke officially announced the acquisition of Alexandre Blanchard

The Phoenix finally resumed play on January 22, and went on to win eight of their remaining 22 regular season games before being expelled from the playoffs in a first-round sweep. Not a banner season for the franchise, but for the players there was considerable solace in being able to play real hockey at a time when many Canadian juniors were not so lucky. And to hear Max tell it, a new belief was aborning within the locker room. The Sherbrooke Phoenix were readying to rise from the ashes.

I spend a bit of time with Max over the summer, and am much relieved to find out that golf is the one athletic discipline in which I can take him. Maybe ping pong, too—although given his extensive experience in competitive badminton, I wouldn’t be too sure of that. These multi-sport chops earned him Ridley’s Male Athlete of the Year honours in 2019. Turns out he’s also a guitar-slinging rocker, with the YouTube channel to prove it (blanchmusic, for those interested). And though I once fancied myself an expert on the subject, it quickly becomes clear that he possesses a superior knowledge of The Tragically Hip, which I am slightly rattled by. But he generously offers to comp my tickets if I come to a Sherbrooke game, so all is forgiven.

A few months later, with Christmas drawing nigh, I am making plans to redeem the aforementioned offer over the holidays. (As you may have heard, Omicron had other plans.) That’s when I am admittedly taken aback by the sight of Max’s team atop the league standings, next to a points percentage in the order of 0.750. Not to mention that the elder Blanchard is sitting inside the top ten in the league in points amongst defensemen. Maybe he can explain what’s going on here.

“We kind of decided that we were going to rebuild [last season],” Max tells me over the phone. “A lot of guys got moved around for picks…and I guess it was like the shortest rebuild ever, because in half a year, we were able to kind of figure everything out, practice a lot and figure out our team identity, and we’ve been able to put it on the ice this year.”

Uh-huh. But no one really expected this, right?

“The articles at the beginning of the season definitely had us not winning that many games, so we used that as fuel. We would post the articles on our team board in the dressing room, and we’d just kind of look at it every morning, knowing that a lot of people are underestimating us.”

Ah, the proverbial bulletin board material. These kids still read newspaper articles? In that case, let me just state for the record: THE SHERBROOKE PHOENIX WILL NOT BE QMJHL CHAMPIONS THIS YEAR. But of course, there’s a little more to it than trying to flex on the haters.

“We knew we had a really good camp, we knew we had a really good team, especially with all the systems and the strategies we’d built in the half-season before with all our new players. So we already had really good chemistry, and we knew that we were gonna come out hot…it was just about performing on the ice and executing our systems, and we were able to find our way. I think we surprised a lot of people, and we hope to continue surprising people.”

I think we surprised a lot of people, and we hope to continue surprising people

I’ll start writing the movie script now. Sort of like Hoosiers, but with a QMJHL team. Clearly we have the makings of a CBC made-for-TV classic.

In my script, there will be little mention of the period of time from December 18 to February 3, during which the QMJHL’s regular season is suspended amidst the Omicron wave. But a short time into the unofficial second half of the schedule, Sherbrooke lands a starring role opposite Rimouski in a Friday Night Lights face-off on TSN. The Phoenix come out like a house aflame, outshooting Rimouski 13-2 in a scoreless first period, but struggle to rekindle any sense of momentum after giving up two quick goals in the middle frame. They eventually make a late push, but still down 2-0 with only two minutes to play, it appears their fate on this night has been sealed.

That is, until Max hops over the boards and begins raining terror from the blue line with four heavy blasts in short order, one of which fells a defending player who has the misfortune to block it with his ankle. Then, with the clock ticking down to under a minute, Max slides the puck down to the left faceoff dot for the QMJHL’s leading scorer, Joshua Roy, who fires a brilliant pass through the slot for a backdoor tap-in. That counts as an apple for the kid from Pelham — we’ll call it a Honeycrisp from Duffin Appleworks — and his team ain’t dead just yet.

Max receives a pass at the right point with less than ten seconds left, and from my couch at home I’m silently beseeching him to let it fly once more. Instead, he smartly dishes it off to Roy, whose last-chance wrister provides the perfect climax, but not the desired outcome. For my money, Sherbrooke deserved at least one point out of this game, but as they say in the QMJHL, c’est la vie.

Actually, I have no idea whether anyone says that. All I know is that this Sherbrooke team seems to have something special – call it an esprit de corps if you like— and I’m not putting any ceiling on what it could accomplish.

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It is April 28, and my astute analysis is that the Sherbrooke Phoenix are still a very good QMJHL team —at least so far as one can tell when one lives nearly 600 km from the Quebec border. And I have independently verified that distance, having just driven it.

The Phoenix will play their third-to-last regular season game tonight in Gatineau, pitting them against the one team which still has an outside chance to overtake them in the race for the No. 1 playoff seed in the Western Conference. But Sherbrooke can kibosh that chance with a win tonight.

I meet up with a high school friend who lives in the area, and we arrive just before puck drop at the Centre Slush Puppie, which I was told is one of the premier venues in the league. As it should be, based on its name alone. And there’s a hearty crowd in here tonight, certainly enough to give this game some extra juice of the non-frozen kind.

Max is the only Blanchard dressing for this game, so we’re doubly focused on #7 in the double blue. And it’s hard to miss him when he’s playing heavy minutes at both ends, 5-on-5 and otherwise, in different pairings, switching between the left side and the right side. Trusted in all situations, and entrusted with an “A” on his sweater. This team has a few horses who can drive play from the backend, which is, to my eye, among the principal reasons to be bullish on its postseason prospects.

But first, there is the matter of securing optimal playoff positioning, preferably with a statement road victory over the nearest pursuer. Alas, it is Sherbrooke who is forced to chase Gatineau for much of the opening period, and I would imagine Max, et al., feel quite fortunate to emerge from it with only a 1-0 deficit.

If the first 20 minutes was Gatineau’s opening statement, the next 20 is a wild series of blistering rebuttals from both sides. During a stretch of 4-on-4, the puck is fed down from Blanchard to Roy to the captain, Xavier Parent, who makes a super-slick move in tight to give Sherbrooke a 2-1 lead. Near the end of the period, with Sherbrooke having again fallen behind, 3-2, Max breaks up a Gatineau rush deep in his own zone, and the ensuing breakout culminates in a Joshua Roy snipe from just outside the hash marks. However, Gatineau immediately strikes back with their third goal in just over four minutes, and heads to the intermission with a 4-3 edge. (Quick PSA for my fellow Habs devotees — if you’re not yet familiar with the name Joshua Roy, I think you’d better learn it soon. And if you’re a believer in good omens, he wears #10 for the Phoenix. Just saying.)

In truth, I remember very little about the third period aside from Sherbrooke scoring the equalizer with under six minutes to play. That is because what came next was, as the kids say, a trip. By which I mean that it was the 3-on-3 equivalent of a drug-fueled psychedelic thrill ride. A Gatineau player is sprung for a breakaway within ten seconds of the opening faceoff, which sets the pace for the rest of the overtime period. At one point, Max meanders through the offensive zone and then hits Joshua Roy in stride, only to have his bid for a wraparound winner — to say nothing of my bid for the perfect wrap to this article — dramatically scuppered on the goal line. And then things start to get really weird.

With the home team threatening, the puck fortuitously pops out to a Gatineau shooter, leaving him a wide-open net from just outside the blue paint

With the home team threatening, the puck fortuitously pops out to a Gatineau shooter, leaving him a wide-open net from just outside the blue paint. He somehow yanks it wide. At the other end, a cross-crease dish gives a Sherbrooke skater a similarly gaping cage from similarly close proximity. He flubs it wide. Less than 20 seconds later, another Sherbrooke rush leads to another cross-crease setup, and another wide-open look on the doorstep…and another muffed tap-in. Because the Sherbrooke head coach is standing no more than ten feet in front of us, we are able to witness his head explode in real time. When the buzzer sounds, Max turns to us from the bench with a headshake and a can-you-believe-what-just-happened grin. This game has had a bit of everything, from the sublime to the ridiculous.

After two scoreless shootout rounds, Gatineau converts on their third attempt, which puts Sherbrooke in a must-make situation. Luckily, the shooter is Joshua Roy, who winds in, slows down, and makes a move so nasty that it leaves the goalie completely out of his net as Roy casually deposits the puck into the twine. That’s big-league skill, man.

Sherbrooke fails to cash-in game-winning chances in Rounds 4 and 5, and when another such opportunity arises in Round 6, the anxiety level on the bench becomes palpable. Which is partly why, after Ethan Gauthier finally delivers the knockout punch, this shootout victory is celebrated more exuberantly than any I have ever seen. Far from a masterpiece, but still mightily impressive in its dogged resolve. Which is perhaps befitting of the top seed which still plays with the fire of an underdog.

Now the playoffs beckon, and a pair of brothers from Pelham will play on the biggest stage of their hockey careers to date, with designs on giving this storybook season a dream denouement.