(Columbus) When Andrew Hammond defended the Canadiens’ net on February 20, much was made of the approximately 1,400 days he had spent without playing an NHL game.
Posted yesterday at 5:57 p.m.
The patience and resilience of the Hamburglar was certainly worth noting. But it’s still not him who holds the mark for the longest wait having led to a return this season.
Jean-François Bérubé has come a long way since the Los Angeles Kings made him a fourth-round pick in 2009. Metaphorically, but mostly literally. Including the NHL, the American League and the ECHL, he has worn the uniform of 11 teams, including 9 in the last 7 seasons alone.
He belonged to six NHL teams. Did you remember the Vegas Golden Knights selecting him from the New York Islanders in the 2017 expansion draft? Yet it happened.
He was last seen in the NHL on April 6, 2018, with the Chicago Blackhawks. Little did he know at the time that he would wait 1,416 days before reconnecting with the highest caliber in the world.
Despite a career full of twists and turns, involving a family life complicated (positively) by the arrival in his life of a little boy now 21 months old, the Quebecer smiles with all his teeth. ” Life is beautiful ! “, even launches, at the end of the conversation with the representative of The Pressthe one who now lines up with the Columbus Blue Jackets.
Visibly relaxed, the 30-year-old goalkeeper relishes what is happening to him. Last season, despite a few two-way contract offers, he opted to sign an American League deal with the Ontario Reign. The uncertainty linked to the COVID-19 pandemic and the fact of having a very young baby had convinced him to put his bags down in California, the state where his wife comes from.
Come summer, a return to the NHL seemed far from likely. A few teams offered pro trials, but none offered him a contract.
“Nothing was happening. Zero, no calls. There, you start to ask yourself questions, ”he says.
Around him, in the big empty room where the Blue Jackets usually hold their press briefings, giant posters of the players of the current formation are plastered on the walls. Which of course includes those of Elvis Merzlikins and Joonas Korpisalo, who have shared the net in Columbus for three years now.
The Jackets had just offered a professional trial to Bérubé. However, given the presence of this well-established duo, he knew very well that he would not see any action “up there”. So he started to look towards Europe. Offers came in particular from the KHL. But he and his wife agreed that, if this avenue was chosen, he would go alone. The sacrifice was too great, especially since it formalized, in a way, the end of his career in the NHL.
As he was familiar with the Blue Jackets organization, which he was associated with in 2018-2019, he decided to show up for their training camp. Bet won: one week before the start of the season, he signed a one-year, two-part contract. He did it knowingly. He found himself fourth in the hierarchy of guards, behind Daniil Tarasov, 23, who would get the majority of starts with the Cleveland Monsters farm club.
“They wanted me to play the role of big brother, to take care of him,” says Bérubé. Goalkeepers, we all analyze each other, so I was told that if I worked hard in training, Daniil would see what it takes to be successful in the pros. We pushed each other and developed a great chemistry. »
In mid-February, the sky fell on the Blue Jackets’ heads: their first two goaltenders were injured almost simultaneously. And Tarasov was already sidelined with a hip injury that required surgery.
Bérubé’s phone then rang. Not only was he repatriated with the big club, but he was also told that it was he who would face the Buffalo Sabers on February 20 – the same day as Hammond’s return.
It happened really fast, but I was up for the challenge. I had been preparing and waiting for this moment for three years!
Having already played 35 games with the Islanders and Blackhawks in the past, he did not have to deal with the unspeakable stress of a first career game. What he wanted was “to find the rhythm [de la LNH] as soon as possible “. “It took me a while to adapt. Afterwards, I felt good. »
His rhythm, he has indeed found it. He won his first three starts, then suffered a loss to the Carolina Hurricanes, who strafed him 50 shots. In four games, he has a superb .924 save percentage.
He was later assigned to the American League, but was recalled again on March 21. He should theoretically finish the season in Columbus, while Korpisalo underwent an operation which will make him miss the last weeks of the calendar. Although Merzlikins looks set to play almost all of the remaining games, Bérubé would love to get another start. “If it happens, so much the better, if not, I’m already happy to be here. »
By the way, he has never faced the Canadiens, who will be in town this Wednesday. We say that, we say nothing.
His story, like that of Andrew Hammond, could change the perceptions of league leaders, he believes. We have seen, in recent years, veterans find work after a long stint in the minors. Pheonix Copley, Keith Kinkaid and Dustin Tokarski, for example, resurfaced in their thirties.
The transition to the professional ranks can be long, he recalls. Confidence in your early twenties is fragile. “When the door opens, it can close quickly,” he adds, referring to his own experience. In this context, some teams are being patient with their hopes, which leaves positions available for veterans.
Bérubé, however, does not know what awaits him after the season concludes at the end of April – the Blue Jackets will not make the playoffs.
Its purpose has never changed. He hopes that his performance in recent weeks will allow him to land a one-way NHL contract. The ideal would be to stay in Columbus, even if it means dividing your time between this city and Cleveland, easily accessible by car. An advantageous offer elsewhere would undoubtedly convince him to move again.
If the minor leagues were the only option, the little family would probably look to settle in California. Bérubé sold his house in the Montreal area, where he hardly ever went. In Columbus, he rents an apartment on Airbnb. However, with age, the taste for precariousness has eroded.
“Walking left and right becomes tiring; I now have responsibilities other than hockey, he says. It’s important that we find a stable place where we’ll be comfortable. »
This lucid reflection does not prevent him from taking full advantage of his current opportunity. Nor to hope that his dream will continue a little longer.