Antoine Vermette knows he’s facing an uphill battle to make the Ottawa Senators out of training camp. But then again, it’s not like he’s never met and conquered one of those battles before.
Vermette remembers hearing his detractors loud and clear as he vied for a spot with the Quebec Remparts of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League as a 16-year-old. They told him the jump from Bantam hockey to the juniors was too great and that he should wait at least one more year. Although he heard them, he didn’t listen.
Instead of letting the doubts of others fester in his own mind, Vermette took the challenge head-on, making the Remparts and exceeding expectations with 26 points in the limited ice time he saw in 57 games.
“I just did my stuff, focused on my game and worked hard,” says Vermette. “Because of that, I had a good season at 16 years old.”
Now a 20-year-old with a stellar junior hockey career not far behind him, Vermette is trying to translate his earlier accomplishments into success in the pros. The new challenge of finding a spot on the Ottawa Senators’ opening game roster should prove much tougher, but it’s something he’s prepared to take on.
“I like challenges and this is a big one,” says the affable Vermette.
“There’s always guys who’ve made the jump into the lineup,” he adds, referring to the Senators’ affinity for adding talented young players to the roster, “so I’m going to try for that.”
Vermette recognizes the magnitude of the task in front of him. He missed almost a full year of development last year with the QMJHL’s Victoriaville Tigres due to a misdiagnosed injury. Originally thought to be suffering from post-concussion syndrome after being hit from behind at one of the Canadian World Junior Hockey team’s development camps, Vermette only hit the ice late in the year after it was found that a pinched nerve in his neck was the source of his constant headaches.
He played only four regular season games with the Tigres before helping lead the team on its run to the Memorial Cup, netting 26 points in 22 playoff games. He says the time away from the game only steeled his resolve to excel at it and helped him realize just how big of an opportunity he has in front of him.
“I worked out two or three times harder than usual,” Vermette says of his summer. “I stopped for just one week after the season, then I was on the ice or in the gym, working to make myself better.
“I had a very busy summer but I know where I want to go, and whatever it takes, I want to do it. I’m proud of what I’ve done this summer, I thought I did a great job and that’s the first step.”
Part of that summer program included working out with Philadelphia Flyers star left-winger, Simon Gagne. The two play a similar style of game based on speed and it wouldn’t be surprising to see the Senators experiment with Vermette on the left side (which lacks organizational depth) at some point given their current glut of NHL-calibre centres. The idea is something Vermette is open to, but he would prefer a shot at centre first.
“I’ve never played wing at a high level,” he says, “but will do whatever the coaches want if they plan to experiment.”
Right now, the 6-foot-0, 196-pounder is focusing on impressing the coaching staff during exhibition play.
“My game is both ways,” he says. “I’m going to play hard at both ends of the ice and make their decision easier.”
Though he has come as advertised in camp by playing strong two-way hockey, he hadn’t produced much in the offensive zone, until catching a lucky break with a third-period goal against the Toronto Maple Leafs in Friday night’s exhibition match-up.
“That’s a major goal for hockey players, to score some goals,” says Vermette. “But I think if I’m working hard and skating hard, things will just go from there.”
Still, he hopes the goal he registered last night will break his current offensive slump that extends from the early September rookie tournament in Hull, Que.
“Finally some offence,” Vermette said to the Ottawa Citizen in an interview after the game.
“It’s a good positive start. It was exactly my type of game. If you skate hard and drive the net, you’ll have success.”
A trip to Binghamton, New York, the new home of the Senators’ American Hockey League affiliate, will probably be in the cards for Vermette to start the season. The added seasoning and opportunity to adjust to the pro game, combined with the large number of contestants for the few available spots with the parent club could be too much to overcome, and punch his ticket to the minors for him. But number crunching and worrying about where he’ll play are the types of thoughts he’s trying to avoid.
“I have one goal and I’m focusing on that one goal,” he says. “I’m not starting to think about that (Binghamton) . . . that’s not my job. There’s people there who do that job.”
And there’s no doubt he’ll try to make their decision as tough as possible. It can’t be easy to send down a player who could one day be that French-Canadian star the Senators have always wanted.