Benoit Groulx was there in person at the Canadian Tire Centre to see one of his prized pupils from junior, Jean-Gabriel Pageau, perform so brilliantly last Saturday afternoon.
The AHL head coach had a day off after his Syracuse Crunch eliminated the St. John's IceCaps in the first round of the Calder Cup playoffs. He was looking to spend some quality time with his 17-year-old son, Benoit-Olivier, who had finished his rookie season with the Halifax Mooseheads.
The two had not seen each other since Christmas, and the older Groulx figured nothing could be better than taking his son to see his former Gatineau Olympiques standout play for the Ottawa Senators.
The 24-year-old, pint-sized Pageau did not disappoint. He scored four times, including a pair of late goals to force overtime and then the winner in double OT, to lead the Senators to a wild 6-5 win and 2-0 series lead against the New York Rangers.
The statistics company Elias Sports dubbed the 5-foot-9, 180-pound Pageau's four-goal feat a "sombrero" — a play on the baseball term for a batter's four-strikeout game. He became only the second player in NHL history to cap a four-goal playoff performance with an overtime winner. Joffrey Lupul was the first to turn the trick, for the Anaheim Ducks in 2006.
"It was amazing to be there, to hear the fans sing his name in the stands, on the concourse, in the washroom and outside," the proud Groulx remarked. "It was so special and it was a dream night for him, his family and those of us who know him.
"He was unreal and this was something unexpected. But you what, I wasn't surprised. He's a talent and a competitor."
Groulx has witnessed many times the kid with the oversized heart rise up in big playoff games. In 2011, Pageau pushed the Olympiques all the way to the QMJHL final. His five playoff game-winners led the league that spring.
In the final against the eventual Memorial Cup champion Saint John Sea Dogs, Pageau played just as well as Sea Dogs star Jonathan Huberdeau, one of the top prospects for the 2011 NHL draft.
After scouting the junior championship tournament, Senators general manager Bryan Murray wanted to draft both No. 11s. But Huberdeau went third overall to the Florida Panthers, 93 spots before Murray and his staff selected Pageau in the fourth round.
Two years later, there was Pageau performing his playoff magic once again, this time for the Senators. He lost a tooth in Game 3 of a first-round series against the rival Montreal Canadiens but managed a hat trick in Ottawa's 6-1 win.
That night was when the "Pageau song" was born — a tune Senators fans sing to the melody of the "Ole! Ole! Ole!" jingle often heard at the Bell Centre in Montreal.
Little big man
Despite his heroics that spring, Pageau was shuttled back and forth between the Senators and their AHL affiliate, the Binghamton Senators, in his first three pro seasons.
Daniel Brière, also from Gatineau, often was there back then with a phone call to lift Pageau's spirits. Brière, a small player himself, also dealt with a number of demotions early in his career, but he went on to play in a combined 1,097 regular-season and playoff games in the NHL, notching 812 points.
Pageau still has a ways to go to reach Brière's numbers. But he's come a long way from his days turning heads at an outdoor rink in Parc Saint-John Bosco, near his home in Gatineau.
Groulx was well aware of the small but talented kid. Pageau played top-level baseball for the Olympiques' longtime, popular trainer Serge Haché. Every chance he got, Haché told his coach about Pageau's athletic endeavours.
Haché and Groulx also would watch Pageau play for his bantam hockey team at the Robert-Guertin Centre in Gatineau on Sunday afternoons before the Olympiques played their home games.
Groulx was aware of the Pageau family. Groulx's father, Gilles, had coached Jean-Gabriel's uncles, Marc and Paul, both goalies, in minor hockey in Gatineau. Groulx also liked Pageau's parents, Yda and Jean.
But the Olympiques didn't select Pageau until the seventh round.
"Other than his size I knew he could play for us," Groulx said. "But as they say, big players have to prove they can't play, small players have to prove they can play. He proved right away he could play."
"In my mind, I thought he would play in the NHL. He had good instincts, understands the game. I thought he could be a Guy Carbonneau [shutdown] type. But he's not only proven to be a good checker, he's scored some big goals, too."
It's never easy to play hockey at an elite level at home, but Pageau has done it in junior and now across the river for the Senators.
Groulx believes his former player has succeeded under the glare of the hometown spotlight because of his humility.
The coach loves to tell the story about how Haché had a No. 28 sweater waiting in Pageau's dressing room stall at his first training camp with the Olympiques. Pageau had grown up watching the junior team and his favourite player, Claude Giroux, wore No. 28.
Pageau, however, did not feel worthy of wearing Giroux's number. So he pleaded with Haché to give him No. 11 instead.
"He's so humble," Groulx said. "He comes from a thoughtful, humble family. He was raised right and has good values. He enjoys playing every night in front of family and friends."
Groulx, and the entire hockey world, saw that once again last Saturday.