MONTREAL – Veteran head coach Bruno Bragagnolo will always remember hearing about – and seeing – Alex Galchenyuk for the first time.
“I got a call from a friend of mine, Gerry Fraser, who was down in Florida back in 2009. The Galchenyuks were there along with two other Russian players, and one day Gerry saw Alex running and working out on the beach. He went up to Alex’s dad, and the two of them started talking. Mr. Galchenyuk mentioned that Alex eventually wanted to play in the OHL. Gerry told him about the program we had going with the Chicago Young Americans [in the Midwest Elite Hockey League], and recommended that he give me a call. We’d sent a lot of players to the OHL before, so we eventually had a chat,” recalled Bragagnolo, who after speaking with Mr. Galchenyuk suggested that Alex – who was 15 years old at the time – come up to the Windy City to take part in one of the squad’s summer skates.
“Two days later, Alex came up with his whole family. He gets on the ice, and five minutes later I told Mr. Galchenyuk I wanted to do everything we could for Alex to play in Chicago that season. I said to myself – “I’ve got to get this kid. I’ve got to get this boy in our lineup playing U16,” added Bragagnolo. “I saw the very high skill level. His vision on the ice was incredible. He knew where everybody was. Alex just had that something special. You could tell he was the real deal. You could tell he was a hockey player.”
One month later, the Galchenyuks relocated to Illinois, moving into a home about a mile from the Young Americans’ home rink.
“They actually became legal guardians of the other two Russian boys, [defensemen] Artyom Sergeyev and Maxim Zverev, so they came along to Chicago and played with us, too. I even hired Alex’s father as an assistant coach. He had so much experience and such a great hockey background. It made perfect sense,” mentioned Bragagnolo, who was immediately impressed with the way in which Alex, Artyom and Maxim went about their business under Mr. Galchenyuk’s supervision.
According to Bragagnolo, a typical day for the three young guns consisted of a two-hour skating session in the morning during which they’d do a variety of high-intensity drills and work on high-end moves and basic skills. Then, they’d come back to the rink in the evening for off-ice workouts and practice until 9:30 p.m., before either lifting weights for 90 minutes or going swimming at a local YMCA. Bragagnolo estimates the trio was putting in four to five hours of on-ice training daily.
“In Alex’s case, I don’t think he even realized he was working hard. I think it was just ingrained in him since childhood. He enjoyed that aspect of it. That kid, any time he was doing any kind of workout or walking into the rink, he was always smiling. He really enjoyed himself. He enjoyed being a hockey player,” shared Bragagnolo. “I would drive by the park near their place in the afternoon going somewhere, and they were all playing roller hockey. That was after they’d skated and worked out in the morning, when they should have been resting before coming back to skate at night.”
Their dedication to the game, however, certainly didn’t stop there.
“When the boys first got to Chicago, I had a van that we used to use as kind of a mobile concession stand at the arena. We used it for picking up supplies, too. I told Alex he could use it instead of going out and buying a car. It was old, but it ran well. I go by their house one day, and Alex has the windows down on both sides of the van. The boys are saucering pucks through the windows working on their passes,” offered Bragagnolo with a laugh, still somewhat in awe of the rather non-traditional training activity. “That tells you something about Alex and his family. When you talk about eating, drinking and sleeping hockey, that’s what they were all about.”
But, Bragagnolo says, Alex didn’t necessarily get off to a roaring start in his first foray into the North American ranks. As expected, it took a while for the Canadiens’ No. 27 to grow increasingly comfortable with the style of play in Minor Midget AAA on this side of the pond.
“I think the first couple of months, he was hitting crossbars and posts galore. There was an adjustment period to the smaller rink and more physical play over here. He wasn’t used to that back home. Not that he was shy in terms of contact. He’d give it back. It just took some time for him to figure things out. But, when he finally did, he was far and above the best player in the league that year. It wasn’t even close,” praised Bragagnolo, who watched Galchenyuk steadily hit his stride and never look back, featuring him primarily at center all year long. “And, we were playing in a pretty good league with Honeybaked players [from Michigan]. He was absolutely dominant, which wasn’t easy to do. That last half of the season, he singlehandedly carried the team on his back. He was on a tear. He couldn’t be stopped.”
That was particularly evident at a showcase event the Young Americans took part in later in the year in Detroit. With plenty of eyes watching his every move, Galchenyuk stole the show once again, garnering plenty of interest from OHL clubs aplenty.
“I remember us going up against Honeybaked in the third game of this weekend set. Back then, we’d play four or five games on Saturday and Sunday. It was a brutal schedule. So, we’re down a couple of guys who were sick, and Alex went ahead and singlehandedly beat this team. He made them look sick, themselves, scoring three goals and adding three assists. After that game, I think every OHL team and DI college was lining up waiting to talk to him,” offered Bragagnolo. “Right there, I had a feeling he was going to be the top pick in the OHL. That game, Honeybaked was sending two guys or three guys at him at a time, and Alex just kept making them miss. He took his game to another level that day that I’d never seen before. It was just his will. He was going to do whatever it took to win that hockey game.”
Galchenyuk closed the year with 44 goals and 87 points in 38 games, an astounding 33 points clear of the league’s second-highest point-getter, before ultimately being selected first overall by the Sarnia Sting in the 2010 OHL Priority Draft. It was a just reward for a highly-skilled teen, who had come a long way in such a short time period.
“He was just so far advanced back then compared to everybody else. It was almost scary. He had a real presence to go along with that uncanny creativity and drive. I learned a long time ago that kids with that type of work ethic and talent are a rare breed. You can’t teach things like that. Alex was playing for the pure love of the game,” concluded Bragagnolo, who, interestingly enough, had Galchenyuk work on his autograph from time to time that season in preparation for the move up to the Junior ranks. “And, he really was the only player I could ever say that I knew for sure was going to be an NHLer. There was no doubt in my mind. I think everybody knew it. He’s a phenomenal kid, a phenomenal player and he’s lucky enough to be from a phenomenal family.”
Matt Cudzinowski is a writer for canadiens.com.