VOORHEES, N.J. — On a Saturday night in Victoriaville, Quebec, last October, the trajectory of Pascal Laberge’s third season in the QMJHL changed in a flash and not for the better.
Six minutes into the Tigres’ game against the Moncton Wildcats, Laberge was met by a thundering headshot from Zachary Malatesta as he gathered the puck at his own blue line.
Laberge lay barren on the ice while Victoriaville alternate captain James Phelan immediately jumped Malatesta, who was ejected and then suspended seven games.
“You try to avoid these concussions and when a player does a thing like that, it sure pisses you off a little bit,” Laberge said Friday at development camp at Flyers Skate Zone. “There’s always going to be some guys like that in hockey. It’s just that it happened to me.”
What happened to Laberge was a concussion that caused him to miss over a month before returning Nov. 25 for two games to only sit out another three games as symptoms returned.
Upon returning, Laberge labored to find the consistency and point production that led to the Flyers’ selecting him with the 36th overall pick in the 2016 NHL draft.
After his symptoms subsided enough for him to come back Dec. 8, the 19-year-old forward recorded seven points in eight games in the month. In January, he tallied six points in 10 games but was held pointless during six of those games. He finished the season with 32 points.
In 2015-16, his draft year, Laberge registered 68 points in 56 games for Victoriaville. His 32 points last season was one point more than his 2014-15 rookie campaign in the QMJHL.
He ended last season with an assist in each of the Tigres’ final three games and scooped up two more in four games during Victoriaville’s first-round postseason exit to Chicoutimi.
Regaining confidence was a barricade for Laberge following his return from his concussion, especially when going toward the boards. “You’re kind of shy to go there,” he said. He often played looking over his shoulder and said it took about two months for him to fully recover.
“The first month,” he said, “I couldn’t wake up. I had to sleep all day.”
By now, Laberge’s story is well known. In summer 2015, his stepmother was diagnosed with metastatic cancer and his father, prostate cancer. His stepmother died in September 2015. His dad had his prostate removed that fall. All while he was trying to get drafted.
Laberge fell to the Flyers in the second round despite being rated 28th among North American skaters by NHL Central Scouting Bureau. Some saw him as a late first-rounder.
One of the traits the Flyers liked about Laberge when they drafted him last summer was his perseverance, how he dealt with his family situation and also still produced on the ice.
Character is something general manager Ron Hextall values greatly. When he talks about prospects, chiefly in regards of development camp, character is one detail he preaches.
How prospects deal with adversity — albeit on the ice or off it, both are true in Laberge’s case — can make them hungrier and better as a player and person, according to Hextall.
Hextall offered a guess: Last season, on the ice, was a first for Laberge. A young, talented kid who didn’t have his way, who took a step back in his development and wasn’t a star.
For someone his age, he has been through a lot off the ice. Last season, the concussion was just “another tough time.” It’s getting him stronger, he said.
“Sometimes with my friends,” Laberge said, “I feel a little bit older than them.”
In his second development camp, Laberge claims he’s back to normal, feels good and his concussion issues are in the past. He understands how last season went means the timetable for his path to the NHL has been pushed back because of the lost time.
Laberge wants to get back to “the real me” in 2017-18. With one more year of junior eligibility, he, barring any miracles, will spend another season in Victoriaville.
While Hextall’s been adamant about keeping a few spots open for prospects to earn during training camp in September, it’s a long shot to consider Laberge to be in that competition.
“We didn’t like what he went through,” Hextall said Friday. “We didn’t like, at times, the level he was playing to, which wasn’t at the level he’s capable of. But …
“You go through adversity like that as a young man, you learn from it. You become stronger. It’s like a team. Sometimes you have to lose to learn how to win.”
If there’s any one thing Laberge learned from last season, it’s …
“Next time,” he said, “I’ll lift my head.”