For Flyers pick Pascal Laberge, draft was a chance to celebrate triumph over family tragedy

After both his father and stepmother were diagnosed with cancer last summer, Pascal Laberge struggled to focus on hockey at the start of last season with the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League's Victoriaville Tigres. Jeff Vinnick/NHLI/Getty Images

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- The draft usually represents the celebration of an important milestone on a young player's journey through the hockey world.

Wherever the path ends, however long hockey remains a vital part of a young man's life -- and, by extension, the life of his family, friends and mentors -- it will be a moment he remembers forever.

But occasionally the draft, and that moment when the player's name is called for the world to hear and an NHL jersey is draped over his shoulders for the first time, represents something much, much more.

For Pascal Laberge, hearing his name called by the Philadelphia Flyers early in the second round on Saturday was also a celebration of life, a chance to honor those who have died and, maybe more importantly, to celebrate the way a game can help heal and honor the survivors.

"It's amazing," said Laberge, a forward who played for the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League's Victoriaville Tigres last season. "You play hockey since you're a young kid and your dream is to get drafted to the NHL one day. To live that with all my family here it's, it's an amazing feeling."

Later, while standing outside the Flyers' suite at the First Niagara Center in downtown Buffalo, Laberge's father, Luc, struggled to put into words the emotion of being able to turn and hug his son as his name was called, a moment he did not know if he would survive to see.

Last summer, shortly after Pascal Laberge's stepmother was diagnosed with cancer that would take her life in September, Luc gathered the family and told them that he too had been diagnosed with cancer, in this case prostate cancer. Pascal Laberge's mother also suffers from multiple sclerosis.

For a long time, there was little light in his life except his son's hockey, Luc Laberge said in an interview conducted with translation help of his new girlfriend, Caroline.

"It's tough to explain this stuff," the father said. "We dream of these [days], but when I'm sick and I lost my girlfriend, in my imagination it's not there. But now, after the clouds, the sun is there. Life continues. You have to move forward. If you're not moving forward, you stay on the floor and you don't grow up."

The elder Laberge was declared cancer-free after the surgery, and now his son has been rewarded for the kind of perseverance that most people -- let alone a teenage boy playing junior hockey away from home -- would struggle to summon under similar circumstance.

"That was really hard, you know," Pascal Laberge admitted. "At the beginning of the season, I didn't have a good start. It was a tough moment for our family. But after that my coach, Bruce Richardson, just told me, 'If you perform at hockey, your parents will feel good about it,' so I just started to play hockey good after that."

He finished with 68 points in 56 games -- good enough for the Flyers to take him 36th overall.

Luc Laberge is a truck driver from the Montreal area. He learned hockey from his father, a construction worker, and he passed on a love of the game to his three boys. In a recent piece Pascal Laberge penned for The Players' Tribune, he described how his grandfather helped build the local arena.

Luc Laberge recalled one of the first times Pascal was playing hockey as a boy, and how there was clearly something special about his connection to the game.

"I have a couple of flashes; he's beside the net and he's passionate," Luc Laberge said. "I saw him. He was different than the other kids on the ice."

Just as his story, with its emotion and loss, is different than most of the tales of the other young men who also made lifelong memories in Buffalo this weekend.

Other second-day draft news of note

What else caught my eye this weekend?

  • Julien Gauthier was taken 21st overall by the Carolina Hurricanes. He has hockey bloodlines, to be sure, as uncle Denis Gauthier was a first-round pick of the Calgary Flames in 1995 and played 554 NHL games. And Gauthier's father and grandfather were both bodybuilders who won the title of Mr. Canada.

  • It was an outstanding weekend for USA Hockey, which saw a record 12 U.S.-born players taken in the first round on Friday night. Included in that number were five first-round picks from the St. Louis area, a testament to the youth hockey program in the Gateway City and the commitment of the St. Louis Blues to continue to sow hockey seeds there. That number shouldn't be a surprise, as a record-number of players (542,583) registered in USA Hockey programs last season, and the game continues to grow at the youngest levels, with 107,703 players enrolled in programs for 8-year-olds and younger, also a record.

    Six more Americans were taken in the second round, 10 in the third, six in the fourth, eight in both the fifth and sixth rounds, and seven in the seventh and final round to account for the 55 total drafted Americans. That amounts to 26 percent of the total number of players drafted, equaling last year's percentage. The record was set in 2007, when 29 American players were taken in the first three rounds.

  • It was not a particularly strong draft for goaltenders, as the first wasn't selected until the 48th-overall pick, when Philadelphia took Carter Hart, from Everett of the Western Hockey League. The last time it took longer for a goalie to get the call was back in 1986, when Shawn Simpson was taken with the 60th overall pick by the Washington Capitals.

  • The New Jersey Devils made an interesting pickup on Saturday as general manager Ray Shero sent a third-round selection to his old team, the Pittsburgh Penguins, for former first-round draft pick Beau Bennett. Shero drafted Bennett with the 20th-overall pick in 2010, but injuries have slowed the 24-year-old's development and he has produced just 16 goals in 129 NHL games for the Pens. But New Jersey may provide a welcome tonic for the native of Gardena, California. Last summer Shero plucked Kyle Palmieri from the Anaheim Ducks and Palmieri thrived with the rebuilding Devils, scoring 30 goals.