MONTREAL — Brett Lernout didn’t even have to work to find his death stare. He stood with his back to the Bell Sports Complex penalty box, looked a few rows up into the stands at Gazette photographer Marie-France Coallier for a portrait shot, and there it was:
Baseball cap pulled down, hair spilling almost to his shoulders, eyes searing holes through anything or anyone in their field of view.
Think Slap Shot’s Ogie Ogilthorpe, without the afro.
“I have a lot of faces,” the hulking defenceman said with a much softer expression back in a Brossard dressing room, midway through the Canadiens’ development camp. “I can keep a pretty straight face. I’m a good actor.”
And a good enough rearguard that the Canadiens traded up with Arizona at last month’s NHL draft to select the 18-year-old in the third round, 73rd overall, from the Western league’s Swift Current Broncos.
Lernout says he’s stopped growing, 205 pounds (before breakfast) now on his 6-foot-4 frame. But down the back of his wide physique is a broad, nasty streak, one of the things that appealed to the Canadiens as they pored over the draft pool.
“I can have a dark side,” he admitted. “I’m a big, strong, rugged defenceman, and I like to be really physical. I like to have a good net-front presence and play a good defensive game.”
Before the draft, NHL Central Scouting described Lernout as “a big kid, tough and nasty. He’s hard to play against and a good physical presence. He just needs to keep his game simple and safe to be effective at this point.”
Lernout’s role model is Chris Pronger, the 18-year NHL veteran who earned 1,590 penalty minutes in 1,167 games before concussions and an eye injury effectively ended his career.
“(Pronger) always made a good first pass out of his zone. I like to work on that and make that part of my game, too,” Lernout said. “He was really physical and mean and people hated to play against him but loved to have him on their team. He was just feared out there.”
Lernout isn’t likely to skate away from trouble. He had 103 penalty minutes in 72 Broncos games last season — he scored eight goals and assisted on 14 more, finishing at plus-7 — and you’ll find his mitts dropped all over YouTube.
That’s not to say he doesn’t have a light side. It’s wonderfully displayed in a short Broncos video shot last October in which he was interviewed by two young fans for a diabetes-research fundraiser.
Rubbing his jaw pensively, Lernout told the two earnest kids — who eat up his answers as the gospel truth — that his favourite off-ice activity is playing with Barbie dolls with his little sister, and that his favourite song is Baby by Justin Bieber, even singing/moaning a few bars of the abomination.
“Most of that was a joke,” Lernout fessed up, grinning. “I thought I’d help the kids out and make the fans laugh. I don’t even have a little sister.
“And Baby?” he added of the song, raising an eyebrow.
Lernout was thrilled to be drafted by the Canadiens, even shocked that he went in the third round on June 28. So convinced was he that he’d be a later-round selection that he didn’t make the trip to Philadelphia.
“I was at my parents’ house in Winnipeg with my brothers and sister, sitting around the living room, when my agent gave me a call,” he recalled. “He said I went third round to Montreal. My family went nuts. I was really surprised and really happy.”
The Canadiens had spoken twice with Lernout last season, clearly interested in the big prospect.
“They seemed really interested in my style of play,” he said.
That peaked at the NHL Combine in Toronto a month before the draft; Lernout showed outstanding strength in a number of tests, ranking No. 1 among draft prospects in leg power average; second in pull-ups; third in leg peak power and bench press; and fourth in vertical and standing long jump.
“If you have a good Combine and they see where your strengths are, that definitely can raise your stock and you can (be drafted) higher,” Lernout said.
He grew up a fan of the Winnipeg Jets, naturally, but says the Canadiens were always on his radar, “definitely in my top one or two.”
Lernout’s mother, née Bohemier, is French from a small Manitoba community, and he speaks of the same blood in his uncles on his mom’s side.
“Coming from Winnipeg, if you were French and the Jets weren’t doing it for you, you were rooting for Montreal,” he said. “All my friends are happy I’m with the Canadiens. For me, this is a dream come true.”
On draft day, Lernout had about 500 followers on his Twitter account; on Thursday morning, he was over 2,800.
“It just blew up,” he said with a laugh. “I was expecting to get some new followers when I was drafted, but not 2,500. I’m a pretty serious kind of guy but I’m humorous, too. There are a few funny tweets on there but you have to keep it simple and professional.”
That, Lernout is discovering this week, is a big part of his first pro hockey camp.
“I had an idea it would be hard — kind of a go, go, go mentality with lots of workouts, lot of skates,” he said. “That’s good. It’s a good experience. I’m here to learn and that’s what I’m doing.
“I want to take home what I learned on the ice and how to be a pro. How to act, how to be professional in the dressing room, with guys, with the media.”
Lernout will suit up this season with Swift Current, with another year of eligibility beyond that.
His goal is to sign a pro contract to play with the Hamilton Bulldogs, the Habs farm team, as a 20-year-old.
But he’s fully prepared to return to the Broncos if that doesn’t happen.
He expects to have a better idea of the Canadiens’ plans when he has his camp-exit interview Friday, following a 9:30 a.m. scrimmage, flying home that day.
What he’s seen this week has been a grand, eye-opening adventure for a young man who had never before been nearer to the city of Montreal than Toronto and Niagara Falls.
“They treat us like gold here,” Lernout said. “They take care of you and they feed you well. Half a dozen eggs, bacon and sausage for breakfast. I just eat a lot during the day. And I keep eating.”
If he’d not been at camp this week, Lernout would have been at the Pine Ridge Golf Club in Winnipeg working his summer job, cleaning clubs and washing carts.
“My boss understood, he was happy for me,” Lernout joked. “I was able to get the time off to come to camp.”
And he’s made the most of the opportunity, a large presence in Canadiens defenceman Mike Weaver’s No. 43 which he was assigned.
Truth be told, Lernout would have been happy to skate in a burlap bag, knowing he’d not be wearing his Broncos number here. A handful of jerseys are out of commission in Montreal, and No. 4 is one of them.
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