EDMONTON — The Canadiens’ very small late-morning skate was winding down at Rexall Place, just two netminders and three skaters working out with goaltending coach Stéphane Waite.
Peter Budaj, Michaël Bournival and Ryan White had either left the ice or were poking around on their own at the far end of the rink. So now, defenceman Nathan Beaulieu was buzzing about Carey Price, who wasn’t exactly treating the exercise with an earnest effort — skidding from post to post on his knees, flopping around a bit, flailing his arms a little.
This, too, is part of the learning curve for Beaulieu, who is up with the Canadiens from the Hamilton Bulldogs until further notice. The team’s 2011 first-round draft choice (17th overall) flew into Calgary Tuesday afternoon, presumably called up as insurance to give the Canadiens seven defenceman on this four-game western swing.
And so it was Thursday against the Edmonton Oilers that Beaulieu would play his first game of the season, the seventh of his young NHL career, stepping in for Jarred Tinordi.
For now, at least, Beaulieu is the designated Habs Yo-Yo, up and down, missing only the string you loop around your finger.
He was returned to Hamilton on Sept. 26, during training camp, then recalled Oct. 1, a press-box viewer of the Canadiens’ home opener vs. Toronto. Two days later he was back in Hamilton, summoned again a day after that, where he got to watch the Habs beat the Philadelphia Flyers. Then, returned to Hamilton the next day before being called out west this Tuesday.
“They don’t know me at the Toronto airport yet,” Beaulieu joked in the dressing room after the workout, empty but for Price towelling his skates. “But going up and down is part of it. I’m not complaining at all, I’m very happy to be here.
“I was living in a hotel during training camp so it’s not as bad as people think it is,” he added of his frequent shuttling between Hamilton and Montreal.
“Hey, I could be in university writing exams. I’m getting to do what I love and I love every minute of it.”
Boarding one commercial flight after another, Beaulieu says he’s neither a firmly committed window or aisle passenger.
“I take whatever they give me,” he said with a laugh. “The flight from Toronto to Montreal is only an hour, up and down.”
“But I got bumped up to first class coming out to Calgary. I’m very privileged to travel with an NHL team, maybe get a chance to jump in a game. At 20 years of age, it’s special for me. I just have to stay focused and if the opportunity presents itself, be ready.”
Beaulieu’s return to Hamilton after the Canadiens home opener afforded little time to get in much quality work with the Bulldogs.
“We played one exhibition game, I was called back up, then I went back down,” he said, his travel nicely catalogued. “We had two days off in Hamilton when I was back, I skated by myself, we had a practice then here I am again.”
So while he hadn’t been playing, before Thursday, Beaulieu has been a human sponge, absorbing as much of the NHL experience as he can in a frame of 6-foot-2, 195 pounds.
“This is learning to be a professional,” he said. “It’s how to treat your body. Up here you play so many games, almost every two days in some instances. Long trips like this are good for me to be here and see how the guys handle it and treat their bodies, with back to back games and being on the road almost nine days.
“It’s a learning curve. I’m fortunate I get to learn it at this age and not be thrown to the wolves right now. I get to sit back as of now and take it in, learn from the guys who have been here a long time.”
It wasn’t a smooth start to his season, suffering a shoulder injury on the first day of camp. He didn’t see action before the end of the preseason schedule, never getting the run he hoped would get him some momentum.
Beaulieu played six games with the Canadiens last season from March 30 through April 15, earning two assists with a plus-5 rating. Now he’s back — for how long, he has no idea — and ready to seize the opportunity if and when it comes.
“It’s always different,” he said of getting the call to play. “If someone goes down and they know he’ll be out three weeks, you have a good idea. But a guy may be day-to-day, dealing with a tweak. In that case, I might not find out until warm-up. It’s just something where you always have to stay prepared and be ready.”
The Canadiens have welcomed him warmly. Beaulieu singles out defenceman Josh Gorges as someone who’s “been good from the get-go. I played my first training camp and a few exhibition games with Josh. He’s very approachable if you have any questions.
“Frankie Boo, too,” he said of Francis Bouillon. “He’s very easy to approach. And we have younger guys here: Tinner (Tinordi), (Brendan) Gallagher and (Alex) Galchenyuk. It’s a good mix, guys your own age and others with experience if you want to talk to someone.”
If the efficiency of the Canadiens equipment staff dazzles him — “I fly in at midnight and my gear is hung and dry the next morning for practice,” he marvels — imagine the impact veteran defenceman Andrei Markov is having on him.
“I didn’t really realize how good a player Markie was until I watched him in person,” Beaulieu said. “It’s unbelievable some of the things he does. The stuff he does is amazing. I’ve learned so much just watching him. Not necessarily talking to him or talking but soaking in what he does.”
Beaulieu soon would hit the showers and return to the Canadiens hotel, ready to charter on to Vancouver after Thursday’s game here. This is a process, he said, and it’s all about preparation.
“Day-to-day,” he said. “You never know what can happen each day. You just have to stay ready, hope for the best and prepare for the worst.”
The best happened for Beaulieu Thursday night on a day that began with a little work and a little fun, his hopes later realized that he’d see a little action.
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