NEW MINAS, N.S. —
The past couple of years have already been quite a ride for Drake Batherson – and he’s only getting started.
The 21-year-old, who calls New Minas home, got in his first 20 games of NHL experience during the 2018-19 season, collecting nine points and scoring three goals for the Ottawa Senators.
“After I turned pro,” he says, “I went to training camp. I was told I’d have a good shot (of sticking with Ottawa), but they sent me down to Belleville.”
He spent the first 13 games playing for Ottawa’s American Hockey League affiliate.
“I got off to a great start… a big six-point night against Toronto.”
When one of Ottawa’s right wingers went down with an injury, the call went out to Batherson. He describes his NHL debut as “a great experience. I could definitely feel the support.”
He was called up on a Monday, but didn’t play his first game until Thursday.
“I made my NHL debut against Detroit, my grandfather’s favourite team growing up.”
With 12 family members in the stands, he scored his first NHL goal on his first shot.
“I couldn’t have scripted it any better.”
Playing on a line with centre Matt Duchene, the two “really clicked” and had “great chemistry,” but Duchene suffered an injury in early December. After 17 games with Ottawa, Batherson was sent back to Belleville, where he spent the rest of the season, other than another three-game call-up in February.
“It was a development thing, and I think it was the right move,” he says. “I loved Belleville. I got a lot more playing time and I got a chance to really work on my game.”
Batherson finished his first year in pro hockey with 22 goals and 62 points in 59 games for Belleville, in addition to his three goals and nine points with Ottawa. He was picked to play in the AHL all-star game in January, and at season’s end, was named to the AHL All-Rookie Team.
“My goal had always been to eventually make the NHL. I never dreamed it would come so quickly. I had thought it would be nice to get called up. I never expected to get 20 games in. It’s a dream come true.”
EN ROUTE TO NHL
After playing major bantam and major midget with the Valley Wildcats, Batherson was chosen by the Cape Breton Screaming Eagles in the sixth round of the 2015 QMJHL draft. He split the 2015-16 season between the midget Wildcats and Cape Breton.
Following a 2016-17 season in which he had 22 goals and 58 points in 61 games for the Screaming Eagles, Batherson was drafted by Ottawa in the fourth round of the 2017 NHL entry draft, the 121st selection overall. He had entered the draft ranked 117th among North American players.
He was coming off his first full year of major junior when he was drafted, and four months later, Ottawa signed him to a three-year contract.
Sent back to Cape Breton for the 2017-18 season, Batherson “had a strong first half” and was invited to try out to represent Canada at the 2017 World Junior Championships. He made the team and had an outstanding tournament, leading Team Canada in scoring with seven goals in seven games.
The general manager of Team Canada was also the head coach and GM of the Blainville-Boisbriand Armada of the QMJHL. During the tournament, Batherson found himself traded to the Armada.
He described the trade, which took place “right in the middle of the tournament,” as “pretty weird,” but it worked out well for him as Blainville-Boisbriand reached the QMJHL final, where they were edged out by the eventual Memorial Cup champion Acadie-Bathurst Titan.
Batherson finished the 2017-18 season with a combined 29 goals and 48 assists for 77 points in 51 regular season games, then added 13 goals and 33 points in 22 playoff contests. Having reached the age of 20, and having been already drafted and signed by Ottawa, he made the decision to turn pro.
He has spent the past three summers doing off-ice training at a gym in Bedford, and on-ice training with a ‘pro group’ that includes Nova Scotian NHLers Sidney Crosby, Nathan MacKinnon and Brad Marchand.
“It’s been kind of cool to hang out with Crosby, given that he was a role model of mine growing up,” he says. “I used to be so nervous around them, didn’t want to screw up. Now it’s like second nature. I’m getting so I have a lot of ‘Crosby stories’,” he says, adding that he has a few from MacKinnon and Marchand as well.
Batherson is looking forward to his second Senators training camp, which starts Sept. 3.
“I’ll probably go up a week or so before, to get settled in. The rookie tournament is in Belleville this year. We’ll be playing against the Winnipeg and Montreal rookies.”
Ottawa, which is in rebuilding mode, has “a lot of really good young players, but there are some spots up for grabs.”
That bodes well for Batherson, who plans to “go to training camp, play my game, and prove myself. I talked to the coach the end of June, and he told me what I needed to work on. I already feel more comfortable this year than I did last year.”
His goal is simple: “To spend the whole year in Ottawa.”
Batherson believes he was fortunate to get to spend most of last season in Belleville.
“It was exactly where I should have been. There’s quite a difference between the junior and the pro lifestyle. You really have no idea what to expect.” The AHL, he says, “is one of the most underrated leagues in all of hockey.”
He has completed year one of his three-year pro contract and is “looking forward to being able to spend the next two seasons in an Ottawa uniform,” in the company of a lot of his new friends.
“There were seven or eight of us in Belleville last year who got to play games with Ottawa,” all part of a young, and bright, future for the Senators.
“Three, maybe four of us all got to all play together in the same game. It felt like we were getting ready for a Belleville game, but it was the NHL.”
That experience, and the rest of his time in an Ottawa jersey, has helped him feel more prepared.
“Last year, I still felt a bit star-struck. This year, I know I can make it, and contribute to the team’s success,” he says. “A lot of us are around the same age. Hopefully we can have success, be together for a long time, and maybe someday, win the Cup for Ottawa.”
His highlight of his first year as a pro player?
“My first NHL game. I was so nervous going in. I couldn’t believe it when I stepped onto the ice for the warmup and got to skate the ‘rookie lap’,” he said.
“I don’t think I could have written a better script.”
And there’s lots more yet to come.