Blackhawks prospect Alexis Gravel exceeding his own expectations at Memorial Cup

Halifax Mooseheads goaltender Alexis Gravel typically heads into his team’s dressing room at intermission, sits down and might re-hydrate with a sports drink while focusing on the next period.

It wasn’t exactly the same routine when he was learning the game as a six-year-old in coffee-centric Italy.

“Between periods we stopped for hot tea,” said Gravel. “It seems like nothing but when I think about Italy I think about hot tea.”

Gravel is a well-travelled young man on his way to backstopping the Mooseheads to a playoff berth at this year’s Memorial Cup.

The 19-year-old now calls Asbestos, Que., home. But he was born in Berlin, partially raised in Asiago and Cortina d’Ampezzo, and groomed in Toronto.

Gravel was born during his father Francois Gravel’s second DEL season with the Polar Bears. The family moved while Alexis was still an infant to Italy, where Francois would spend six seasons in the Italian league split between Asiago and Cortina.

Alexis doesn’t remember too much from his six years in Italy except for the 2004-05 NHL lockout season when Stanley Cup winner Matt Cullen joined Cortina. Cullen and Francois became good friends that season and Alexis would get opportunities to go out on the ice with them.

Alexis cannot play internationally for Germany or Italy, however Francois also spent time playing in France before Alexis was born and has French citizenship.

“Maybe (I can) ask for that one and really be French Canadian,” joked Alexis.

Francois, originally from Quebec City and drafted 58th overall in 1987 by the Montreal Canadiens while a junior in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, returned with his family to Canada in 2006. He played out two more seasons in the Quebec senior league before retiring.

Alexis grew up picking the brain of his father on how to improve his game. One day early on Francois saw that his son could use both hands and persuaded him to make a decision, even nudging him to think about playing the unorthodox way.

“It’s funny because my dad asked, ‘are you righty or lefty? And then said ‘righties are more rare’ so I practised at it.”

Alexis worked on his game in his youth in Quebec before moving to Toronto in 2014 when his mother Marie-Josee Carrier relocated with the company she worked for at the time. Alexis could have stayed back but travelled west and played two seasons in the Greater Toronto Hockey League with the Mississauga Senators, believing the exposure and chance to learn English might help lead to an NCAA scholarship.

“I thought about the NCAA route and English would have helped me,” said Gravel. “I visited a couple colleges. But end of the day I chose Halifax.”

With his parents in Halifax to watch, Alexis opened this year’s Memorial Cup by stopping 56-of-59 shots in his first two starts, earning wins over the WHL champion Prince Albert Raiders and OHL champion Guelph Storm to guarantee the Mooseheads no worse than a spot in the tournament semifinal.

Halifax coach Eric Veilleux isn’t surprised to see what Alexis is doing for his team right now after the season he put together.

“He’s been pretty much doing it for the whole playoff run and right here Game 1 Game 2,” said Veilleux.

Alexis, six-foot-three 220 pounds, had his strongest of his three QMJHL seasons this year, going 33-13-3 in 49 games. His five shutouts, 2.49 goals-against average and .913 save percentage were tops amongst netminders with at least the same amount of games played.

Some of the improvement in his game he says came from the confidence he gained when the Chicago Blackhawks selected him in the sixth round of the 2018 NHL Draft.

“I think this year with being drafted I started to realize I could maybe make a career out of it,” he said. “And this year for real, there’s no doubt in my mind, I can play pro.”

Alexis says it doesn’t matter that he was picked 162nd by Chicago, and that he was just excited to be drafted.

“I was in my bed at night with my Chicago jersey on, best day of my life,” said Alexis. “My coach from back home told me from my interview you think I went first overall.”

Alexis is still unsigned and hoping to do enough to persuade the Blackhawks into offering him an entry-level contract with his play at the Memorial Cup.

Halifax faces the Quebec league champion Rouyn-Noranda Huskies on Wednesday. A win would put the Mooseheads directly into the tournament championship.

When the tournament wraps up he is planning to return to Berlin for his first visit in 19 years.

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