ARLINGTON, V.A. — Washington Capitals forward Hendrix Lapierre leans against the wall at MedStar Capitals Iceplex, taking in the practice rink that’s become his home to open the 2021-22 season. He was one of the last off the ice, yet appears collected, comfortable as he sports a smile and wide eyes while reflecting on his dream.
For him, playing in the NHL so far has been more than that; it’s something he sees as a privilege.
“Hockey has always been a big part of my life,” Lapierre explained. “And I consider myself extremely lucky to be able to do that on a daily basis.”
Growing up in Quebec, Lapierre grew up near a park with an outdoor rink. That’s where his passion for hockey started as he learned to skate with his family and progressed to mini sticks and constantly watching games on TV at home.
“It was always hockey,” Lapierre said. “I like to play a lot of sports. I’m a big, big fan of tennis, I used to play soccer. And so I was really active as a kid, but it was always hockey.”
Over the summers, the center was always training, whether it was playing with his friends, competing in tournaments and watching games with his dad at home. His fandom would change over time; the Montreal Canadiens would always be on TV at home, but he tried to watch his idols as often as he could, including Capitals captain and eventual teammate, Alex Ovechkin, as well as Sidney Crosby.
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Listening to the radio in Ottawa and being in locker rooms growing up, the French Canadian not only picked up English as a second language but rose through the ranks before landing in the QMJHL with the Chicoutimi Sagueneens. He developed into a talented playmaker and puck handler who was able to make outstanding passes and always find his teammates on the fly. In his rookie year, he dazzled with 32 assists and 45 points in 48 games, earning him the “A” heading into 2019-20.
However, a few head and neck injuries — as well as a global pandemic — would limit him to just 19 games in his draft year. He still picked up 17 points, but his draft stock dropped.
Still, he didn’t let that slow him down, and pessimism was never an option; in fact, it’s never been part of his character in the first place.
“I’m not really negative in general. I love to always see the glass half full instead of half empty,” Lapierre explained. “So I knew that I was not in a situation that was ideal, but at the same time, I was feeling good and I knew I could still work on a lot of stuff. I’ve always been really positive. I tried to keep a good attitude and I was there for my teammates. I just smile all the time. So I feel like it’s in the past, but when I look at it, I feel like I did everything that I had to do to become a better hockey player. I’m really happy about it.”
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The 19-year-old chose to “make the most out of every day” and get on the ice and the gym to train when he could. He suffered “little weird headaches from time to time” due to neck trauma, but he still managed to train on nearly a daily basis. He also worked on his shooting, becoming more confident in his shot and goal-scoring ability, while also watching video and games when he could.
“[My menality] was just to make the most of every day… I just thought to myself, ‘I’m gonna get better each and every day, do things in my power to become a better hockey player.’ So I feel like that was my philosophy,” Lapierre said.
“I feel like those are the kind of things that make you get an edge on other people that aren’t willing to do it,” he added. So that year and a half really sucked because I wasn’t able to play much, but even if I didn’t play games, I feel like my game has grown and I was able to do better.”
Ultimately, Lapierre’s skillset caught the Capitals’ eye, and the team traded up in 2020 to take him at 22nd overall. Following his selection, Lapierre came back with a vengeance, posting 31 points in 21 games in 2020-21 and showing that he could potentially be one of the biggest steals of that draft.
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He carried that momentum over into rookie camp, serving as a vocal leader, while also keeping it rolling into main camp and Washington’s preseason. He picked up five assists in four games, and his impressive play earned him a spot on the opening night roster as he joined forces with Connor McMichael to fill in for an injured Nicklas Backstrom.
“I was always really confident in what I could accomplish. When when I came to camp, it wasn’t just to be there for fun. I really wanted to make that team and obviously, I was in a situation where I kind of got lucky because of injuries and stuff and unfortunate events,” Lapierre said. “I really tried to make the most of that situation.”
Now, he’s just enjoying the moment. He gets to sit alongside his hero in Ovechkin and has also taken to T.J. Oshie as a teacher.
“He’s a super talented young kid. Awesome, awesome, awesome guy,” Oshie said. “He’s fun to be around… you can tell he’s really enjoying himself, he’s working really hard. He’s very interested in learning from players and coaches.”
For Lapierre, there’s still that starstruck feeling at times as well.
“When you’re in the moment, you don’t really realize that I think, you know, because you’re just like, ‘Okay, I’m here right now,’ but I think just afterwards like couple days later, you’re like, ‘Okay, you know, I watching those guys on TV a couple months ago and now I’m there with them,'” Lapierre said of living the pro experience. “I feel good about my game, so definitely a fun experience. But at the same time, I worked really hard to be here right now. And I just want to keep enjoying the experience and learning new stuff each and every day.”
Looking at the way Lapierre has carried himself so far, it’s evident that he’s been playing beyond his years. He admits that he balances work and play pretty well, and prioritizes preparation. However, he’s still a kid at heart; so the teenager tries to unwind when he can off the ice, whether it be playing video games or hanging out at his hotel.
“You really got to take care of your body and make sure you’re ready to go. So I really don’t have time to go play tennis at night, so after practice, I just like to maybe go back to the hotel, just watch TV,” Lapierre said My parents brought me my Xbox too, so I’ve been playing a little bit of sports games on that but other than that, I just try to relax as much as I can and make sure my body’s ready to go for the next day. As a said, it’s not the same preparation from here to what I was used to before.”
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Lapierre scored his first career goal in his debut and has since been trying to put himself on the radar. Through five games so far, he has one goal, seven shots, two takeaways, one giveaway, two blocks and six faceoff wins. but he’s been stepping up and trying to make himself noticeable on the ice. His line has been able to generate a few good looks and scoring chances, and his speed, two-way play and versatility as a center and wing have been solid.
Lapierre can play just nine games at the NHL level before burning a year of his entry-level deal, but for head coach Peter Laviolette, that’s not a concern.
“We’re just evaluating how he’s contributing. He’s been a good player for us, so we’re kind of just going slow and watching him and evaluating him,” Laviolette said, adding, “He skates well, he sees the game well.”
Still, the NHL transition doesn’t happen overnight, and he knows there’s still work to be done.
“I think the most challenging thing, especially when I was playing as a centerman here, it’s just there’s so many things, you know, going around, the guys are so smart, so quick. There’s lots of switches, lots of stuff that you don’t see necessarily in the other levels,” Lapierre noted. “So I really had to get used to that… I feel like if I can play like that and try to make things happen, use my speed, be aggressive, I feel like good things can happen.
“Now I just got to prove that I can stay here, but my philosophy has always been to push myself and really make sure that you know I’m ready to be at the next level,” Lapierre added. “I didn’t come here as a tourist, and I was ready.”