Blue Jackets 2018-19 season preview: Pierre-Luc Dubois steps out on his own
Pierre-Luc Dubois is a grown-ass man.
If there was any doubt left on the subject after the Blue Jackets' season ended last spring — the season during which Dubois was given an opportunity to center the team's top line and never relinquished the spot on his way to breaking the franchise rookie goal-scoring and points records — Dubois shut that talk down with his play at this summer's International Ice Hockey Federation World Cup, where he played a key role in Team Canada's run to the semifinals, displaying both skill and a dominating physical presence.
At the same time, Dubois is just a kid. Just a few months removed from being a teenager, Dubois might be as likely to have his nails painted by teammate David Savard's daughter or play with Savard's young son in the park as he is to score a hat trick. Of course, those two things are likely, so hopefully the prospects of Dubois having a big year for the Jackets are as well.
During the 2017-2018 season, Dubois' first in the NHL, the then-19-year-old lived with the Savards, providing them with a live-in babysitter and sometime dishwasher, but mostly enjoying a comfortable off-ice environment, easing the young player's transition into professional hockey and adult life. It's not a novel concept. Most hockey players live with what are called billet families starting in their teens, often having to move away from home to play in the best junior hockey leagues. It's not even unheard-of for young NHL players.
But the arrangement wasn't a certainty. Despite being the Jackets' first-round pick (and No. 3 overall) in the 2016 NHL draft, he wasn't guaranteed a roster spot as he entered his second training camp with the team. Dubois' draft-year camp was unremarkable (“I couldn't find him,” said Head Coach John Tortorella), and a return to his junior team in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, started out fairly ordinary as well before a mid-season trade and a strong finish in Blainville-Boisbriand.
“I asked [Dubois] if he wanted to stay during camp, to see how it would work out. We said from the start if he didn't feel comfortable or if our family thought it was too much, that he could get his own place. But everything worked out great,” Savard said. “When he made the team, we said he could do what he wanted. He said [staying with us] was a good idea, that it definitely made things easier for him.”
“For them to always be open and leave me the choice to go or stay, it was big,” Dubois said of the Savards' open-ended offer to live with them, which became a season-long arrangement. “It's a lot of work mentally and physically to play in the NHL. I'm not complaining. Playing is fun. Practice is fun. Going on the road, being with guys is fun. But it takes a toll, and to live with David and not always have to worry about groceries or even sometimes laundry, and being with the kids, just being in a family environment. … The biggest part is to have company, to have people around you. I'm a big family guy.”
Hockey has always been a family thing for Dubois. His father, Eric, played and coached hockey, meaning Pierre-Luc not only started young but was often at one rink or another.
“My dad was playing in Germany when I started to skate at age 3. I remember him helping teach me to skate, and I remember a coach yelling at me in German and my dad had to sprint down to tell him I didn't speak any German,” Dubois recalled with a laugh.
“When he was in elementary school, the rink [where I worked] was right across the street from the school, so instead of going home for lunch he would ask if he could come over and eat with me,” Eric Dubois said. “That took about five minutes and then, poof, he would be on the ice,”
The Dubois family eventually settled in Rimouski, Quebec, his parents and older sister nurturing him in hockey but also providing Pierre-Luc an otherwise typical home life. It could have proven disastrous when playing hockey started taking him away from his family, but Dubois was fortunate to be placed with billet families with whom he meshed.
“My first family, I was very lucky. She's like a mom to me to this day,” Dubois said. “Age 15 is kind of hard, a big year, living away from home and going to school, too, and they made that year one where I really learned a lot and grew the most.”
The next year, Dubois joined the major junior team in Cape Breton — a full 11 hours from Rimouski.
“My mom won't like that I said this, but I was kind of hoping to go far away for juniors,” Dubois said. “I figured if I was going to move away from my family, I might as well move far enough away where I will feel like it's more living on my own. That family was great, too, and I still have a good relationship with them. That first year in juniors you have so many questions, and they really help you to grow up while allowing you to focus on hockey.”
He lived with the same family in Cape Breton after his first NHL training camp, and when the time came for Blue Jackets camp in 2017, the Savards stepped up with their offer.
“I knew David from coaching him in juniors, so I was really happy,” Eric Dubois said of the arrangement. “Here's a good person and good role model. For me and my wife, it was a relief.”
“They had a huge impact on my play last year, especially at the start of year when it wasn't going as I planned and I wasn't playing that well,” Pierre-Luc said. “At the rink I was unhappy and disappointed and frustrated, but at home they'd keep me happy and positive. For me, if I'm happy and feeling comfortable and having a fun time, laughing, then I get to the rink and it just keeps going. I grew up in a house where my mom was always laughing, so that feeling from the Savards really helped me.”
“He's very demanding of himself, and he carries the game away from the rink,” Eric Dubois said. “I knew it would be good to have somebody to talk to about hockey, but not only about hockey. I told David, ‘You're a big part of his success.'”
“Having [Savard], just a good solid pro, and having a family take care of you a little bit, giving you the lay of the land to what it is to start becoming a pro, I'm sure it helped,” Tortorella said. “We were planning to bring him along slowly, but we had some things with other players not go the way we hoped, and so he gets the opportunity and he just takes off.”
That opportunity was centering the Jackets' top line with wingers Artemi Panarin and Cam Atkinson.
“He was thrown into a spot and he seized the opportunity. He embraced the role, got better and better every game,” Atkinson said. “I knew the level he could get to, I just don't think we knew he would get there so quick.”
It took him a while to get his stride, but Dubois ended the season holding the aforementioned team rookie scoring records and garnering enough Calder Trophy (given to the league's top rookie) votes to finish in the top 10. Before moving home for the summer (he actually rented an apartment in Montreal to be closer to where he trained), Dubois found an apartment of his own here in Columbus. It was time for the next step.
“Now it's all me with food, money, shopping, rent, groceries,” Dubois said. “[I'm living] an adult life for the first time.”
Eric Dubois said he believes his son is ready to be on his own.
“This summer, I know he was helping to take care of his sister, who was also living in Montreal. Her apartment didn't have air conditioning, so he would invite her to stay with him when it was really hot,” the elder Dubois said. “Sometimes to be a successful hockey player, you have to be selfish. But I see him also being mature and thinking of other people. In some ways, he's still your little kid. But we see a big change in him.”
Pierre-Luc still calls his dad after almost every game, but it was mom he wanted to impress when she and his older sister came to Columbus during training camp this year to help him furnish his new home.
“I made sure to have everything clean because … I wanted her to not feel like she had to do that first thing she came in,” Dubois said. “I did the vacuum, laundry, even the sheets. She wouldn't point it out to me if I didn't, but I would have come back from practice and she would have cleaned everything. I didn't want her to come to visit and be taking care of me.”
The Savards still welcome Dubois for regular dinners and trips to the coffee shop or park for some play time with the kids, who are even more excited than ever to see him.
“It's a cool relationship. He's a part of the family now,” Savard said.
His family, his team and Dubois himself all hope this next step follows in his career path as well.
“Luc and I have already had that discussion, that young players don't always realize they have to concentrate and work even harder than they did before,” Tortorella said. “He has the ability and potential to be much better. He's still a young guy, but he's a man in this game now. I think that propels him.”
“He has a plan for where he wants to be and how to get there. He has always wanted to be a guy his teammates depend on, to be a big part of a team,” Eric Dubois said.
“It's a cliche, but I want to return the favor to David, to all my billets and my family, for everything they did for me, for things they did that let me focus on hockey,” Dubois said. “I'm proud of myself for working hard last year, but I don't think I've accomplished anything yet. I want to pay them back both on and off the ice.”