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Maxime Lajoie Has a Hockey Mind and a Heart of Gold

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Senators prospect Maxime Lajoie played an important role on and off the ice in Swift Current this season.

Maxime Lajoie scores the shootout winner against the Calgary Hitmen.
Maxime Lajoie scores the shootout winner against the Calgary Hitmen.
Darwin Knelsen

On a Wednesday night in mid January - the day before their team hit the road for a game in Red Deer - Swift Current Broncos Maxime Lajoie and Glenn Gawdin drove three hours up Highway 4 to Saskatoon to see their friend Rhett.

Rhett Sanford, a huge Broncos fan and overall hockey devotee, was recovering from a horrific ATV accident in April of 2015 that claimed the life of his brother Blaine and left him with a broken neck and other serious injuries. He was still in his halo brace, but that didn't stop him from playing ministicks with two of his heroes.

Dressed in their game jerseys, Lajoie and Gawdin brought with them a card and a brand new hockey stick signed by the entire team as a get well present. They spent three hours chatting with the family and playing table hockey with Rhett.

"He means a lot," said Lajoie. "Knowing that myself and Gawdin were his favourite players is just an honour. Being able to meet him and just put a smile on his face and have fun with him is just amazing, seeing as what the kid has been through."

The players formed a strong relationship with Rhett, rallying behind the family as they continued the long journey to recovery.

"Once he got better he was able to come to games, so we'd talk to him afterwards," added Lajoie. "We chat with his mom on Facebook after, as well."

And it's going to take a lot more than a broken neck to keep Rhett away from the rink.

"I think he's still wearing his halo," noted Lajoie. "But pretty soon he'll be able to play sports again, so that's great."

While Rhett will be back on the ice in no time, Lajoie is currently knee deep in Senators development camp. Along with 35 other Ottawa prospects, the 19-year-old is spending a week in the nation's capital, taking part in on and off ice training for seven days straight.

"I think the Ottawa Senators got a real steal in the 5th round by snagging him," stated Broncos head coach Mark Lamb. "He took on a lot of responsibility (this season). We lost a lot of guys on our team and got very young, very quickly."

It wasn't a particularly successful year for the Broncos. After being playoff bound for three straight seasons, they found themselves seven points out of a postseason berth as the rebuild dragged on.

"Our coaches knew this season was going to be harder than the past year," recalled Lajoie, a native of Quebec. "We knew we had to work harder and keep our heads up. We went through a stretch where we lost 12 or 13 in a row."

That made it much more difficult for an up-and-coming player like Lajoie to be noticed by NHL scouts. He didn't have the supporting cast he needed in order to put up an outstanding offensive season, so he had to show his worth in more ways than simply goals and assists.

"This year was a big change for me with (Dillon) Heatherington and (Brett) Lernout leaving," noted Lajoie. "I kind of had to get used to the ice time and more responsibility. I really tried to improve my defensive game this year and I thought I did a really good job. It was a tough year, but I thought I made the most of it."

Lajoie became the team's top all-around defenseman and was also thrust into a leadership role as he dawned an 'A' for the first time in his junior career. The minutes grew in number and in difficulty.

"He was our No. 1 penalty killer and our No. 1 guy that we put out against all the top guys," explained Lamb, who was just announced as new head coach of the AHL's Tucson Roadrunners last week. "Defensively he's very sound, which people don't give him credit for.

"He turned into a leader, which he did a very good job at. He turned into a player that got most of the ice time in all situations. That's a lot of responsibility, which is overwhelming for a young guy at different times, but I thought he handled it very well and it's going to pay off in the long run."

Lajoie speaks up in the room when it's needed, but he tends to lead more by example. That became most evident when he played through an illness that just wouldn't go away. Late in the year, he recorded 18 points in 18 games while battling mono throughout the hot streak.

Talk about determination.

But if he had to pick one attribute, Lamb says Lajoie's hockey IQ is the most impressive part of his game. That's the biggest reason he's been recognized as a stellar, offensively gifted defenseman.

"He's a real smart player," acknowledged Lamb, 51. "He knows when to do things offensively. He doesn't necessarily have the hardest shot, but it doesn't matter because he knows how to get it through and knows how to shoot for sticks."

Drafted 133rd overall in the 5th round, Lajoie admits he was "a little bit" surprised that he was picked so late, but it's all background noise to the realization that he's now competing for a job in the NHL.

"It didn't really hit me quite at that moment that it actually happened," Lajoie recalls. "It kind of took a little time to realize that I had been drafted by an NHL team. It's a lot of different, mixed feelings, but an amazing feeling.

"It doesn't really matter to me when I was picked, it's just what I do after and how you prove people wrong."

Lajoie will have an extremely tough time breaking into pro hockey this upcoming season, but with the Broncos on the upswing of a quick rebuild, there's a substantial opportunity awaiting him back in Saskatchewan.

"It was a transition year for the hockey team," explained Lamb. "We made some trades and we got younger. He's the leader on the backend, which he will be again this year. He's surrounded a lot better this year than last year, so we expect a huge year for him."

The Senators are getting a smart, talented and driven defenseman. And if you ask the Sanford family, they're also getting a leader in the community.

"That's just the type of person Max is," exclaimed Lamb.