Cowan: Canadiens 1st-round pick Michael Hage smart to take NCAA route

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Drafted 21st at this year’s NHL Draft, Hage will have plenty of time to gain weight and strength in the gym at University of Michigan.

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Montreal fans got their first look at Michael Hage in a Canadiens sweater during last week’s development camp at the CN Sports Complex in Brossard.

They won’t get to see Hage in bleu-blanc-rouge again until next summer’s development camp because the first-round pick at this year’s NHL Draft (21st overall) is headed to the University of Michigan and NCAA eligibility rules don’t allow players to take part in the main NHL training camps.

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“It was the route I wanted to take,” Hage said after the camp wrapped up last Friday when asked about taking the university path instead of major-junior after posting 33-42-75 totals in 54 games last season with the USHL’s Chicago Steel. “I mean, I own my decision. It was the decision I made when I was 16, 17 years old and I honestly like the path I’m on.

“I think going to school is a really good opportunity for me to get better, challenge myself at a different level next year,” Hage added. “It’s what kind of comes with going to college. Obviously, it sucks not being able to come to training camp. I think for me it’s just worrying about showing up to Michigan’s camp and just being myself and playing my game.”

Going to Michigan is a smart decision by the 18-year-old centre from Mississauga, Ont., who was measured at 6-feet and 185 pounds at development camp. He will need to gain weight and strength before he’s ready to play in the NHL.

“Two games a week, so you have that chance to hit the weight room,” Rob Ramage, the Canadiens’ director of player development, said when asked about Hage’s decision to go to Michigan. “It’s a great program, obviously. They’ve put a lot of guys in the NHL, so I think it’s a good development path for him.”

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Development camp marked the first time Ramage saw Hage play live and he came away impressed.

“Pretty smooth,” Ramage said. “You can see the skill set there. Great release. Very confident out there for a young guy. So it’s exciting.”

Hage stood out during the development camp with his smooth skating style, stickhandling and vision, as well as the way he constantly keeps his head up like it’s on a swivel. It brought back memories of former Canadiens defenceman Petr Svoboda, who was 6-foot-1 and about 170 pounds when the Canadiens took him with the fifth overall pick at the 1984 NHL Draft. Svoboda had to keep his head on a swivel in order to survive in the NHL back then.

Speaking with the players the Canadiens have selected at the last three NHL Drafts since Jeff Gorton took over as executive vice-president of hockey operations and then hired Kent Hughes as general manager, it becomes obvious they have put an emphasis on intelligence and character, along with hockey skills. Hage is another example.

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When asked if his parents had an influence on his decision to take the NCAA route, Hage said: “I’m sure they had their opinion on what they wanted me to do, but they let it be up to me. They gave me the pros and cons and I knew both what the pros and cons were. They wanted me to own that decision, so they kind of just left it up to me.”

Hage’s father, Alain, died in a freak swimming pool accident last July. Hage’s mother, Rania, and younger brother, Alexander, attended the NHL Draft with him in Las Vegas. Hage’s parents both grew up in Montreal, so the family was thrilled when he was selected by the Canadiens.

Hage said he learned a lot at development camp about the importance of taking care of his body, whether it be off-ice training, eating or sleeping habits. He plans to work hard in the gym this summer in order to gain weight and strength so he can be more explosive on the ice.

Hage also learned an important lesson at development camp when Canadiens captain Nick Suzuki and teammate Brendan Gallagher spoke with the players.

“I think from what they’ve said it’s really all about consistency,” Hage said. “You got to show up and bring the same thing every single day and better. And for them, just the sense that it’s a business. The guys at camp here, the guys that are trying to make this team eventually, from what they told us it’s like they don’t want their spot to be taken and guys are coming in trying to take their spot. So just how competitive it is.

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“You start to understand that,” Hage added. “Not only you want them to be your teammates one day, but you got to fight for a spot eventually. I think just understanding how consistent you have to be and how competitive and how dialed in you have to be away from the rink for that to happen.”

How many years at the University of Michigan will it take before Hage is ready to turn pro?

“We’ll take it one year at a time right now,” Ramage said.

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