It was evident right from the pre-season that the Estevan Bruins had found a top-tier defenceman in Welland, Ont. native Alex Blanchard.
The 20-year-old blue liner, formerly of the QMJHL's Sherbrooke Phoenix, arrived in Estevan in September and quickly became a go-to-guy for head coach Jason Tatarnic, quarterbacking the powerplay, killing penalties, and playing big minutes five-on-five alongside fellow Ontario native Aleksa Babic on the team's top defensive pairing.
"Right from the get go, everybody's been pretty welcoming," said Blanchard. "The coaches, the players. I love it here in Estevan...it's a nice little town and a really nice rink. And I'm lucky to have great billets in Mel Pierson and a really nice billet brother in Aleksa Babic. Couldn't ask for any better."
Blanchard will enter Wednesday night's game against La Ronge in sole possession of first place in the SJHL among defencemen in scoring, as he leads that group with an impressive 22 points in 28 games. He's also first in goals, with nine, including four that have come on the power play.
"I've been lucky enough to be put in certain positions, and my teammates have been playing really well around me as well. So it makes it easier to play when my teammates are as good as they are and playing well like they are," Blanchard said. "To be honest, it's just going out there and trying to make plays and just play my game."
"You can't go out there and think you're going to be offensive all the time," he continued. "I'm also a defenceman, so it's always defence first. And I just like to let it rip from the blue line and stuff like that, so I've been pretty lucky on that end so far this season and hopefully it continues."
The first-year Bruin also revealed what convinced him to come to southeast Saskatchewan for his final year of junior hockey.
"Coach Tatarnic is from the same region that I'm from, so kind of heard about it through there, and then obviously (Olivier) Pouliot last year, we have a mutual connection and I heard about how much he liked it here last year...coming down from Quebec and then playing here and having an amazing year with the guys," Blanchard said. "I heard nothing but good things about Estevan and I couldn't be happier to be here and I'm so happy that I ended up here. Everything happens for a reason."
Blanchard said Babic, who was part of the championship team last year, was the first guy he met when he moved to town and the two hit it off instantly.
"We have a great connection there, and we hang out lots and it's fun. Being defence partners and billet brothers at the same time, it's definitely something you don't see happen that often, and I think it helps with our chemistry on the ice," he said. "He's the perfect teammate, perfect billet brother, he's very nice and I'm definitely lucky to be spending a lot of time with him."
Off the ice, Blanchard, who is bilingual, is taking online university courses in human anatomy and physiology and aspires to play university hockey next season.
"Just tying to keep all my doors open, and academics is something that we take very seriously in our family. So just trying to stay sharp mentally for next year," he said.
As for this year's Bruins group, Blanchard believes they can compete with anyone in the SJHL.
"We're a team that's capable of hanging with those big teams and even beating them," he said. "We work hard every day in practice and in the gym, and we've really set a goal for ourselves that we think we can beat those top teams, and I think we definitely are capable of doing that."
"I think we're definitely taking steps in the right direction, and we're going to be a dangerous team, that's for sure."