By: Steve Warne
Photography by: Mathieu Brunet
It was probably the most difficult season in the Ottawa Senators’ 26 year history.
They finished dead last in the NHL standings, fired their head coach, and traded away five star players—captain Erik Karlsson, Mike Hoffman, Matt Duchene, Mark Stone, and Ryan Dzingel. However, despite this wildly unpopular purge of talent, Senator fans do have reasons to hope for better days ahead.
Exhibit A? 22 year old defenceman Thomas Chabot. In every way, Chabot appears to be the real deal, on and off the ice, bound for NHL stardom. Just two years ago, Chabot capped a stellar junior career, leading Saint John to the Quebec Major Junior title and an appearance at the Memorial Cup. He captured the Emile Bouchard Trophy as the league’s top defenceman and the Guy Lafleur Trophy as the league’s playoff MVP. Chabot also left a huge international mark in 2017. He had 10 points in 7 games to help Canada win silver at the World Junior Hockey Championship. Chabot was named the tournament’s MVP and top defenceman. This is the sparkling junior hockey resume you might expect from a first overall NHL draft pick. Of course, the Sens were doing cartwheels to have selected Chabot 18th overall in 2015.
They started Chabot in the minors for 2017-18 but didn’t leave him there long, calling him up for good after just 13 games. His rookie NHL season was solid, a learning process that played out mostly in the large shadow of Karlsson. The following September, Karlsson was traded to San Jose. As a result, Chabot’s minutes and point production erupted. He seamlessly slid into the number one role, just as smoothly as he leads a breakout.
Chabot quickly collected 38 points in the first 38 games, provoking early discussions about his possible Norris Trophy worthiness. His powerful, effortless skating and offensive flair seemed to have restored much of what was lost with Karlsson’s exit. However, in Game 38, three days after Christmas, Chabot’s season was knocked off stride by a shoulder injury. On returning, he never quite restored his scoring mojo.
Chabot still closed out the season with 55 points in 70 games, setting the table for a big campaign next season, the final year of his entry level contract. How the Senators handle that contract extension will be of great interest over the coming months. Chabot is clearly an exciting part of this club’s new foundation and certainly at least a candidate to become its next captain.
How did you feel about the 2018-19 Ottawa Senators season?
As far as wins and losses, it wasn’t the best year. But as a group, the young core we had here, we came a long way. I think we could have done a lot better but I think everybody took a big step this year. Younger guys had a bigger role than they’d normally have this early in their career and I think everybody kind of stood up to the challenge after all the trades were made. There are a lot of positive things for the future of this organization.
How would you analyze your own season, individually, in 2018-19?
I think it was pretty good. The way I started the year, obviously I knew I was going to have a bigger role. I took advantage of it and was playing big minutes. I just kinda went with it and tried to play as well as I could. That shoulder injury that kept me away for two and a half weeks kinda slowed me down a little bit. But I eventually started playing my game again and I’m pretty happy overall with the way my season went.
Right at the start of the season, the club said goodbye to Erik Karlsson. What was your short time with Karlsson like? Did you think of him a mentor?
I think he kinda was, to be honest. Obviously, I didn’t play too long with him. But maybe the last 30 games of my rookie year, I had the chance to be on the same pairing as him so that was pretty neat. Obviously, that’s a player I can look up to because we play kind of the same way, both offensive minded D-men. To see the kind of poise, the plays he was making or anytime mistakes were made, you hear what he thinks about it and you just see a different side of it. Around the locker room, he’s a great guy, always having fun so I was really having a blast playing with him for sure.
There was no shortage of off-ice distractions this season. How did you shut them out and focus on hockey?
The only thing we control as players is try and go out there and do our best and play for our jobs. Obviously, it’s our job to go out there and try and succeed on the ice. The only thing we focus on is to try and make it a good group of guys. That’s one thing we did at the end of the year is everybody was having fun coming to the rink and everybody was working hard in practice, That’s something we want to keep going for the future.
With all the good young talent on the team and on the way, are you optimistic about the future?
I am. It’ll be good. We’re still a young group of guys but I like the way everybody finished the year and took the challenge of bigger roles, and learned what it takes to play in this league. It’s a hard league to play in, playing pretty much every second day. It’s hard to be consistent, but after your first year, you kinda understand what it takes a little bit more. I’m hoping that everybody will get the work in, the things they have to get better at this summer. The way the season finished, a lot of younger guys showed good things on the ice. They’re also really good people off the ice so that’s only positive.
You and Brady Tkachuk are often seen as the two biggest young stars on the team? What’s it like having Tkachuk as a teammate?
It’s great. We’re getting along really well. Obviously, we’re two guys that love the game, whether it’s at the rink or at the hotel watching hockey on TV. He’s a guy that’s always smiling, always willing to get better and put in the work. Obviously he’s got all the tools. Brady’s a very talented guy. He can be a sh*t disturber, he can score goals, he’s got it all. Off the ice, everybody would tell you the same thing. He’s just a blast to be around. He’s a great guy, loves having fun, making jokes. He’s a great teammate.
After the grind of a long, tough season that was slowed down by shoulder and toe injuries, you agreed to play for Canada again at the 2019 World Hockey championships in Slovakia. It eats up most of the month of May. Did you thinking about skipping it this year?
I really had to think about the decision for sure. With the injuries, part of you wants to take it easy for a bit and make sure everything is fine before you get into summer training. I talked with our doctors and we came to the conclusion that everything was fine. Anytime you’re asked to represent your country, you’re always going to take advantage of it and try and go out there and do your best. It also gives you the chance to play with some players that you’re usually trying to shut down in the NHL. You also play for different coaches who will give you some different tips. All things that can make you a better hockey player.
July 1st 2019 is an important day. That’s when you’re first eligible to sign a contract extension with the Senators. GM Pierre Dorion said in April that he hopes you’ll be an Ottawa Senator for life. Can you see yourself being a Senator for life?
I definitely could, yeah. Obviously, I still have a year left (on my current deal) so we’ll see where this goes. I don’t know a whole lot about it right now so I can’t really say anything but for sure I could see that.
What did you think when Dorion said that about you?
It’s fun for sure. He sees me being on the team for a while. That’s always positive for a hockey player. With the year we had and the group of guys we have, I’d love to be around here for a bit.
Tell us about your hometown, Sainte-Marie-de-Beauce.
I love that place. It’s out in the country. It’s a really small town. Ottawa’s a lot bigger with a lot more traffic. It’s just the fact that all my family’s there, my brother’s there, and all my buddies are there. We pretty much all know each other there. That’s the joke that we all know each other and we’re all cousins (laughs). We’re not all cousins. It’s not too far from here so anytime I need to get to Ottawa this summer it’s really accessible.
Almost every small town boy who makes the NHL has a story of a special outdoor rink they played on for hours at a time. Tell us about yours.
My Dad was a teacher so every time I got home he always wanted me to do my homework. I didn’t want anything to do with it. I just wanted to go skate on our outdoor rink. In my neighbourhood, we’re all guys from…actually, we’re all guys! First things first, there’s actually no girls in the neighbourhood. Everybody was playing hockey. I was the youngest, my brother is the oldest. I’m a ’97 (birth year), my brother and his friends were a ’93. We’re all within 4 years of each other, which was pretty cool. So every night, every weekend, every day, every break, Christmas, whatever, we were always there for 4 or 5 hours every night. It was a blast for sure. That’s where it all started. I had my basement as well with my brother and Dad. We played so much hockey down there.
When did you realize you have a chance to one day play in the NHL?
I never, ever told myself I’d be playing in the NHL. I knew how hard it was to get there, how impossible it was to get there. When my brother went through Midget AAA, he got cut and I thought my brother was the best player in the world. So I thought, “there’s no chance I’m making it there.” But when I got to Midget AAA, I actually made it. Then I got drafted in the QMJHL. That was tough for a French, Quebec boy who didn’t speak a lick of English to go to Saint John, New Brunswick. It was a little hard at first. But in my second year when I saw my name in the draft rankings for the first time, that was when I realized I could maybe one day play in the NHL.
What was your relationship like with your older brother, Felix-Antoine? Did you guys get along? Did he take you under his wing? Or were you like a lot of brothers, who just kick the sh*t out of each other?
Yeah, we kicked the sh*t out of each other all the time. Don’t get me wrong. We love each other but anytime we play, I’d run upstairs crying because he beat me…because he’s four years older than me! I loved chirping too so that probably didn’t help me when I was beating him. Whatever it was, any sport we were doing, we’re two really competitive guys and we love to win and be better than the other one. All through his life, I followed his hockey. He played one game in the QMJHL. I really enjoyed watching him. He did the same. Now we’re not beating the sh*t out of each other anymore. We had a lot of fun. I’d do it all again for sure.
Who are your best friends on the team?
There’s Tkachuk. There’s Colin White. To be honest, there are so many guys I really get along with but if I have to narrow it down, I’d go with those two. Chucky’s only a year or two younger than we are. Whitey was born on the same day as me, drafted in the same year, same round. It’s pretty neat. We’re roommates too. We love going out for dinner and hanging out. They’re both funny guys, we get along really well and we always seem to want to do the same things.
Who are your best friends from other NHL markets?
Anthony Beauvillier and Matthew Barzal with the Islanders. I’m really good buddies with Pierre-Luc Dubois in Columbus. Mathieu Joseph in Tampa Bay. I played with Joseph for four years in junior and we won a championship together so it’s always fun. When we play now, we often grab a bite to eat and catch up.
What’s your most prized possession, the thing at home you’d save first if a fire broke out?
My dog. He’s a golden retriever, 7 months old. His name is Milo, pronounced MEE-lo. Why Milo? My girlfriend and I looked through names. I really liked Toby, like the movie. She came up with Milo and I thought, “Why not?” I kinda like it now.
If you weren’t a pro hockey player, what job would you want?
Something around sports. Maybe a sports agent, maybe work on TV or radio. For sure I’d like to do something that stayed within sports. Any sport, doesn’t have to be hockey.
The Rock or Liam Neeson.
Mostly rap. Big fan of Drake and Lil Baby.
Favourite video game?
Fortnite. It’s a lot of fun playing that game. During the season, I’ll sometimes play a couple of games at night. I obviously don’t let it keep me up until 3am. I make sure I get some rest. When the season’s over I’ll probably play a little bit more.
Favourite game day meal?
At home, here in Ottawa, it’s always broccoli, chicken and penne with rosee sauce. On the road, it’s always salmon, broccoli, salad and rice. Every time. Never changes.