After four seasons in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League (QMJHL), Nashville Predators prospect Zachary L’Heureux is ready to turn pro, bringing his mustard-swilling habits and aggressive style of play with him to the American Hockey League.
The Predators selected L’Heureux with the 27th overall pick in the 2021 draft, trading picks 40 and 51 in the second round to move up and grab the tenacious Montreal native.
“I was at my house in the basement on the couch with the family around,” L’Heureux told Nashville Hockey Now of the night he was drafted. “I had a TV set up outside with 20 of my buddies hoping I get drafted. I knew I was ranked toward the end of the first round. That was probably the most stressful night of my life.
“I think it was the longest pick of the first round with the trade and then (I) saw they picked me and it was pretty special. So much joy and it’s something I’ll always be grateful for.”
Fast forward to training camp with the Predators last year. The team’s rookies were in Tampa Bay, and between scrimmage games L’Heureux was riding the stationary bike but then he started to cramp in both legs.
He opted to lay on the ground and the Predators training staff gave him some mustard and a drink to help aid his recovery after flushing his legs out after a game — a practice he still uses to this day, and one that brought him some notoriety in May during his postseason run with the Halifax Mooseheads.
— QMJHL (@QMJHL) May 2, 2023
“I think it was actually the first game in Tampa Bay and I was upstairs biking and I got really bad cramps,” L’Heureux recalled. “There’s been a few instances. They got a good video of it and it kind of went viral and then the ‘Mustard Tiger’ was the nickname. I like it, it comes from Trailer Park Boys, the boys in the room definitely loved running with that.”
L’Heureux completed his junior league tenure before coming to Nashville in July for development camp — his third since being drafted by the organization and a nice tune-up for training camp, which starts in a few weeks.
He helped Halifax to a 50-11-7 record during the regular season, finishing first in the Maritimes Division and making it to the Memorial Cup Final where the Mooseheads fell in six games to the Quebec Remparts. L’Heureux finished third on the team in postseason goals (11) and points (26).
“I knew it was probably going to be my last season in junior,” L’Heureux said. “I wanted to make it a memorable one. I knew I was going to be a leader on that team. I knew I really had to step up. It was my first playoff in junior in my four years.
“I think we did an unreal job and it sucks that we fell short, but we’re still proud of the way the team answered and how we stepped up. I think I was able to elevate my game and be a leader on and off the ice. It was special for myself to prove that I was able to do that, but wasn’t really capable of doing that until the playoffs came around and I was able to step up.”
Now L’Heureux’s next chapter includes stepping up from juniors to the professional ranks. The Milwaukee Admirals is his likeliest option, but if first-year general manager Barry Trotz and first-year head coach Andrew Brunette are inclined to throw the youth movement into overdrive, there’s a chance he could also make the Predators roster out of camp.
“It’s really incredible the stuff you can learn in such a short amount of time,” L’Heureux said of his experience at development camp. “It’s really opened up my brain to some knowledge so I can bring all that back home and work on the little details in my game and come back ready for (training) camp.”
While making Nashville’s roster is the ultimate goal, the gritty 5-foot-11 forward won’t be disappointed if he starts his professional career in Milwaukee and works his way up.
“It’s still a step towards the goal, and I think it’s a positive,” L’Heureux stated. “Take it one day at a time and good things will happen.”
During his time in the QMJHL, L’Heureux was suspended for 37 games stemming from nine different issues. While that sort of competitive tenacity could be a welcome addition to the new Predators’ identity, the Admirals coaching staff will likely work with the 20-year-old forward to be better disciplined.
“He came back and it was hard for him to the catch the moving train,” Predators assistant general manager Scott Nichol said. “He struggled but it was a really good learning experience for him. And then he dialed it up in the playoffs, and I thought he was the engine that drove that team.”
Between Zach L’Heureux & Yaroslav Askarov the #Preds young guns will have a lot of weapons to offer. Whether it's getting in your head or using their talent/hard work to win.
— Nick Kieser 🏒 (@KieserNick) April 20, 2023
For Nichol and the coaching staff, that was the version of L’Heureux they had envisioned all along. Now, he’s rounding into form as he matures through working with the Predators and Admirals coaches.
“It’s hard when you play with that kind of emotion, and I’ve been on that side of the fence too,” Nichol added. “It’s absolutely time for him to turn pro. Whether it’s here or Milwaukee, it’s time for him to play against men and see where he’s at.”
Nichol mentioned with L’Heureux making the jump to playing against older players, he’ll have to hold his own and see how his development goes from there.
“The emotions are high and you’re doing everything you can to beat the other team,” L’Heureux said. “Whatever you can do to give your team a little advantage, but it can come to bite you back too.”
Boo him, it only makes him better.
— Halifax Mooseheads (@HFXMooseheads) April 20, 2023
“He’s got rookie camp and main camp trying to earn some exhibition games and fight for a spot in Nashville,” Nichol added. “If not, he’ll be fighting for a spot and playing time in Milwaukee. I’m excited to see where his path goes in his development and maturity. He’s super nice off the ice and an ultra-competitive player that wants to win, which isn’t a bad thing.”
While L’Heureux feels like he can physically handle the challenges of playing at the next level, he recognizes what it takes to play in a league up against several other high draft picks and top prospects.
“The way it’s going is everyone is a good skater in the NHL now, so you have to be quicker and quicker off your feet,” he said. “That will make the transition a lot easier. Skating is number one for me.”
Looking back at L’Heureux’s journey to the NHL, it began watching Sidney Crosby on TV and playing hockey for the fun of it. Now, he’s turned his passion into his career.
“It’s just crazy to look back and it feels like it’s been a few years,” he said. “Now it’s like a job more than just a passion or a goal in life, it’s my job and what I want to do for the rest of my life.
“There’s no better feeling than showing up to the rink and seeing the guys and people that make you happy. That feeling everyday is indescribable and you can’t really explain it. That little flame that fuels the fire and makes it fun, just to always get to the rink and feel like a kid when you’re there. It really is special to me.”