Even after winning his first ever NHL game, 20-year-old Cayden Primeau did not look like a deer in headlights overwhelmed by the oncoming Montreal media horde.
One by one, microphones and cell phones inserted themselves in the growing scrum, but Primeau didn’t lose focus of the reporter asking him a question to his right. It’s just part of the madness that comes with being a highly-touted prospect in the early stages of their Montreal Canadiens career.
“Definitely crazy. But yeah, it was great. I learned so many things in the short two weeks I was there.” Primeau said. “Not scary, but definitely had some nerves. I don’t think anybody in that situation wouldn’t be nervous.”
Primeau, the 199th draft selection from 2017, is already under the microscope in his first season as a professional. Unsurprisingly so, considering the market he plays in. To this point he’s only made two starts for the Habs. But his early impression suggests he is ready for the NHL.
Meanwhile, he’s fine-tuning his game at the American Hockey League level. He has a winning record so far at 11-6-1, but he’s also allowed five goals in six of his starts. Patience is still needed for Primeau.
“Understand the process,” Rocket head coach Joël Bouchard said. “Know that there’s going to be tough games. Know that practices are going to be tougher.
“His level of emotion is very stable, which isn’t always there for a young player because of all the expectations.”
The goaltender is all about maintaining calmness and composure around him. Despite the attention that surrounds, or the journalists who press to know more about him to no avail. He’s even drawn comparisons in this regard to Carey Price.
“Being a goalie is a mental game,” Primeau said. “Everything’s great when they’re saying great things. But it could change in an instant and they start saying negative things as well. It’s all about balance and not trying to feed into the positivity because it’s about staying humble as well.”
Seeking to be balanced and centred is a tactic Cayden says he takes from his hockey-playing father, ex-NHLer Keith Primeau. It certainly doesn’t come from the now-retired, hockey-watching, environmentally-sustainable-box-producing version of him.
“Not now, he’s an emotional wreck.” the young Primeau said.
Cayden began the AHL season splitting the net with another goaltending prospect, Charlie Lindgren. Lindgren now finds himself backing up Price as Keith Kinkaid takes time in the AHL to find his game. Lindgren says he and Primeau have a “really good relationship,” and is impressed by how composed the younger netminder has been.
“It’s crazy to think that he’s 20 years old,” Lindgren said. “The way he carries himself, both on and off [the ice]. He is a very mature kid, he’s very focused. And yeah, he just doesn’t let anything get to him. Whether it’s positive or negative, he’s just going to stay, you know, straight on the straight line.”
Lindgren and Primeau’s lives differ off the ice. Lindgren has a girlfriend to be with at home, while Primeau spends time with his family. But they converse when they’re in the locker room or at practice, even asking each other what they may be watching or reading.
One day, Lindgren discovered, that Primeau’s latest book was “Becoming The Iceman” by the The Iceman himself, Wim Hof, and Justin Rosales. Hof’s teachings on breathing and “cold therapy” are world-renowned in the art of keeping cool. The Dutchman also holds Guinness world records for swimming under ice and for the fastest half marathon on ice and snow.
“He takes ice baths for multiple hours a day,” Lindgren said on Hof. “Him, and some people that follow him or are followers of what he teaches, they got E. coli like purposely and cured it. Because the mind is very powerful.”
Hof’s breathing and meditation methods were used in an experiment that saw volunteers get injected with a toxin made by Escherichia coli. Some of the participants were simply exposed to the toxin and left to let it pass through. The others traveled to Poland, where they used Hof’s breathing and meditation techniques, swam under water in frigid temperatures, and laid down bare-chested in the snow, to fight it. Ultimately, researchers found that Hof’s methods helped stave off inflammation while showing “fewer flu-like symptoms”.
“He’s very in tune with his breathing and his mind. So that’s a whole different thing,” Primeau said of Hof. “So yeah, just anything I can, you know, take from people like that who are very in tune with themselves and, you know, know how to train themselves to stay calm in different circumstances is, it’s crazy.”
No, Primeau does not intend on injecting E. coli into himself and following through with rigorous training in order to achieve total serenity. But perhaps Hof’s breathing and meditation techniques would’ve been useful during the goaltender’s first year away from home with the Lincoln Stars of the United States Hockey League as a 16-year-old.
Cayden thinks of himself as a homebody. Wanting to be near his family meant that moving away to Lincoln, Nebraska, would be a markedly distinct change. But sure enough, Cayden and his brother, Chayse, flew from Voorhees, New Jersey to Lincoln to live in a billet house for the 2016-17 campaign. Even though Cayden’s parents rented an apartment in Lincoln to be close by, he was still experiencing his first time away from home.
“There was a lot of factors going into that year that I was not previously introduced to,” Primeau said. “At the beginning of the year I didn’t really manage it well, but over the course of the year I tried to manage it a little bit better.”
Cayden admits he paid a bit too much attention to what may have been said or written about him during his year at Lincoln. “I had too many outside voices,” he said. “I listened to all of them. I didn’t really manage the voices really well.”
“His first real experience away from home as a 16-year-old, thrown in an environment that was hostile, almost from day one,” Keith said. “If you want to be a hockey player, those are the things you have to learn to deal with.”
Arguably the most damning assessments came from his goalie coach, Clay Adams. As first revealed by Sportsnet’s Eric Engels, Adams had told NHL scouts that Cayden was “emotionally disengaged” and “not receptive” to coaching.
“The coaching staff made the wrong assessment of Cayden and his personality and couldn’t get past that. One hundred per cent, unequivocally.” Keith said. “Cayden wasn’t really that bad. There were nights as a 16-year-old goaltender where you had 30 shots with seven or eight minutes left in the game and the team would be winning 3-1 or 4-2. And then, all of a sudden, they give up one or two goals and lose in overtime. Instead of one or two goals on 30 shots, it’s four or five goals on 34 shots.
“I watched every game,” he added. “And it was frustrating for me as a parent because I saw how well he was actually playing.”
Cayden’s coach that season was Chris Hartsburg, the current coach of the Ontario Hockey League’s Erie Otters. Hartsburg spent much of the year splitting starts between Primeau and current San Jose Sharks prospect Josef Korenar. Hartsburg spoke glowingly of the Canadiens prospect, but admitted he saw there were certain challenges in Cayden’s way during his lone year in Nebraska.
“I think for Cayden, it was a matter of elevating other aspects of what it takes to be a hockey player,” Hartsburg said. “His work level outside of the rink and off the ice and really competing and battling. And I think that’s one thing Cayden never really faced before coming into Lincoln was having to challenge someone in net for playing time.”
Primeau posted a sub-par 14-11-1 record, a 3.16 goals against average, and an .895 save percentage for the Stars that season. Korenar boasted a similar 14-11-0 record, but had a 2.22 goals against average to go with a .925 save percentage.
“I didn’t feel my best. And that was the biggest test for me mentally,” Cayden said. “And I didn’t do very well.”
Hartsburg says that what Adams said about Cayden were among his “opinions at the time,” and added those comments wouldn’t be all that accurate if he spoke about him now. Adams declined comment for this story.
“Clay was young in his coaching career,” Hartsburg said. “Cayden was young in his playing career as far as getting to a higher level. So, you know, I think if there was a do-over to go back three years ago, you know, maybe I could have stepped in and help the relationship a little bit more for sure.”
The comments likely didn’t help his draft stock, but the Canadiens still drafted him in the seventh round of the 2017 NHL Entry Draft. He then followed up with two seasons at Northeastern University, which saw him win a Hockey East Tournament and the Mike Richter Award for best goaltender in the National Collegiate Athletics Association during his final year of college in 2019.
After a year of uncertainty, Primeau can breathe a little easier. He’s emerged as a pro hockey player out of a less-than-ideal situation, and he’s learned quite a few lessons that he’ll carry through his career.
“It’s hardened him to the realities of the game,” Keith said. “It’s mentally strengthened him to face adversity. The irony is that it may end up being something he reflects on 10-15 years from now.”
“There’s different factors that I wasn’t comfortable with,” Cayden explained. “There were different people, I tried to, I think, do too much. I changed my style and who I was. Got away from the things that helped me get to that point and be successful. I definitely tried to get back to who I was and my roots. I think I did that.
“Just be myself. You can’t please everyone.”