When Canadiens general manager Marc Bergevin handed out $1,500 scholarships to teenage hockey players last month at the Bell Centre, Nicholas Gavrielatos received one that recognized his tenacity.
After undergoing brain surgery last May, Nicholas has been back in goal this season for the Lac St. Louis Lions.
As he recovered from the operation, Nicholas worked with a tutor over the summer and wrote and passed two Grade 10 provincial exams.
By January, he had caught up academically by completing the final provincial exam from Grade 10 that he couldn’t write last June.
His health ordeal began last January when he was hit in the head during a pileup in front of the net.
When he brought Nicholas to hospital to get him checked out, the medical staff said it didn’t look like a concussion but that it might be a mild one, said his father, Platon Gavrielatos, a West Island businessman who owns the midget Triple-A Lions and companies that import frozen fruits and vegetables and canned products.
When Nicholas started getting headaches a few days later, his mother, Josie Cacciatore, took him to a neurologist and asked that he undergo an MRI. It showed a spot in his brain that turned out to be a tumour.
One suggested option was to wait and monitor it, but Cacciatore said after seeking out medical opinions, the family ultimately decided on surgery.
“Bottom line: It was a blessing that he got the concussion because that was our saviour — that was our only way of finding out because he had no symptoms,” she said.
The tumour was in a location that allowed doctors to remove it all, Cacciatore said. Nicholas spent three days in hospital last May and didn’t require further treatment after the operation.
“He was amazing,” Cacciatore said. “He was walking the day after surgery.
“I think we drew our strength from him,” she added. “He was strong throughout the whole thing, I have to say.”
Getting the initial news from the doctors wasn’t tough on him, said Nicholas, 16,
“Stuff happens. And that’s it. I just wanted to get it out and play hockey again,” he said, just before hitting the ice Tuesday for the Lions’ practice in Dollard des Ormeaux.
One of his hospital visitors was Canadiens prospect Louis Leblanc, a former Lac St. Louis Lion. Back at home, Nicholas would go for walks and friends kept him company.
“I think that’s what kept his spirits up — his teammates plus all his friends and his cousins and his surroundings,” Cacciatore said.
“Our house was Grand Central Station,” Gavrielatos added.
“The thing with Nicky is he’s a team leader, too,” his father added. “Everybody likes him.”
Lions head coach Jon Goyens called Nicholas a very likeable kid, serious when it comes to hockey and a pleasure to have as a player because he wants to get better.
“He doesn’t act like anything is given to him,” Goyens said.
“Even in the situation he’s in now with his father being the owner and having been around our group, our staff for so many years, he’s never walked into it like, okay this is mine … he’s always to wanted to earn (things) — he’s always wanted to be at the head of the class, so to speak, in terms of work ethic (and) leadership.”
Nicholas started playing minor hockey at age 5. He played in net in novice and stuck with the position, inspired by former Canadiens goaltender José Theodore.
Nicholas is now in Grade 11 at Kuper Academy. At the award ceremony last month at the Bell Centre, he was one of 28 hockey players, age 15 to 17, to receive scholarships from the Canadiens’ bursary program, which sponsors the Quebec Foundation for Athletic Excellence. Nicholas and another player received a new scholarship this year for perseverance.
“I want to play college hockey and go through school and after that we’ll see from there,” Nicholas said when asked about his hockey goal.
While he’d rather go the college route, if he gets drafted in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, that’s good too, he said.
If there were weeks during this season when he was tired, Nicholas would take maybe one or two practices off at the beginning of the week to rest, his mother said.
“We told him to listen to his body,” she said.
He’s now back to 100 per cent, his parents say.
Nicholas has played well this season, Goyens said. Like anyone else he’s had a few ups and downs, but for the most part he’s been very consistent, the coach added. And he has faced a barrage of shots in goal this season.
“He’s had the most shots in the league. Maybe 800 shots in 25 games,” Gavrielatos said. “He’s done well. And he’s ready for the playoffs.”
Nicholas was scheduled to start in net on Wednesday for the Lions’ first playoff game against the Collège Notre Dame Albatros. He missed the first month of the season and returned to play in late September after an eight-month layoff.
You always have that fear the first time they get back on the ice, Cacciatore said.
“You’re always a little worried, but I mean, you can’t live with worry. You have to move on.”
Gavrielatos said he felt like his son enjoyed himself — “like he was happy that he was back in the net and doing what he wants to do.”
“It felt like it was a whole closure on everything that happened,” Cacciatore added. “So he’s back on the ice. Life returns to normal, you know.”
During the trip to Magog for his first start, Nicholas said: “The whole bus ride a lot of things were running through my head. So I was nervous. I was like, ‘Oh, could I keep up still?’
“I had a terrible warm-up.”
With his parents looking on, Nicholas stopped about 30 shots, let in only one goal and was named the game’s first star.
“I saw them in the stands and it was a proud moment,” he said.