Drouin on pressure of playing for Canadiens: 'Until you live it, no one's ready for it'

Jonathan Drouin and his agent, who both grew up in Quebec, opened up about how difficult it can be to play in Montreal, where you're always under the microscope.

Colorado Avalanche forward Jonathan Drouin is ready to contribute to a leading Stanley Cup contender and it’s been a long road back for the 28-year-old.

Drouin took a leave of absence from the Montreal Canadiens during the 2020-21 season, where he later revealed that he was battling severe anxiety. After six seasons with the Canadiens, Drouin signed a one-year deal with the Avalanche this offseason.

Ahead of the upcoming season, Drouin spoke to ESPN’s Ryan S. Clark to detail his battle with anxiety, why he decided to reunite with former junior teammate Nathan MacKinnon in Colorado, and the pressure of trying to succeed in Montreal as a hometown star.

Jonathan Drouin is now a member of the Avalanche after spending six years with the Canadiens. (Photo by Francois Lacasse/NHLI via Getty Images)
Jonathan Drouin is now a member of the Avalanche after spending six years with the Canadiens. (Photo by Francois Lacasse/NHLI via Getty Images) (NHLI via Getty Images)

The 2020-21 NHL season was a one-off due to the COVID-19 pandemic, with an all-Canadian division created to reduce cross-border travel to comply with restrictions implemented by the Canadian government. Drouin, like many others, suffered badly with the limitations of staying inside.

“The two months in the bubble really lingered," Drouin said. "I don't think I could tell you if we didn't have that bubble I would have been fine or I wouldn't have had to stop playing. But the bubble and the COVID year in Montreal, we had rules in Canada where you could not leave your house unless you were walking your dog. I'd walk my dog six times a day to get out of my house."

Drouin told Clark that he didn’t sleep, criticizing himself for poor performances and plays he could’ve made during previous games. During the 2020-21 season, Drouin realized he needed to take a step back from hockey in order to address his mental health.

"My body literally shut off on me. I remember that first practice and came to the hotel room and started feeling sick, started feeling tired and started having attacks," Drouin said. "It was new for me and I thought I was sick. I thought I had a fever or something. Obviously, the doctor came and saw me and there was no fever and now I was even more worried about why I was feeling this way."

Drouin has often been weighed down by lofty expectations placed upon him as a prolific scorer with the Halifax Mooseheads of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, where he and MacKinnon won the Memorial Cup together in 2013. Selected third overall in the 2013 draft by the Tampa Bay Lightning, Drouin struggled to produce consistently and was traded to Montreal in June 2017 in exchange for Mikhail Sergachev.

The trade has been a source of consternation, as Sergachev won two Stanley Cups and has blossomed into a genuine top-tier defenseman who will be a perennial down-ballot Norris Trophy candidate.

Having grown up watching Canadiens games, Drouin thought he would be prepared for the unique pressure of being a French Canadian player in that market. He was mistaken.

"Until you live it, no one's ready for it," Drouin said.

Drouin’s agent, Allan Walsh, also attested to the unique pressures of playing in hockey-mad Montreal.

"You want to be welcoming and understand that this is a privileged set of circumstances that you are living under, yet at the same time when things are not going well, it's just grinding you down every day," said Walsh, who grew up in Quebec himself. "There's no getting away from hockey off the ice.

"What players tend to do in this situation ... is you tend to cocoon. You order in your food, you don't go to the market, you don't walk down the street, you don't walk to the park to get some fresh air. You tend to avoid people and crowds. It turns into an isolating and insulated life and that is not always the healthiest lifestyle."

Now with the Avalanche, Drouin is tasked with helping the Western Conference juggernaut win its second Cup in three seasons.

“I think [Drouin] is a perfect candidate to be able to step in and help us,” Avalanche head coach Jared Bednar said during training camp. “He's shown real quickness with an ability to make plays and score goals and play with those top guys.”