The colours David Desharnais wears on his back when he goes to work every night are exactly the ones he's always hoped to sport, but the logo dominating the front of his sweater isn't the one he wears in his dreams. The dynamic, hard-working centreman is the Hamilton Bulldogs' best player. In his heart, he's a Montreal Canadien.
That's why, when he was summoned to coach Jacques Martin's office and told he was cut from Habs camp, bound to start another season in the AHL, he was disappointed and angry. He wasn't mad at Martin. He was upset at himself because he hates wondering if he could have given a little bit more.
"For sure I'm disappointed," he explains. "Every year you try to be better and to make the cut, the last cut. This year it's disappointing."
Desharnais lasted longer at Habs camp last fall, when he was one of the final guys cut. This season he's another year older and the team has brought in younger guys who are pushing for NHL jobs too. At 24, he's running out of chances to make the jump to the big league. Standing post-game in shorts, damp t-shirt and yellow crocs, the reason why the options of such a talented player are limited is obvious.
The guy is small. He'd have to use a stool to reach the high shelf if he worked as an accountant. It's almost inconceivable to imagine him as a professional hockey player. Or, it would be if he hadn't completely dominated the AHL exhibition game just ended. He didn't play like a man who let the disappointment of his cut from Habs camp affect his game. He pulled up his white athletic socks, stuffed them into his size-eight skates and went out to prove, once again, that he's going to try like hell to make the NHL.
"You have to do it because...it's not the first time," Desharnais says. "When I first got in pro I thought I would be in the AHL when I was in the East Coast. You just have to go in the league and do your best and try to be the best in that league. They're not going to have a choice about bringing you up. You have to force their hand to be back up there. You have to be patient. Try to dominate the AHL. It's a long season and lots of things can happen. Injuries, trade. The team can go good, the team can do bad. You never know what's going to happen, so you have to be patient and try to do your best down here."
His best in AHL pre-season games has seen him killing penalties and scoring shorthanded. A period later, he's working the power play and scoring by making himself invisible beside the net. Then he's winning a faceoff and driving to the goal for a shot. For a small man, he's hard to miss when he's on his game. He says one benefit of attending Canadiens' camp was the chance to pick up a few tricks from another guy who's just his size: newly-minted captain Brian Gionta.
"I have to watch him work every day. Gionta is one of those guys who's small, but he's fast and he's working hard. He's the captain, and it's not getting any better than that. I just have to watch him and learn from him."
Gionta's speed and work ethic are two things Desharnais has tried to copy in the last year, especially the speed. He's been focussing on getting quicker because he knows it could make the difference in landing an NHL job or becoming an AHL lifer.
"Yeah, it was one of my weaknesses, so I had to work on it. Thanks for saying it," he beams when someone mentions the improvement. "It's gotten better. I'm working on it every day, every year in the summer and obviously it's paying off.
"I worked with some guys...Paul Lawson, with the Canadiens," he continues. "You have to go faster when it's a faster pace. You go up one level and you have to go faster. Last year was my first year, so you get used to it and you push yourself harder every game."
Desharnais knows hockey is all about speed; the speed at which a puck flies, how quickly a player can get from point A to point B and how rapidly a career can spin from promising to over. He wants more than anything else to be a Montreal Canadien in truth as well as in dreams. He tasted it last season for a couple of games and he's not yet willing to entertain thoughts of changing colours to make a slightly different dream come true.
"I don't know. We'll see. I think I'm still in a good spot," he attests. "I'm with the Montreal Canadiens. I could not ask for better. But we'll see how it goes. If next year I don't have my place (in the NHL), I don't know what I'm gonna do. But I'm going to try this year to make my place during the season."
It's a tall order for a small player who needs to be on a team's top-two lines to succeed. In Montreal, the season opens with all of those positions filled for the foreseeable future. Desharnais can only put his head down, work like Gionta and hope Fate takes a hand in making his dream come true.
On this day, one of the great players to have worn the uniform Desharnais so longs to don is in the stands to watch. Bob Gainey is taking in the game with an eye on prospects who might be able to help the Canadiens if needed this year. Desharnais is impressive. He scores two goals, both by driving hard to the net and fighting traffic for rebounds. He's fast and he makes smart decisions. He knows he's been impressive, but he firmly says the person he's working hardest to impress is himself.
"I'm always...no matter who's in the stands or no matter what, it's for me. If I want to be up there, I have to work hard every night. I don't care who's in the stands. It's just the way I am. I play hard every night."
Desharnais is set to burn up the AHL this season. It's the only way he knows to make the team he's followed since he was a boy pay attention to him. He's hoping hard work and skill will be enough to make people forget his size and give him a real chance to trade in the snarling bulldog on his sweater for a shiny new CH.