Ashton Bernard wasn’t ranked for June’s NHL draft and didn’t even bother to follow it on the Internet.
In fact, he was sitting with a friend in a restaurant in Charlottetown, eating a cheeseburger for lunch — oblivious to the fact the New Jersey Devils had just picked him 174th overall — when his cellphone rang. It was his agent.
“I knew the draft was going on and when I saw him calling, I said, ‘No, this can’t be happening,’” said Bernard, who hails from the First Nations community of Eskasoni, N.S.
“He said, ‘Ashton, congratulations!’ I said, ‘What did I do?’ He said, ‘You’ve been drafted in the sixth round to New Jersey.’ I had to hang up and call my parents right away.”
He was too excited to finish the burger.
Bernard, who plays in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, is a good-news story for the small community of about 4,000. It has struggled recently with suicides and drug overdoses among youth, including four suicides in five months earlier this year that prompted the reserve to declare a crisis.
The 19-year-old was the second hockey player from Eskasoni to be drafted. He is proud to follow in the footsteps of his role model, Atlanta Thrashers draftee Chad Denny, and hopes he can inspire First Nations youth to do the same.
“It’s a big thing for the community, especially for the kids growing up playing hockey,” Bernard said. “It could really open some doors for them. Growing up there is hard, you know? It’s only a good thing for this to happen to me.”
The six-foot-four, 203-pound Bernard is a self-described “enforcer” who relishes playing a rugged game.
Kids in his community will get a first-hand look at Bernard this season as he chases his NHL dream. He was traded in the off-season to the Cape Breton Screaming Eagles, a team located less than an hour from his hometown.
“I know a lot of people who already have season tickets,” Bernard said.
“We have a lot of kids growing up that are great hockey players. I hope they follow the right path.”