Saint John Sea Dogs defenseman Nathan Beaulieu gained a love for ice hockey at a very impressionable age.
In addition to tagging along with his dad, Jacques, who was his hockey coach in pee-wee and bantam, he would meet many professionals and watch closely how they prepared for games while his father also coached in the Ontario Hockey League.
It was addictive, actually.
"My dad coached Rob Schremp and I'd watch him tape his sticks up in the stands before every game," Beaulieu told NHL.com.
Beaulieu was an assistant coach with the London Knights when Schremp was named OHL rookie of the year in 2003-04 and then scored a league-high 145 points in 2005-06.
"I'd just talk to (Schremp) and he was always good to me as a young kid," Nathan said. "I had to be annoying at times, asking all those questions. Another guy I used to love to watch was Corey Perry (with London in 2004-05). Corey went on the ice before every game and he'd fire pucks around. He has some pretty sick hands, so it was pretty neat to be up front and close to watch these amazing hockey players at work."
Beaulieu has been working diligently ever since to create quite an impressive hockey resume of his own leading up to the 2011 Entry Draft in St. Paul, Minn., on June 24-25.
As the top-rated defenseman in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, and No. 5 among North American skaters in NHL Central Scouting's final rankings, Beaulieu has become the player everyone else is following these days. In 65 regular-season games with the Sea Dogs, Beaulieu had 12 goals, 45 points and a plus-44 rating. He had 11 multiple-point games.
He kept that strong play going in the postseason. In 19 QMJHL playoff games, he was third among all defensemen with 17 points (4 goals, 13 assists) while sporting a plus-6 rating. His 68 shots were second on the team. He had a goal and 2 assists in a six-game league final series triumph against the Gatineau Olympiques to help the Sea Dogs to their first President's Cup championship in their six years of existence.
Beaulieu is one of nine Sea Dogs on Central Scouting's final list of North American skaters. The club tied the QMJHL record for most wins in a season with 58 and went undefeated at home in regulation (32-0-1-1) to enter the 2011 playoffs as the top-seeded team in the QMJHL.
Of those nine Sea Dogs, Beaulieu is second only to Jonathan Huberdeau in Central Scouting's rankings. He's also the No. 2 defenseman on the board. It seems NHL scouts and general managers no longer are hesitant to take a chance on an offensively-gifted, defensively-responsible blueliner from within the QMJHL. The Phoenix Coyotes drafted Moncton's Brandon Gormley at No. 13 just last June, so Beaulieu is holding out hope that he's held in similar regard.
"Sometimes the 'Q' gets a little underrated, but it was great to see Brandon go so high in the draft," Beaulieu said. "It's good to see the players getting the recognition, because sometimes 'Q' players don't get the recognition they deserve. Hopefully, it'll be the start of a coming-out party for more players from the 'Q.'"
Beaulieu was one of only two underage players to attend the Canadian World Junior camp in August, along with Drummondville's Sean Couturier, but failed to earn a return invitation to final team selection camp in December. While it was a disappointment, Beaulieu was given a vote of confidence when his agent informed him that Hockey Canada expects "big things for him next year."
"That was an unbelievable experience," Beaulieu said. "It's a dream to play in the NHL and also represent your country. I went in with low expectations, and unfortunately didn't make the cut. But it was good experience to get under my belt and I think it furthered me in my career.
"I realize I'm only 18 and maybe next year will be my year. It was just a great experience (at World Junior camp), and I definitely took a lot of positives out of it. I'm a better player because of it."
While he missed out on the World Juniors in early January, he did have one other extracurricular activity that month -- he had a goal for Team Orr in a 7-1 victory against Team Cherry at the Home Hardware CHL/NHL Top Prospects Game.
While Beaulieu has good size at 6-foot-2 and 174 pounds, he's not known for dropping the gloves and won't ever retreat from a challenge, particularly if it means sticking up for a teammate. In fact, his welcome-to-the-QMJHL moment came as a 15-year-old when he decided to stick up for a teammate against 19-year-old Cameron Critchlow of Acadie-Bathhurst.
"Not much of a fight, really," Beaulieu said.
He'd get into another entertaining scrap on Oct. 25, 2009, against Acadie-Bathhurt's Bryce Milson.
"I'm not afraid to do it and I don't mind protecting my teammates," Beaulieu said. "The fight (against Milson) just kind of happened. I'm not afraid to fight but it's not part of my game. I don't need to go out there and fight every night."
Sea Dogs coach Gerard Gallant sees a strong, more confident Beaulieu along the blue line this season.
"We've seen a lot of improvement, especially in his defensive game," Gallant told NHL.com. "Last year, Nathan competed in the defensive zone but he wasn't strong enough, wasn't big enough. This year he made the effort. He's playing a lot better defensively, plus he's still getting his points. It just goes to show the kid worked hard defensively and he's still getting his offensive situations."
"He'll be an offensive-defenseman … he's a good skater, good puck-mover," NHL Central Scouting's Chris Bordeleau told NHL.com. "He has a good shot and is very poised with the puck. He's a hard worker and reads the play well. We thought he should have had more points this year than he had, but overall he has the NHL quickness already and that's what's really important at this stage."
Beaulieu spends his summer working with Edmonton Oilers forward Sam Gagner and Washington Capitals defenseman John Carlson -- two London Knights alums, where Jacques again serves as an assistant coach after spending three seasons (2006-09) as the coach/GM in Saint John. Jacques coached Nathan during Nathan's rookie season with the Sea Dogs.
"I'm amazed at just how (Doughty) keeps everything simple," Beaulieu said. "He's always in control out there and the biggest thing is he makes a difference. He made a difference in the Ontario League and he's slowly making a difference in the NHL. He's a great player who I think I can model my game after."
Follow Mike Morreale on Twitter at: @mike_morreale