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HOCKEY

Beaulieu putting lessons learned to good use

MISSISSAUGA, Ont. -- Nathan Beaulieu laughs at his special memories now. Growing up, he knows he annoyed many of the London Knights players he idolized. As the son of a hockey coach, the Saint John Sea Dogs star defenseman had the full run of the John Labatt Centre, the Knights' home arena.

"I give a lot of credit to the players that were there that had to put up with me sometimes," said Beaulieu, whose Sea Dogs will play in the MasterCard Memorial Cup championship game Sunday (7 p.m. ET, NHLN-US, Sportsnet). "I'm sure I was annoying."

Beaulieu said he never missed a game, calling himself a "rink rat." As his father, Jacques Beaulieu, went about his duties as an assistant coach for the OHL powerhouse, Nathan studied the Knights' many future NHL players up close.

"I'd watch (Rob) Schremp; he was always my favorite player, and then Dave Bolland," Beaulieu said. "Dennis Wideman, I remember he always used to go stickhandle on the ice before the game, and I still do that. …

"The mark they left on me they'll never know. It's definitely paying off."

Those special years should pay dividends next month, when the 18-year-old Beaulieu, NHL Central Scouting's No. 5 prospect in the final ranking of North American skaters for the 2011 Entry Draft, is expected to be nabbed early.

Right now, however, Beaulieu's not thinking about the Draft.

"I still got a lot of business to take care of," Beaulieu said. "It's obviously tough to keep it out of your head, but the Draft's not (first) in my mind right now. I want a ring."

After the Knights won the 2005 Memorial Cup, Jacques Beaulieu brought the trophy home for a day, and his son slept with it that night. If Nathan Beaulieu touches the trophy this year, it will have his father's fingerprints all over it again.

Jacques Beaulieu was the Sea Dogs' coach and general manager from 2006-09, and acquired 12 players currently on their roster, including his son. After spending the last two seasons back in London as an assistant, the OHL's Sarnia Sting recently hired him as coach and GM.

Nathan Beaulieu played one season under his father before Jacques was fired. When current Sea Dogs coach Gerard Gallant took over, he immediately called the father and son.

"Obviously, my father had no hard feelings against him because he knows what he did in this organization," Beaulieu said.

Since he loved the area and knew the Sea Dogs had the makings of a championship team, Nathan stayed put.

"It was a tough situation," Gallant said. "But you know what? The kid's playing hockey, and that's where he wanted to be and that's where he grew up."

Beaulieu has grown into an elite talent under Gallant, compiling 12 goals and 45 points in each of the last two seasons. He had 17 points in the QMJHL playoffs in helping the Sea Dogs win the league title, and he scored the winner Saturday when he pinched in during overtime in the Sea Dogs' 5-4 win against the Mississauga St. Michael's Majors in the Memorial Cup opener at the Hershey Centre.

"He's an offensive defenseman that's got real good puck-handling abilities. He's smart, poised (and) he doesn't make many mistakes on the ice," NHL Central Scouting's Chris Edwards said. "He jumps up from the point. He scored one goal like that in this tournament, where he jumps up, finishes the play. I've seen him do that several times throughout the winter. …

"He's got a great shot. He can skate the puck out of trouble with no problems and doesn't make many mistakes in his own end. He's a real smart player."

Beaulieu, who measures in at 6-foot-2 and 174 pounds, also is an extremely confident player. He wants to dictate the game.

"Confidence is a huge part of every hockey player," Beaulieu said. "I'm not going to say that I'm not a confident hockey player, because I am. There's a side there, a line you can't cross, between confident and cocky. I'm definitely a confident hockey player, and I like having the puck on my stick."

He models his style after Drew Doughty because the Los Angeles Kings defenseman showcases "complete control every time he's out there."

When Doughty began playing for the Guelph Storm in 2005, Beaulieu, who had just been switched from forward to defense, watched him and thought, "I want to be like him."

"I always had those assets in my game," Beaulieu said. "Drew made me really think about it and bring it back more."

Beaulieu even has skated a few times with Doughty during the offseason.

"I ask him a couple questions, but I'm more in awe when I just watch him skate around," Beaulieu said.

Mike Kelly, the Sea Dogs' director of hockey operations, called Beaulieu a "real student of the game.

"That's probably a byproduct of him being around the game with his father being a coach, but he really studies the game," Kelly added. "If he would've been at the summer camp last year for the (Canada) World Junior team, he would've studied some of the best players there and he would've tried to take something from them and try it, put it into his own game."

If he returns to junior next season, Beaulieu could be a strong candidate for Canada's 2012 World Junior team. In the meantime, he can keep picking the brains of Schremp, Sam Gagner, Corey Perry and some of the other former Knights he has skated with during the offseason.

"I get some advice from them, and they're really great, down-to-earth guys," Beaulieu said. "I'm fortunate to be around (them)."