The Christmas break is coming at the right time for the Toledo Walleye and rookie defenseman C.J. Chartrain.
Chartrain remained upbeat on Sunday despite being stuck on a plane for five hours due to freezing rain. The 23-year-old was headed to his home in Pointe Claire, Quebec, a suburb of Montreal, for the holidays as the Walleye enter a brief five-day break.
“It's been a grind,” Chartrain said in a phone interview from the airport. “I'm starting to realize that now. We're playing three or four nights a week. The schedule of the pro game is more hectic. The work load is hard, mentally. So having some time off for Christmas with my family will be beneficial. It will be nice to recharge the batteries.”
ON THE HOOK: C.J. Chartrain
After a four-year college career at Niagara University, Chartrain started his pro career in Toledo, signing just before the season. He has played in 19 games for the Walleye, who have struggled to the break with an 8-13-3 record.
Toledo went 3-8-1 in the month of November to slip to last place in the ECHL North Division.
But the Walleye have won three of their last five games. Toledo split a pair of road games at Kalamazoo last weekend. The Walleye rallied for a 2-1 win on Friday night before falling 2-1 on Saturday.
“We went through a bit of a skid in November,” Chartrain said. “So to get two points on the road is huge. For sure we wanted four points, but we made leaps forward for sure.”
Chartrain said the transition to the professional game has been difficult but rewarding.
“There is a lot more talent in the pro game, obviously,” he said. “It's a faster pace. I've found in the pro game you have to stay mentally sharp. You have to stay dialed in and not let the grind affect you too much. It takes a toll on your mind and body. But I'm having fun with it. I'm still learning the pro game, adapting to the speed and skill.”
Chartrain said the bottom line is that he is living out his childhood dream. He said he started playing the sport in the hockey hotbed of Montreal when he was 5.
“I never thought I'd play professionally,” he said. “It's been unbelievable playing here in Toledo where the fans are so in to it. Obviously, I'm not playing in the NHL, but it's only two steps below. I'm trying to get better every day. The best part is that I'm doing the sport I love as a job.”
Chartrain has one goal and two assists in 19 games. He scored his first professional goal on Nov. 23 in a 6-2 win over Evansville.
“It was 13 games in to my pro career and that's not what I expected,” he said. “But it was satisfying for myself and it was just as special for my family.”
It was particularly satisfying for his father, Andre, who also played pro hockey in the 1980s. Andre Chartrain signed an NHL contract with the Quebec Nordiques in 1981. He spent four years playing professionally in various minor leagues, including the International Hockey League, from 1982-85.
“He's been an unbelievable role model,” C.J. said. “One thing about my dad is that he never put pressure on me. He knows I love to do it, and he's there to support me.”
While C.J. Chartrain has good size (6-1, 185), his father was listed at 5-8, 175 during his playing days.
“He was an undersized player,” C.J. said. “I got the size and he didn't. But he always has advice.”
Yet it was C.J.'s slow physical development that led to his leaving his hometown for the United States when he was just 15. Chartrain moved to New Hampshire to play at a prep school program.
“I was very small growing up. When I was 14, I was only 5-foot and 100 pounds,” he said.
Chartrain admitted to being “very home sick” during his junior and senior years.
“In the long run, it really helped,” he said.
Chartrain, who grew mentally and physically, was recruited to play at Niagara University. In 139 games with the Purple Eagles, he collected 12 goals, 39 assists, and 121 penalty minutes. He also was named to the Atlantic Hockey Association's All-Academic team.
“Getting a degree has always been important to me,” he said. “I majored in sports management. I might be a sports agent some day.”
Chartrain said he considers himself a puck moving defenseman who likes to join the rush.
“I want to be physical in the d-zone,” he said. “I'm a pretty good skater, and I can create offense. I like to I consider myself an all-around player.”
Once the break is over, Chartrain said there are a lot of games left for the Walleye to get back in the playoff race.
“We just need to win two or three in a row and get rolling,” he said. “We'll stay after it.”