HOOKSETT – As if this were all heaven-sent, today Jon Rheault will skate for the Manchester Monarchs in his first professional ice hockey game.
It wouldn't have mattered that it's an exhibition game in Fitchburg, Mass. It wouldn't have mattered that it's against the Worcester Sharks and not those from San Jose of the NHL.
Somewhere up there, Rheault's late grandfather, Don Williamson Sr., is beaming.
Williamson is enshrined in the New Hampshire Legends of Hockey hall of fame as one of the founders of the Manchester Youth Regional Hockey Association and the Manchester Flames. That is a program that gave rise to defenseman Jeff Serowik, center Hubie McDonough III and the ultimate energy guy, Jeff Giuliano, who all played at the pinnacle -- the NHL.
"I think it would be unbelievable," said Rheault, the 22-year old right wing from Deering, of possibly playing professionally in Manchester. "Since the second the (Monarchs) have been here I've wanted to play here. Coming to games as a spectator -- I've been to many games -- I'd think this could be amazing if I could play here. It's very exciting."
Rheault is trying out for the Monarchs after four seasons skating in Hockey East for Providence College, a season with the Manchester Junior Monarchs, a season at St. Paul's School in Concord and a long, illustrious youth hockey travel team career in the Granite State, including early years with the Manchester Flames.
"I told friends and family that I'm at this camp and have an opportunity to possibly play here. They're very excited," Rheault said. "I think it would be a really fun thing for me and for a lot of people I know and who I played hockey with and against."
Rheault's connections are woven into the fabric of Manchester and Monarchs ice hockey. His father, Jon Sr., played at Manchester West High School and then Colgate, where he was a teammate of Monarchs coach Mark Morris.
Ten years ago, Jon Jr. scored 125 goals -- or so legend has it -- in Manchester Flames Squirts play. Rheault had outgrown the Flames,.so the faction who didn't like him grew more visible and vocal with his success.
Living in Deering, he played for the Henniker Huskies as a PeeWee and Bantam. In the meantime, his father created the New Hampshire Junior Wildcats, today a premier elite program in the state.
"Guys were running at him. There was a goon squad thrown at him every game," said Donny VanDenBurghe of Laconia, whose son Colin was a two-year teammate of Rheault in Henniker. "It was for his own safety that he moved on."
Jon Rheault of the Manchester Monarchs is shown during practice at Tri-Town Arena in Hooksett on Friday. (CHERYL SENTER/UNION LEADER)
Late in middle school Jon moved to Eagle Brook pre-prep in Deerfield, Mass., and never competed in local or regional youth hockey again.
"I've got to tell you something," continued Donny VanDenBurghe. "That kid always had class. He was so humble, so polite, and so respectful. When you came out of the locker room you could never tell who the star of the team was.
"I'll tell you, Jon was something special and everyone knew it. He was the type of player who made everyone around him look good."
In 2006, Rheault was selected in the fifth round by the Philadelphia Flyers. But, the NHL club didn't sign the 5-foot-11, 200-pounder.
"(Philadelphia) had a lot of forwards in their system. They were looking to go a different route," Rheault said.
"They needed a different type of player. You know that's the way pro hockey is. I think I got a taste of that right off the bat that it's a business. I didn't fit their needs so I was released and I was able to go where I am needed. So I'm happy about it and I'm happy to be here right now."
The Flyers' disinterest may have come in part from a wrist injury Rheault suffered last season in Hockey East. It sidelined him and, though it was thought to be severe, it wasn't. The sniper Rheault returned to college action but struggled through the next 10 games without a goal. Not exactly NHL material.
"I had a bad end of the season," admitted Rheault. "I'm 100 percent now."
Now, though, in front of Jon Rheault is the opportunity of a lifetime.
"I feel like this is definitely attainable and it will suit my game well," said Rheault of the prospect of playing in the AHL.
Twenty-two years ago, Hubie McDonough III, now the Monarchs director of hockey operations, got his start in pro hockey at a tryout just like Rheault in New Haven, Conn.
"There were 60 players there and they had two different practices," said McDonough.
"He looked pretty good," said McDonough of Rheault's debut in the Monarchs' camp. "First time I've seen him. First time I've met him. I was in Florida (McDonough was playing for the Orlando Solar Bears in the IHL) when he was in youth hockey . . . He looked good. He looked comfortable.
"For the first time in nine years, this year manpower is down," said McDonough. "Right now there is opportunity when it comes to Jon, there is opportunity to stay here."
The Kings have signed Rheault and guaranteed he will be able to start the season in the ECHL in Ontario, Calif., with the new Ontario Reign. He would love to stay at home with the hometown team.
"Anything you can have providing momentum for you helps," said Rheault. "... Good ties. That's just the New Hampshire way. Small place."
Small place, big dreams.