February 8, 2014

Connecticut's Pacioretty takes aim at Sochi gold

By Jesse Connolly

For Canadiens winger Max Pacioretty (New Canaan, Conn.), the road to Sochi has been paved with challenges. He’s prevailed. (Getty Images)

On the surface, Max Pacioretty has an awful lot in common with most of the NHL success stories you’ve heard before.

God-given talent? Check. Great work ethic? You bet. Powered through hardships to reach his goals and achieve his dream? He sure has.

The 25-year-old Habs forward’s tale, however, is hardly your run-of-the-mill recounting of a New England boy done good.

Pacioretty wasn’t born into a so-called hockey family, as his parents were California transplants and hadn’t been exposed to the game. Anette, who recently retired from IBM, and Ray, who worked in the engraving business, raised their son in New Canaan, Conn.

Anette and Ray were in the Bell Centre stands in Montreal on the night of March 8, 2011, when Bruins defenseman Zdeno Chara unleashed a hit on Pacioretty so devastating that many media members in the press box above were left asking one another if the freak play near the boards had left No. 67 in red dead on the ice.

Since being taken out of the building that night on a stretcher with season-ending injuries that many feared put his career in jeopardy, Pacioretty has become one of the game’s top goal scorers. He’s earned a spot on Team USA’s roster for the Winter Olympics. And if his career remains on this same upward trajectory, he could very well wind up being the greatest American-born player in the 100-plus-year history of the Montreal Canadiens.

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Dan Murphy, who’s entering his 10th season as head coach at the Taft School in Watertown, Conn., chalks up Pacioretty’s success to the characteristics his parents instilled in him, which were abundantly evident when Murphy met Max in 2004.

“They’re great people,” said Murphy (New Haven, Conn.), a shutdown defenseman at the University of Maine (1989-93) during his collegiate playing days. “His parents were really supportive. They weren’t like the typical hockey parents. They just wanted their son to work hard in school and work hard on the ice. He got to the level he’s at because of work ethic, determination and his perseverance.”

Murphy was highly impressed by the promising forward right off the bat.

“On the ice, he was a talented a kid, and off the ice as well,” said Murphy. “Max was very bright. Walking around at school, you could always tell he was focused on his schoolwork, but hockey was also on his mind. You could tell that was his passion. When you got him onto the ice, he was able to flip that switch that not all adolescent kids have. His compete level was through the roof.”

One thing holding Pacioretty back initially was his slender frame. He had the skill, and the height, just not the muscle.

“You could see moments of greatness, but he wasn’t quite that strong yet,” Murphy said. “The summer between his 10th-grade year and his 11th-grade year, he started to really pay attention to getting stronger and everything really came together for him right after he made a verbal commitment to the University of Michigan.”

When everything did come together, Pacioretty was truly a treat to watch.

“The second half of his junior year (at Taft), he put the team on his back,” Murphy said. “He was a dominant force every game. He just won puck battles all over the rink. When he was on the ice, it was his puck. He wasn’t going to be denied. He had great intensity. It was a pleasure to coach him and work with him.”

Pacioretty (No. 16) shined at the Taft School before stints in the USHL and at the University of Michigan.

Murphy said he knew Pacioretty was destined for stardom when the young forward outshined a number of fellow prep stars — and future hockey pros — during the championship game in their second and final season together.

“In the final championship game, we were up 3-1 going into the third period and we lost 4-3,” recalled Murphy, whose Rhinos finished as co-champs of the Founders League during that 2005-06 season. “Mark Arcobello, who’s now an Edmonton Oiler, was on that Salisbury team, and the Biega brothers that played at Harvard. There were a lot of very, very good Division 1 hockey players, and he was the best player on the ice as an 11th-grader. By far. It was disappointing we lost, but seeing how dominant he was in that big game, I knew he was going to do great things.”

After that season, Pacioretty headed to the USHL, finishing second in scoring on the Sioux City Musketeers with 63 points in 60 games. The then-18-year-old followed that  by embarking on his freshman season at Michigan.

“I was always going to college,” he said at the time. “Education means too much to me and to my family. That is the reason I went to prep school — for the academics. I could just never give up the opportunity to play college hockey to play in a league like the Quebec Major Junior league.”

Pacioretty enjoyed a wealth of early success as a Wolverine. After finishing third on the team in scoring and leading all CCHA freshman with 28 points in 25 league games (earning him CCHA All-Rookie team honors), he decided to forgo his final three years of eligibility and made the big leap to the pro ranks.

The transition wasn’t smooth. The left winger split each of his first three seasons as a pro between Montreal and the club’s AHL affiliate in Hamilton.

“His first stint did not go well at the NHL level, and he said he would rather play a lot and learn in Hamilton than sit on the bench,” said CTV’s Brian Wilde, recalling a time early on when Pacioretty was vocal about his development.

Things began to really click in Hamilton when Pacioretty partnered with center David Desharnais, who he now flanks on the Habs’ top line.

 “They were great in Hamilton,” Wilde said of the two linemates, “and now in Montreal they can’t seem to do much without the other. Max will talk his head off how much he loves David and what he thinks of his vision.”

Dominant numbers in Hamilton led to a midseason call-up in 2010-11, which Pacioretty took full advantage of. From Jan. 1 on, he scored 12 goals and added eight assists for 20 points in 28 games, seemingly cementing a spot on the big club’s roster.

The wave of success came to a screeching halt on a fateful Friday night that March.

During the second period of a game against the visiting Bruins, with Montreal leading 4-0, Pacioretty burst out of the defensive zone and chased after a puck along the boards. Chara laid a big check on him near the red line, and the speedy forward collided headfirst with a stanchion between the two benches.

“I was holding my breath. That was a scary moment,” said Murphy, who was watching the game on TV that night.

“There were a couple people near me in the press box who asked if he was dead,” said Wilde.

Pacioretty won the Masteron Trophy in 2012 for his perseverance. (Getty Images)

The immediate aftermath was a frustrating time for Pacioretty, who was hospitalized and diagnosed with a concussion and a fractured vertebra. His breakout season was over. A full recovery was anything but certain. And Chara, Boston’s 6-foot-9, 255-pound captain, wasn’t punished by the league for his actions.

“I heard (Chara) said he didn’t mean to do it. I felt he did mean to do it,” Pacioretty told TSN after the league elected to not suspend the Bruins blueliner. “I would feel better if he said he made a mistake and that he was sorry for doing that. I could forgive that.”

Forgiveness would come later. Focusing on getting healthy and returning strong came first.

Few knew what to expect when Pacioretty began the 2011-12 campaign. The fact that he could still play the game at its highest level was a feat in and of itself. Scoring a career-high 33 goals was something no one could have predicted.

“His recovery from that is really a testament to who he is as an individual,” said Murphy. “I don’t know too many people that would be able to recover from that the way he did, come back and play the game the way he plays the game. I think some players tip-toe around the rink, and he certainly doesn’t do that.”

After being named the recipient of the 2012 Masterton Trophy, given annually to the NHLer who best displays exemplary perseverance, Pacioretty gained a greater perspective on the near-life-changing incident.

“I definitely wish I could take some things back … some things how I handled it,” he said. “But at the end of the day, I learned a lot about myself as a player and myself as a person. I think I was forced to grow up in a short amount of time.”

After a slow start to the 2013-14 season, Pacioretty and teammate P.K. Subban were the subject of trade rumors. “It’s Montreal. People always talk nonsense up here,” quipped Wilde.

Nevertheless, the speculation seemed to light a fire under both players, who surged at just the right time to nail down spots on their respective Olympic teams. In doing so, Pacioretty will become the first player to ever represent the United States in the Winter Games and play for the Canadiens at the same time.

“It’s obviously such an honor, especially when you see some of the guys who didn’t make the team,” Pacioretty, who had 21 goals through 41 games, told the Montreal Gazette in January. “It could have gone either way.”

The blossoming star was extremely driven to make the team, but after he and his wife, Katia, welcomed their first child, Lorenzo, into the world on Dec. 23, he decided to take a more relaxed approach.

Pacioretty is expected to play his natural left-wing position on one of the top three lines for Team USA. (Getty Images)

“Ever since I had my kid, I thought whatever happens, happens,” he said. “I wanted to make this team more than anything, but the past week I forgot about it. I told myself I wouldn’t try to control things I can’t control. I think that attitude will help me going forward.”

“I’ve played pretty well of late, but my game is even better than I’ve shown so far this year,” he added. “Now that the stress or pressure to prove anything to Team USA is off my back, I have to do more to help my team here. I have to take things one day at a time and build up some momentum and get used to winning.”

When Pacioretty — the lone New England-born forward on the U.S. roster — makes his way to Sochi, his old mentor foresees him being a big contributor to Team USA’s success.

“I like how the big ice sets up for him. I really do,” said Murphy. “His explosiveness on the wing is going to help him a lot. I think he’s going to be a threat, and I think he’s going to do really well.”

Pacioretty plans on putting that speed to good use for a U.S. Olympic program that’s has struggled to achieve success in Winter Games held outside of North America. “I’ll be playing against the best in the world,” said Pacioretty, who’s already risen to fourth among U.S.-born players on the Habs’ all-time scoring list with 153 points in 246 games. “You like to say the most skilled players are in the NHL, but it’s a whole different stage over there on the big ice. You’re up against the best players in the world with an opportunity to let your skills shine. I attribute my game on my speed and I think I’ll get an opportunity to use it. I want to open up some eyes over there.”

Asked what it felt like to know he helped mold a future NHL star and U.S. Olympian, Murphy said, “I don’t actually look at it that way. I just hope I made it fun for Max when he was here, that he enjoyed it and I helped fuel his love for the game. Him getting to the NHL and the Olympics, he’s done all that.”

Helping the United States win gold for the first time since 1980 would be an immeasurably remarkable achievement for Pacioretty, who’s enjoyed a unique journey to get to where he is today. Whether he comes home with a medal or not, like all our region’s past and present Olympians, Pacioretty’s made plenty of people proud along the way.

This article originally appeared in the February 2014 issue of New England Hockey Journal. Subscribe to our digital edition for free at hockeyjournal.com/free.

Twitter: @JesseNEHJ
Email: jconnolly@hockeyjournal.com