Friday, February 12, 2016

Max Pacioretty became better because of adversity

By Larry Wigge

Actually, a career-threatening injury taught Montreal's Max Pacioretty to live each day like it was his last.

A collision with 6-9 Boston Bruins defenseman Zdeno Chara and a Bell Centre stanchion on March 8, 2011 may have made him a better player.

Pacioretty suffered a severe concussion and a fractured vertebra in his neck. But, he feels that is has evolved into a first-rate goal scorer.

"Looking at life and hockey, an experience like that makes me a better person and a better player because I had to overcome all that adversity," Pacioretty revealed.

In the resulting few months, Pacioretty was angry ... mad at Chara foremost ... and the world.

Months after the hit, Chara and Pacioretty talked on the phone and made peace.

They spoke for about 10 minutes.

"He said, 'It might be hard to believe, but I actually didn't mean for that to be the outcome and I'm sorry for what happened,' " Pacioretty said.

That apology by Chara helped.

"I definitely take a lot of positives out of my situation and my injury," he said. "I used it to grow up a lot and I matured a lot. I kind of use it as motivation not to prove the people that doubted me wrong, but prove that you can overcome an injury like that and become a better player. I think I did that, but I know I have a lot of work to do down the road."

After resuming training in the summer of 2012, Pacioretty said he did some growing up while interacting with other patients at the hospital, including a boy who had been in a coma. He realized others were far worse off than himself.

He launched a campaign this season to raise funds for equipment to help diagnose serious spinal injuries and purchase a diagnostic/treatment machine for the Montreal General Hospital's Traumatic Brain Injury Centre.

At the start of the 2013-14 season Max said he felt refreshed. The new-look Pacioretty responded with a career-high 39 goals. He had 33 goals in 2011-12 and had 37 goals last season.

To this point in this season, 6-2, 214-pound left winger has tallied 20 goals with 30 remaining. Before the Chara incident he had never scored more than 20 goals, even though he scored 15 goals and 24 assists in his only year at the University of Michigan.

Pacioretty waxed poetically ...

"Dream big but don't worry about the results, just focus on the process. I never really got too far ahead of myself, I just worried about each day at a time, trying to improve as a player, whether my task was to practice hard one day or we had a game one day. Don't worry about what's coming the next week, the next month, the next year. Just stay in the moment and worry about the process."

He thought back on that quote and remembered ... with a big smile.

"I'm a psychopath. My wife thinks I'm absolutely nuts. I'm never satisfied with anything. I mean in terms of hockey ... obviously I'm satisfied with my wife and family. But as far as hockey I'm never satisfied with anything.

"It's a bit of a problem, but I think it's also what's gotten me this far."

Growing up in New Canaan, Conneticut, about a 45-minute drive north of New York City, Pacioretty had been forever a fan of the New York Yankees and the Rangers.

Derek Jeter was everything there was in baseball and the 1994 Stanley Cup champion Rangers was it in hockey. Pacioretty was only six when his dad explained to him exactly what Mark Messier had promised ... and he delivered it.

"I remember watching the '94 Stanley Cup from my home and that's when it took off that I wanted to be a hockey player," he said. "Right around the age when I started, that's my biggest memory growing up."

Pacioretty said of Messier’s guarantee before Game 6 of the ’94 Eastern Conference finals.

"I was nervous for him when it was said," Max repeated. "A guy like him, they bring him in to win a Cup and that's exactly what he did. How could you not appreciate and like that."

Pacioretty said his parents, Ray and Anette, never forced him to play hockey.

Even if he had to get up at 5 a.m., he did.

"I was always the smallest on my teams," he added. "It made me angry, but my dad told me I was a late bloomer. Finally, when I was 16, I started to grow and caught up to my teammates.

"I think of all the sacrifices they made for me and how many hours my dad took off work to take me to hockey, no matter what time it was or how far it was."

Now, Pacioretty is the captain of the Canadiens and his life off the ice has changed. He married tennis player Katia Afinogenova, the sister of former NHL forward Maxim Afinogenov. They have a young son, Lorenzo.

Messier is still a great legend to Pacioretty, but no disrespect to any of the legends on the walls, but I'm always drawn to Jean BĂ©liveau. We have pictures throughout the practice rink and game rink, and when everything was going on after his passing, everyone talked about him in a certain way. People in the city have respect for him, but this was a whole other level. He’s the model captain for anyone who’d want to be a captain in this league, especially for the Canadiens.

"I really became aware of his greatness as a man and as a captain when he died," said Pacioretty. "When you heard all these legends talk about 'our captain,' like Guy Lapointe, I became more aware of what it is to be captain of the Montreal Canadiens."

Now all he has to remember is to keep shooting like he did at the New Canaan Winter Club of Connecticut.

"I shot pucks my whole life growing up," Pacioretty said. "There was an outdoor rink we always went to and I bugged my buddies to feed me one-timers."

And then Pacioretty laughed.

"Finally, in my seventh year in the NHL, it's paying off."

He went on to describe ...

"The science is let the stick do the work," Pacioretty said of the one-timer, crediting Michael Cammalleri for important instruction. "Brett Hull was the best ever at it. Put your bottom hand in position where you’re able to just get it on net. Don't try to pick any corners.

"There are four quadrants on a net and if you're getting a pass across the crease, all you have to do is put it short side and try to get it up a little bit instead of trying to put it bar down. That's what's going through my mind. Let the stick do the work. It sounds simple but it's true."

And as Max Pacioretty said ... it only took seven years in the NHL for it to work.

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