Are the Olympics ready for some Pacioretty?
It’s March 8, 2011.
Two of the fiercest rivals in hockey history, the Montreal Canadiens and the Boston Bruins, are renewing their 90-year-old blood feud at Bell Centre in Montreal, with the Canadiens maintaining a stranglehold of a 4-0 lead over their Massachusetts foes.
It's the closing seconds of the second period when Max Pacioretty, then a third-year Canadien and prized Montreal prospect hailing from New Canaan, Connecticut, bursts towards the puck, attempting to spring past gargantuan defenseman Zdeno Chara, who at 6-foot-9 and 260 pounds is the largest player in the NHL’s 96-year history.
For Pacioretty, this is where it all goes blank.
“My next memory is in the ambulance,” recalls Pacioretty. “When I woke up, the only thing I could remember was my wife’s phone number.
“I didn’t know what happened.”
What happened was that the massive Chara caught him along the board by the teams' benches, which is one of the most vulnerable places on the ice. And in attempting to use his girth to knock the on-rushing Pacioretty off the puck, Chara ended up forcing his speedy opponent’s face and neck into an unprotected metal partition that divides hockey rinks’ bench areas in half.
As Max lay motionless on the ice (pictured below), it was obvious that his situation was dire.
Photo: Getty Images
The next day, when it was revealed that Pacioretty had a fractured 4th cervical vertebrae in his neck and a concussion and Chara wouldn’t be suspended by the NHL, the event escalated into an international incident.
The escalation began with the Montreal police, which began an investigation to decide if it should levy criminal charges against Chara. Meanwhile, Bruins players—who haven’t liked Canadiens players since the beginning of time—accused Pacioretty of embellishing his serious injury.
Air Canada was the next party to get involved, responding to the soap opera-like string of events by supposedly threatening to remove its lucrative sponsorship from the NHL if the League didn’t do something to curtail its level of violence.
Embedded owg_slideshow: Taking a mix of looks at Max
But for all the hot air being blown around from all directions, for Pacioretty the hockey player, the hit was something that had the potential to derail his once-promising career, almost before it had even started.
“You just kind of sit around and wait for the symptoms to go away,” says Pacioretty. “Since it’s not really a common injury, they didn’t really have a timeline for it.
“So, I just sat around and didn’t do much.
“It gave me a lot of time to just think.
“But in the long run, I think having dealt with that adversity has made me a better player.”
While it’s impossible to directly correlate someone injuring their neck with improved hockey skills, it’s awfully hard to argue with Pacioretty given the due-upward trajectory his stats have taken since returning to the Canadiens after seven months on the sidelines.
In his first year coming off his injury, his 33 goals nearly doubled his total of 17 goals from the previous two years, combined.
His second year coming off his injury, Pacioretty led the Canadiens in scoring for the second straight season, while emerging as nearly a point-per-game offensive threat.
This season, however, is when Pacioretty has transformed from a star on his team into a true NHL star, as he's jumped onto the NHL’s leading goal-scoring board during the month of November while leading the Canadiens to the top of the Atlantic Division through the first week of December.
“I think I’m doing a little bit more on my own this year,” says Pacioretty. “In the past, sometimes I relied on my linemates and teammates to get me the puck.
“But I feel like I’m carrying the puck better on my own and making plays entering the offensive zone. It makes for me becoming more of a threat.”
Photo: USA Today Sports
At 6-foot-2 and 220 pounds, Pacioretty’s a threat because he’s one of those rare players that can blend the size of a big man with the speed and finesse of smaller man.
And with this blend of skills helping him blossom into one of the NHL’s best all-around forwards for the first time in the midst of the buildup to the Olympics, Pacioretty’s become more than just an offensive threat.
He’s also become a real threat to play for the United States in Sochi.