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Follow the leader

by Staff Writer / Montréal Canadiens

MONTREAL - Living up to the high standards set by the legendary captains who preceded him will take time, but Max Pacioretty welcomes the challenge.

A year after donning the ‘A’ as part of a leadership quartet alongside P.K. Subban, Tomas Plekanec and Andrei Markov, the Montreal Canadiens players united to elect Max Pacioretty as their new captain.

However, with the Habs presently on the outside of the playoff picture as the 2015-16 season draws to a close, it is safe to say that the former 22nd overall pick’s premiere season as captain did not go according to plan.

“There is definitely a big learning curve to being a captain. Hopefully at the end of the day I can learn a lot from this season. I am confident that facing a lot of adversity will make me a better captain at the end of the day,” shared Pacioretty, who has been at the helm of one of the strangest seasons in recent memory. “I think we had over 30 guys in the team picture. That’s rare to see in the NHL but seems normal for us based on how this season has gone.”

For a first-year captain, an ever-changing cast of teammates in the room certainly doesn’t make the job any easier. The impact injuries have had on the Habs this season can be evidenced by the night of March 11, 2016, when the Habs welcomed the Minnesota Wild to the Bell Centre. Of the 20 players who suited up for the Canadiens that night, only seven – including four forwards, two defensemen and one netminder – actually started the season in Montreal.

Fortunately, guiding a first-year captain through the perils of the job is not new territory for Habs bench boss Michel Therrien, who helped shape Pittsburgh Penguins’ Sidney Crosby into one of the most dynamic and respected captains in the NHL.

“Pacioretty is a young captain; this season is just part of the learning process for him. He’s going to learn a lot from this year about being a captain and about being a leader,” commented Therrien, who along with general manager Marc Bergevin decided to pay a personal house call to the Pacioretty residence to break the exciting news. “You have to remember that there’s a learning curve to being a captain. Pacioretty focuses on doing the right things and emphasizes the importance of communication. It takes time to develop. You can’t just give the ‘C’ to a guy. It takes time to learn and adapt. Gaining experience and facing adversity will help him become a better captain and he’s learning that on the job.”

At just 27-year-old, Pacioretty has already had to overcome a great deal personal adversity in his young career. His 2012 Bill Masterton trophy - for best exemplifying the qualities of perseverance, team spirit and dedication to the sport of hockey – is a reminder of how courageously he overcame a concussion and a non-displaced fractured fourth cervical vertebra in his neck.

With regards to team adversity however, the young captain has only experienced one season in his seven year NHL career where the Canadiens did not manage to secure a playoff spot.

“Handling adversity has helped make me the player I am today. Not everybody in this room has a lot of experience dealing with hardships. So this is new for a lot of people,” shared Pacioretty, who brought the Bell Centre to its feet when he was handed the iconic torch by former captain – and the last Habs leader to hoist the Stanley Cup – Guy Carbonneau. “But we made a pact in this room that we are going to stand up for each other no matter what.,”

How does a captain inspire his team when faced with seemingly insurmountable odds?

“My message to the guys is just to play hard. The door is open for a lot of guys to make a good impression, it’s up to them to play well and take advantage of it,” clarified the former product of the AHL’s Hamilton Bulldogs, who plied his trade for two full seasons in the AHL before he was ready to make the transition up to the Canadiens. “At the beginning of this year it was starting to look like we would never need to make a call-up, and the next thing you know it looks like we need to make another call up every day due to injuries.”

In the face of all of the adversity the Habs have faced this year, Pacioretty continues to prove that he possesses the mental agility required to motivate his teammates.

“My biggest motivation right now is to play for our fans. They’ve been supporting us throughout this tough stretch. Every night at the Bell Centre, we’ve worked hard every game and the fans have recognized that. It’s been really nice to see the support we’ve gotten,” revealed Pacioretty, whose ties to Montreal are stronger than you may think, as his roots trace back to his paternal grandmother Theresa Pacioretty who is a French-Canadian from Montreal. “The fans here in Montreal, they get hockey and they understand what is going on in this room.”

They say that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. The expectation and hope is that this year’s experience will make the team and its captain stronger and more resilient in the challenges that lie ahead.

Jared Ostroff is a writer for canadiens.com

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