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Forever connected

by Staff Writer / Montréal Canadiens

MONTREAL – Max Pacioretty has come a long way since his playing days at the University of Michigan, and his former linemates couldn’t be prouder of his accomplishments.

Back in 2007-08, the Canadiens’ No. 67 played his one and only season with college hockey’s winningest program, sporting the maize and blue as a freshman on a line with captain Kevin Porter and alternate captain Chad Kolarik, both of whom were seniors at the time. The trio was widely considered the best in the country, combining for 78 goals and 158 points in 33 games, and pacing the Wolverines to a 33-6-4 overall record, a Central Collegiate Hockey Association title, and the 23rd NCAA Frozen Four appearance in school history.

Max Pacioretty enjoyed plenty of success in his lone season at the University of Michigan.

While Porter and Kolarik torched opposing netminders with 30-plus goals each en route to finishing the season among the nation’s top point producers, Pacioretty willingly assumed a far different role than the upper-classmen alongside him. Needless to say, lighting the lamp on a regular basis wasn’t necessarily atop the priority list.

“I wasn’t as offensive-minded in juniors and in college as I am right now. I was playing a similar role a lot like Gally does, where I was trying to muck it up and create some time and space for my linemates, take away the goalie’s eyes, play physical, get pucks deep and get in on the forecheck. The fact that I was able to keep my game so simple allowed Kevin and Chad to be a little bit more creative,” offered Pacioretty, who was named to the CCHA All-Rookie Team (along with defenseman Jeff Petry, who was attending Michigan State University) and claimed CCHA Rookie of the Year honors after leading the league’s freshman class with 12 goals and 28 points in 25 league games. “It’s hard to have a line with three players playing the same way. It becomes predictable, and sometimes it becomes easy to play against. I knew my job in that role. It wasn’t tough to play it. The coaching staff relayed that to me very often that I would have to be physical and create space to allow those guys to make plays. It worked out perfectly.”

It certainly did, earning Pacioretty the overwhelming respect of his peers, who couldn’t help but admire the way the New Canaan, CT native went about his business upon his arrival in Ann Arbor.

“For a star player who’d just gone in the first round of the NHL Draft to the Canadiens, he was very willing to step back. He never had an ego. That was huge for our line. When you have two seniors trying to make a name for themselves, it couldn’t have been easy. Kevin and I were trying to do the best we could to get that NHL contract and secure jobs. Ports and I had our thing going. I think for Max to take a back seat on that was pretty special of him,” confided Kolarik, who was selected 199th overall by the Phoenix Coyotes in 2004, and is currently plying his trade overseas with Avangard Omsk in the KHL.

Kevin Porter (No. 11) and Chad Kolarik (No. 24) were two of the most influential players on Pacioretty's hockey career.

“I also think he didn’t get enough credit while we were there. I guess the seniors got the most attention at the time. He might’ve been the most important player, though. I just think physically he was ahead of the curve at that age. He was the guy that would go in the corners for us and go in front of the net on the power play. He only had 15 total goals and 39 points in his freshman year, but I say only 15 goals because he probably should’ve had more,” added Kolarik, who also spent time in the Columbus Blue Jackets, New York Rangers and Pittsburgh Penguins organizations over the years. “If he wasn’t playing with us, he might’ve had a lot more with that shot of his. He always had that quick release and that one-timer ability. It was there even back then. He would’ve been the star on the line. He was a special kid, for sure. He still is.”

That characterization applied not only to Pacioretty’s work on the ice, but off the ice, too. It didn’t take the Canadiens’ top point-getter the last three years running long to assert himself as someone fellow Wolverines could look up to, even at a relatively young age.

“For the 12 freshmen we had that year, he was definitely the leader of that group. He brought those guys under his wing. I know he brought Aaron Palushaj under his wing. They would be in the gym every single day, whether it would be working on abs or forearms to up their shot or just training. He worked out probably harder than any of our guys. His work ethic off the ice was second to none. He was impressive in that sense also,” praised Kolarik, whose freshmen teammates in 2007-08 also included NHL picks Carl Hagelin, Louie Caporusso, Matt Rust and Benn Winnett, among others. “It shows the type of character he has, and I think it’s one of many reasons why he’s an assistant captain in Montreal. Those qualities showed back then.”

Pacioretty learned important leadership lessons at Michigan that have helped him in his role as an assistant captain in Montreal.

Now a member of the AHL’s Grand Rapids Griffins, Porter is definitely in agreement there, acknowledging that Pacioretty’s skill set in his late teens was reminiscent of someone far older and far more experienced at that level than he was.

“I’d say he was dominant his freshman year. He was far and above all the other players, even some of the juniors and seniors back then. Everyone could tell that he was going to be a great player, especially after he matured even more and got a couple of years of pro under his belt. I don’t think anyone is really surprised with how well he’s doing in Montreal. It’s great to see,” mentioned Porter, who captured the Hobey Baker Award back in 2007-08 as the top collegiate player in the country. “He just played a complete game. That’s what it really was. He played well offensively. He played well defensively. He was running guys through the glass with hits. He blocked shots. He did all the little things. You don’t really see that from kids coming into college. It’s something you learn throughout your four years. He came in already possessing those tools, though, and that’s why he developed so quickly. That’s why he’s an elite player in the NHL.”

For his part, Pacioretty insists that while the fundamentals of his game might have already been firmly in place prior to entering the collegiate hockey ranks, joining forces with Porter and Kolarik ultimately took him to new heights.

“Kevin was definitely the best player in college, and at the same time Chad wasn’t too far behind. Coming in as a freshman and being able to play with two of the top players in the country, I learned and benefitted a lot. My experience at Michigan wouldn’t have been so positive if I didn’t have those two guys alongside me. I credit a lot of my success now to that experience,” admitted Pacioretty, who leads the Canadiens with 37 goals, 66 points and a plus-39 differential in 77 games during the 2014-15 campaign.

Pacioretty is among the NHL's elite scorers these days, lighting the lamp on a regular basis.

“Even today, I consider Kevin to be one of the most influential teammates I’ve ever had. He was one of the best captains I ever played for. When I got to Michigan, I felt like I was a part of the team. Kevin and Chad did a great job of making us feel like we were important to our success. That’s a leadership quality that goes a long way. I think Saku had that. Brian had that, too. It’s something I’m hoping down the road I can remember what those guys did for me, and hopefully do it for a player who was in my position back then,” added the seven-year NHL veteran, who still has plenty of fond memories from his time in the Great Lakes State. “Looking back, it was by far the most important year of my career. I owe all of the success and all of the positive feedback to my coaches and my teammates there. That goes for Chad and Kevin, especially.”

And, all these years later, Pacioretty is still drawing on those unique experiences at Michigan to further cement his place among the NHL’s best and brightest.

“I think I played much more rugged in college than I do at times now. That’s the way you have to play in the playoffs to have success in the NHL, so having that experience of playing in college and playing that type of role, playing that type of system, I think it goes a long way. Obviously, it hasn’t translated completely yet in the postseason. Hopefully, once the playoffs roll around this year, I can incorporate some of those skills to have success,” concluded Pacioretty, who boasts five goals and 11 points in 21 career NHL playoff contests. “Being able to incorporate some of my old habits at Michigan with some of my new habits can help me be more of a dual-threat player and help me have a lot more success in this league. It’s crazy how I’ve changed. I used to only dish. It seems like my game is completely different and I’ve got that shot-first mentality now and I’ve found success in doing that. I’m looking to keep getting better at that. It’s a work in progress.”

Matt Cudzinowski is a writer for canadiens.com.

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