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Michigan men

by Staff Writer / Montréal Canadiens

MONTREAL – While their time at the University of Michigan has come and gone, Max Pacioretty, Greg Pateryn and Mac Bennett will always have a fan in legendary head coach Red Berenson.

Berenson, who has helmed the winningest program in NCAA hockey history since 1984, still pays very close attention to how his former charges in the Canadiens organization are faring these days, and he couldn’t be prouder of their accomplishments.

Unlike Pateryn and Bennett, both of whom spent four years under Berenson’s tutelage in Ann Arbor, Pacioretty elected to forego his final three seasons of eligibility with the Wolverines after a standout freshman campaign. He signed a three-year contract with the Canadiens in July 2008 after helping the Maize and Blue reach the NCAA Frozen Four for the 23rd time in school history, and claiming CCHA Rookie of the Year honors, too.

Seven-plus years later, Berenson has fond memories of watching the Canadiens’ No. 67 ply his trade in Southeast Michigan.

“I remember he had a quick release and a heavy shot, even back then. He had a nose for the net. He had hockey smarts beyond his years. He had some abrasiveness to him as well. He was a classic power forward, and we played him on our top line with two of our best players in seniors Kevin Porter and Chad Kolarik. He just got better and better as the year went on,” recalled Berenson, referencing Pacioretty’s 15-goal and 39-point season as a 19-year-old up-and-coming talent. “He might’ve been known for his shot, but he also passed the puck well. He passed it smart. He could play with smart players. Max seemed to have the feel, the hockey sense that he could play with older guys. It wasn’t like he was in over his head playing with good players. He made good plays with that line and scored some key goals. I think he really proved his first year at Michigan why he was a first-round pick of the Canadiens.”

Berenson quickly noticed something rather special in Pacioretty’s personality as well. For a guy who’d been selected 22nd overall in the NHL Draft before even suiting up for the Wolverines, the New Canaan, CT native arrived on campus with zero ego, and a strong sense of direction and commitment. Pacioretty was one of 12 freshmen beginning their collegiate hockey careers at Michigan that year, and he immediately stood out from a pack of gifted youngsters all looking to make their mark in their own unique way.

“Max got along well with everyone. He had the right balance of confidence and humility. That’s what I liked about him. He got along well with the other players. They liked him. He was coachable as a person and as a player. He had that kind of self-awareness where he knew he was a good player, but he just kept on pushing. You could see he had a good chance to be a good pro,” praised Berenson, before expanding upon some of the other qualities the former USHL standout displayed on a regular basis. “He also had a sense of the team. It wasn’t just about him. He would stick up for teammates. That was important. He wasn’t going to be pushed around, and I don’t think he was going to let his teammates be pushed around, either. I think if he would have stayed at Michigan for four years, he probably would have been our captain at some point.”

While Berenson admits that his brief time with Pacioretty really wasn’t enough to gauge whether or not he’d be captain material at the NHL level down the road, he isn’t surprised to see everything come together for the eight-year veteran in Montreal. All the raw ingredients for Pacioretty to have success were already there with the Wolverines. It was just a matter of bringing them all together in the years after his departure.

“I watch a lot of Canadiens games, and it’s amazing how he’s become the go-to player in Montreal. I know there are a lot of great players that come through the Canadiens’ system, but Max has been as consistent as anyone year in and year out. He continues to prove himself at that level. He’s just coming into his own, really,” offered Berenson, who has seen Pacioretty put up three 30-goal campaigns with the CH, including a career-high 39 goals in 2013-14, and pace the squad in points the last four years running. “I like the way he plays. He played a similar way when he was here. We could use him to kill penalties, like Montreal is now, or as a power forward on the power play. He could play against the best players on another team that might be older and more proven than he is. He’s doing at the NHL level what he was starting to do here. He’s really become the ultimate power forward.”

And, Pacioretty has also made good on his penchant at Michigan for putting the interests of his Wolverines teammates far above his own. It’s one of the many aspects of his personality that endeared him so much to his fellow troops in Montreal that they voted him as the 29th captain in team history back in mid-September. Needless to say, Berenson was pleased about the news.

“I’m really proud of Max. It’s no simple accomplishment to be named the captain of the Montreal Canadiens. I’m sure it’s really well-deserved. I know they had other players who were good options as well, but for them to choose Max Pacioretty says a lot about him. He’s the captain now. That’s special,” praised Berenson, who played nearly 1,000 games over the course of his NHL career, and won a Stanley Cup with the Canadiens in 1965. “I know Max has matured, just like all young players, from the time he got to Michigan at 18. He’s proven himself at the NHL level – to his teammates and the fans, and I’m sure even the media. He’s obviously proven something that it would have been hard for me to predict seven years ago. But, he always did have an aura about him. You could see that if he were with the same players for a long time, he would emerge as one of those leaders.”

Seeing Pateryn begin to make his mark on the Canadiens’ back end in 2015-16 has also been a significant source of pride for Berenson, who taught the Sterling Heights, MI native the tricks of the hockey trade between 2008 and 2011 – and watched his game grow by leaps and bounds along the way.

“I always thought Greg had a warrior attitude in him. He had to improve his skating, his puck touches and his defensive awareness with us, but he continued to play physical because that’s just a part of who he was. His senior year, he was as good as anybody on our team. He put it all together. He was a force on defense, our go-to player. He was a player you wanted on the ice in the last minute and in crunch time in games both defensively and physically,” shared Berenson, who firmly believes Pateryn will prove to be just as valuable to the Canadiens down the road as he was to the Wolverines in the last 2000s. “I think Montreal has the luxury of having a guy like him, who probably could be playing every night. I think this is his year. He’s proving that he’s an everyday player. He was one player who was more ready to play when he left Michigan than some people gave him credit for, and he’s showing it when he gets a chance to play in Montreal. It’s just that he’s had to do it the hard way.”

Fellow rearguard Mac Bennett, meanwhile, continues to fine-tune his game with the AHL’s St. John’s IceCaps after wrapping up his collegiate career at Michigan in 2014. Berenson has high hopes for the Narragansett, RI native, who served as the Wolverines’ team captain in his senior year.

“That’ll be interesting. I think if Mac can get to the game that he was playing when he was here, he can be a rushing defenseman. He can carry the puck out of his own zone pretty easily if he gets that kind of freedom to do that. He’ll move the puck well. He’s smart defensively,” offered Berenson, who is intrigued to see Bennett’s progress in his second AHL campaign with Sylvain Lefebvre’s squad. “He’s got to continue adding to his skating, mobility, and his quickness with the puck, getting it out quick and being able to recover quick and just play honest defense. But, Mac is a good team player. He’s a good person. He’s dedicated. He’s all the right things. It’s just a matter of him adjusting to the pro level now. I think he’ll do it. We’ll see how he does this year.”

Matt Cudzinowski is a writer for canadiens.com.

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