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One-way ticket

by Staff Writer / Montréal Canadiens

MONTREAL – After years of being moved around the pro hockey ranks, Paul Byron can finally establish himself at a fixed address.

While the life of an NHLer comes with many advantages, it also includes its fair share of inconveniences. Since making his pro debut in the Buffalo Sabres organization in 2009-10, Byron has managed to bank plenty of Aeroplan points during numerous trips between the AHL and NHL levels. Forced to adapt to a slew of different places quickly over the years, including Portland, ME before moving on to Buffalo, then Calgary via Abbotsford, BC, the Ottawa native has seen much of Canada since leaving the Capital Region.

In short, Byron never really knew at one season’s end whether he’d need to secure new housing arrangements come the start of the following campaign. That’s something that a young single player can generally deal with, but when you’re married and the father of two young kids, being in a constant state of uncertainty can be a far more delicate situation.

That’s why contrary to the last four seasons when the Flames’ brass waited until July – and almost August – to offer him a one-year contract, the Canadiens’ management group offered the Byron family something new a few months back: stability.

“We tried to get that in Calgary, but we didn’t get it. As a family living with two kids, it’s hard to live out of a couple of suitcases and never know where you’re going to go every year. I came to the conclusion that pursuing a little more money in free agency wasn’t something that our family wanted,” said Byron, who signed a three-year contract with the Canadiens on February 23. “We love Montreal. We love the city and we love the team. My wife Sarah is French-Canadian, so life doesn’t get much better for us. It was never a question of wanting to leave to go somewhere else. We were trying to get that stability because we wanted to be in Montreal and not just on a one-year deal and redo it next year.”

Seeing Paul Byron leave Calgary was very difficult for Bob Hartley, but watching him flourish under the direction of his good friend Michel Therrien helped soften the blow.

Being given the opportunity to set up shop about two hours from their hometown couldn’t have worked out better for the Byrons. If Paul was used to being moved around for games and call-ups, Sarah had also become accustomed to that lifestyle, too. Never hesitating to follow her husband everywhere hockey took him, the speedy forward is well-aware that it wasn’t always the easiest of situations for his wife. Fortunately, they can now live their lives in one spot for at least the next three years.

“My wife moved with me during my second year pro when I was in Portland. She was going to school at the University of Ottawa. She had a semester off because she was transitioning to a degree program. When she went back home to go to school a few months later, she made the decision to study online so she could move out West with me,” said Byron, who met his future wife when the pair attended the same CEGEP in the Outaouais area. “The road from Portland to Ottawa isn’t that far, only about a seven-hour drive. But, Ottawa to Abbotsford is really far and we wanted to pursue a relationship. She’d always been there with me and she always followed me around. She probably had to sacrifice even more than I have.”

In a way, the Byrons can thank the Flames for the position they find themselves in today, as Calgary placed Paul on waivers a few hours before the 2015-16 season began. It wasn’t the easiest of things for the Canadiens’ No. 41 to swallow initially, but it allowed him to get a brand new start following a couple of tough years in which injuries slowed him down.

Despite missing 71 games between 2012 and 2015 – which certainly played a key part in the Flames’ decision to place him on waivers – seeing Byron leave under those circumstances was particularly tough for his former head coach, Bob Hartley.

“It was very hard to see Paul leave. I had a great deal of respect for Paul, so I was really torn about the situation because I told myself that if another team went out and got him, it would be a solid move. Not only would they be getting an excellent hockey player, but also a good person for their group,” said Hartley, who coached Byron for three seasons in Calgary. “We were hoping that he wouldn’t be claimed because we wanted to keep him. I knew that he’d have an important role with our team. When we found out he’d been claimed, Paul and I talked in my office and had a very emotional discussion.

“I really liked him. We worked really well together, and I genuinely appreciated every moment we spent together,” added the NHL’s 2015 Jack Adams Award winner. “I was disappointed to see him go, but, on the other hand, I knew that he was headed to an excellent organization. That reassured me.”

Confident in Byron’s high potential, coach Benoit Groulx made the call to pair the speedster with the dynamic Claude Giroux. Groulx’s gut-decision paid off dividends as the duo played a major role in the Gatineau Olympiques’ President’s Cup (QMJHL) victory, in 2007-08.

While the Flames’ decision caught Byron by surprise, he understood it, knowing that it’s just the nature of the business. Still, Byron was a lot less understanding some 10 years earlier when all of the teams in the Ontario Hockey League elected to pass on him at the OHL Draft on two separate occasions. Even if he’d been one of the best players in his age group for years, no team was willing to take a chance on him because of his lack of size – not even the Ottawa 67’s, who were based just a few kilometres from his home.

Byron did, however, manage to earn a spot with a Junior B squad after being cut from Junior A as a result of his lack of size again, and his standout efforts caught the eye of the Major Junior contingent located on the opposite side of the Outaouais River. The Gatineau Olympiques’ head coach at the time, Benoit Groulx, received several favorable reports on Byron, but like many bench bosses before him, he had some doubts.

“We finally went to see him play. When we got there, we saw that he was 5’7 and weighed 132 pounds. But, my first impression was that Paul was the best player on the ice. I couldn’t believe it. He weighed just 130 pounds! How would he survive out there? His team won the game something like 10-9 and he finished the night with two goals and seven assists,” recalled Groulx, who had Byron under his charge for two seasons in the QMJHL. “He was 16 years old and he managed to stand out in a Junior B league that was pretty physical. We asked ourselves if he’d be able to adapt to the game at the Major Junior level. Paul arrived at our training camp, and he showed great progress. By the time Christmas came around, I traded an older player away to make room for him in our Top 6.”

Eventually becoming one of the Olympiques’ top offensive weapons, it was during his stay in Gatineau that Byron added another important aspect to his game that became his trademark in Montreal. Groulx wanted to teach him the importance of having a good defensive game by using him in different game situations, particularly while the Olympiques were short-handed. Byron instantly took off when paired Claude Giroux, and the duo played an important part in Gatineau’s incredible run that went all the way to the Memorial Cup in 2008.

Byron was rewarded for his strong play during the 2015-16 campaign with a three-year contract extension in addition to being named the winner of the Jacques Beauchamp-Molson Trophy.

“Many players don’t understand the importance of being good in all three zones on the ice. So, we started to use Paul in short-handed situations, and the more we did, the more complete player he became. When we put him with Claude, they immediately became an explosive duo. They were phenomenal and they scored a few big goals for us during the playoffs. When they played together on the penalty kill, there were nights when the other team wasn’t really comfortable playing 5-on-4 with Paul and Claude on the ice,” cracked Giroux, who saw the pair combine to amass 83 points in 19 playoff games in 2007-08, 32 of which came from Byron alone. “He always followed the right steps. He never looked at his smaller stature as a disadvantage. When he was on the ice, he played big. He skated and had a lot of self-confidence. It always showed when he was out there.”

It was in his final season in Gatineau, though, that Byron was at his best offensively – and that was without Giroux at his side. Always trying to prove his detractors wrong for underestimating his potential, that last year was especially satisfying for him. He proved not only that he could be an important element to a team without a superstar around, but that he also deserved a chance to continue moving up the ranks. That wasn’t something teams were willing to offer him in the past.

“Looking back, yeah it was almost like revenge. The Ottawa 67’s were in my backyard and one of their scouts was at almost every one of my games. They never even talked to us, though. It was a little bittersweet to me, but at the same time it gave me an opportunity to be on a team and in a league that made me a lot better than if I was playing in the OHL,” explained Byron, who then began his ascent towards the pros in the Sabres organization, the team that drafted him in the sixth round in 2007. “But, a lot of people questioned my scoring output. They only thought it was Giroux, Giroux and always Giroux. My last year was really important to show that I was an offensive catalyst for my team and that Claude wasn’t the only one doing all the scoring.”

Despite his success in the Junior ranks, six years passed before Byron was able to fully establish himself in the NHL. His stints in Buffalo and Calgary were marred by misfortune. Now 27, Byron proved last season that the Canadiens’ brass were right to put their collective faith in him. In addition to setting new NHL career-highs by playing 62 games and scoring 11 goals, he was also used in every conceivable game situation possible. And, because he responded to the challenge each and every time, Marc Bergevin & Co. wanted to ensure he’d remain in the fold going forward.

Paul, his wife Sarah and their two children Elianna and Brysen will be settling into Montreal on a permanent basis this summer.

“It’s very well-deserved, but, on the other hand, I don’t think the instability really affected him that much. That’s been the story of his entire career. It wasn’t something that was new for him,” said Hartley, who highlighted Byron’s many good qualities to his good friend Michel Therrien when the Canadiens secured his services last season. “But, in today’s game, and with the fact that Paul is married and has two young children, being able to get a three-year deal done bodes well for him and he definitely earned it.”

Now that Byron knows where he’ll be come October, he decided to call Montreal home during the offseason. Even if he’s no longer based in Ottawa, he can still continue to count on his and his wife’s families alike to take care of their kids, if need be. After all, his relatives haven’t been this close distance-wise in years. That newfound stability has several advantages, of course, all of which are nothing short of priceless.

“It will be the first time that I won’t be stressing in July, wondering where I’m going to end up. That type of security is new for me. I’m just happy to be able to train here during the offseason,” concluded Byron, who claimed the Jacques Beauchamp-Molson Trophy in 2015-16, which is presented to the player who played a dominant role during the regular season, without earning any particular honor. “One day you can be in one place and the next you can be somewhere else. I’m just happy that everything worked out. I couldn’t be any happier to be in Montreal. It’s the best thing that ever happened to me.”

Hugo Fontaine is a writer for Translated by Matt Cudzinowski.

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