BROSSARD - When he was younger, Paul Byron often hit the ice on the outdoor rink that his father, Randy, built at home every winter. The elder Byron was big on detail, painting a goal crease, and even featuring a logo at center ice.
Obviously, all of the kids in the area joined in to play. One day, a severe snowstorm hit the Ottawa area and all of the homes on Byron's street went dark after a power outage. What were his neighbors going to do while waiting for the lights to come back on? Head over to the Byrons to play shinny, of course.
That experience, in particular, caught Byron's attention, and it might just have been the moment when he realized that he wanted to make hockey his career. From that point on, he was going to make every sacrifice necessary to achieve his goals.
It all paid dividends years later when Byron grew up and became one of the Canadiens' top offensive weapons. On Wednesday, he learned that his efforts were being rewarded, having been chosen as the Habs' candidate for the Bill Masterton Trophy in 2016-17.
The trophy is awarded to the NHL player who best exemplifies the qualities of perseverance, sportsmanship, and dedication to hockey.
With 20 goals on the season and remarkable statistics overall, Byron, who was acquired off waivers from the Calgary Flames in October 2015, was a logical choice.
Video: OTT@MTL : Byron profite d'un surnombre tôt en 3e
That innate determination and perseverance is something the speedy winger exhibited even when he skated in his backyard as a kid.
"I used to play for hours and hours every day, just dreaming about scoring goals and moves I'd do on D-men, stuff like that. It was something I spent all my time focusing on. I didn't really care about anything else," said Byron.
Randy was actually the one who passed along that passion for the game to his son.
"Just watching hockey every Saturday night with my dad, he showed me the game. I was just in love with it, mesmerized by it. That's all I thought about. That's all I dreamed about doing or playing," recalled Byron.
A real honor
Byron and his family were delighted to learn that the Montreal chapter of the Professional Hockey Writers Association selected him as the Canadiens' candidate.
"It's an incredible honor to be recognized, obviously. There are a lot of deserving people around the team and around the League. You could pick any guy and see how much work and time they put into their hockey careers. It's great to be recognized for that. It's an incredible accomplishment. It's a very proud moment for me," he shared.
Byron is no stranger to being regarded as an underdog. Regardless of his success, he believes that he'll likely go underestimated until the day he hangs up his skates.
"I think I'll be labelled as that for as long as I play hockey. When you're 5-foot-9 and 160 pounds, everyone looks at you like you shouldn't be there and you don't belong. They don't understand it and I'm ok with that. In my mind, I think I'm 6-foot and 200 pounds. I don't let the scale tell me how big I am or how I should play," said Byron, who has 37 points in 72 games so far this year.
Hitting the 20-goal plateau in the NHL like Byron did last Sunday us no easy feat. In the left winger's mind, though, reaching that milestone doesn't necessarily come as a surprise.
"I was always a pretty good goal scorer, even coming into the American League. My first year I had 15 and I had a couple of injuries where I had some inconsistencies that year," recalled the 27-year-old sharpshooter. "The next year I had 27. I've always been able to score. When I got moved out west, I always thought that I had to be a grinder and a fourth-line guy to make it to the NHL."
Byron would pay close attention to Top 6 players and he saw their talent and experience. That's why he felt he had to modify his game in order to take that all-important next step.
"It's something I did, something that helped me get into the NHL, for sure. It was just a matter of bringing everything together at once. That didn't happen until I got to Montreal," admitted the former Gatineau Olympiques standout.
The small-in-stature forward's story could easily serve to inspire others, much like the paths taken by players like David Desharnais, Daniel Briere, and even Martin St. Louis have for a generation of undersized NHL hopefuls. With that in mind, does Byron see himself as a role model for young players?
"I think so -- even for guys in the American League. It's not easy stealing somebody's spot and coming into the NHL. Young guys are too impatient. They get frustrated. We all think we should be in the NHL. Coming out of Junior, we all think we're good enough, but the reality is there are a lot of good hockey players around the world, and you've just got to keep fighting and keep digging and eventually I think you'll earn a spot. You've just got to stay patient and keep the right mindset and focus," explained Byron.
Those are the kinds of values he tries to pass on to his kids, four-year-old Elianna and three-year-old Brysen. Leading by example with his work ethic to make a living on skates, Byron has never forgotten his roots or the way his journey began all those years ago when he was their age, honing his skills on his dad's backyard rink.