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Road to the NHL: Max Pacioretty

by Staff Writer / Montréal Canadiens

MONTREAL – Veteran coach Dan Murphy knew Max Pacioretty had a bright future in store early on in their working relationship.

Murphy, who has helmed the boys’ varsity hockey squad at The Taft School for years, recalls a 15-year-old Pacioretty making a memorable first impression after arriving on campus in Watertown, CT fresh off a two-year stint at New Canaan High School just 60 miles down the road.

“He definitely had that fire in his eyes. At that point, I didn’t know that he was going to be a future NHL star, but I just knew that he was different than all the other kids. He held himself to an extremely high standard on the ice, and he held his teammates to a high standard as well. That was different for a player his age,” offered Murphy, who welcomed Pacioretty to the elite prep school as a 10th grade sophomore for the 2004-05 campaign. “You could see that competitiveness in his eyes when he came back to the bench or in his discussions with other players, too. He had that burning desire for success.”

That translated into a relatively strong showing for Pacioretty in his first season with the Rhinos, as the talented forward put up five goals and 19 points in 23 games, helping Murphy’s contingent finish the year with an 18-5 record, before being eliminated by  Salisbury School in the quarterfinals of the New England Prep School Championships.

“By the second half of that year, you knew that Max was going to be unbelievable the next season. He showed signs of brilliance on the ice as the year went on. I knew that I had a really special hockey player and a really special team coming back in the fall, and Max was at the core of that group. It was a lot of fun to coach him. It really was,” shared Murphy, who was immediately taken aback by Pacioretty’s remarkable skill set, which included a unique ability to find his teammates at will on the ice. “He was unbelievable with the puck. Some of the passes he made were ridiculous. I would constantly ask myself – ‘How did he see that guy?’ Even then, he could account for all nine other people out there. It’s like he always had that sixth sense.”

Pacioretty’s unselfishness, however, didn’t always make Murphy smile. Well aware of his charge’s potential for lighting the lamp, the University of Maine grad encouraged the youngster to test opposing netminders at every opportunity – without abandoning his penchant for creating scoring chances, of course.

“When he played for me, he was always passing the puck. That was Max. He had great hands, and he had elusive moves. His role for us was as a playmaker. He always wanted to set everyone else up. That’s the way he was – the antithesis of what he is now,” mentioned Murphy, who likened Pacioretty's style of play back then to that of Habs centerman David Desharnais today. “I would always joke that he would beat the same guy twice, have a wide open net, and choose to pass the puck to one of his teammates to score a goal. He used to come back to the bench and I used to say – ‘Max, you’ve got to shoot the puck. You’ve got a great shot! Use it!' It’s funny to watch how his role has changed so much over the years, especially now.”

While Pacioretty didn’t necessarily find his scoring touch the following season, amassing just seven goals in 26 games, Murphy insists the Rhinos’ standout made strides that year that would eventually pay important dividends in the long run.

“Max made a significant increase in size and strength between 2005 and 2006. One of the things he did in the spring was run track. He ran the 400 metre. He was doing a lot of sprinting and lifting a lot of weights. You could see him getting bigger and stronger. Obviously, he wasn’t the physical specimen he is now, but that was really the starting point. It was the first major step he took in terms of making himself into the man he is today,” explained Murphy, who insists Pacioretty didn’t shy away from throwing his weight around and playing a fierce brand of hockey under his watch. “He could play pick-up soccer, pick-up baseball or pick-up softball with the kids on campus. In the fall, though, he zeroed in on getting ready for hockey season. He’d even run cross country that time of year. Then, he’d focus on the 400 metre come springtime, which is a great combination of building an aerobic base and building strength.”

All of that hard work nearly helped the Rhinos exact revenge on Salisbury School a year later, as the two schools battled for the New England Prep School crown. While Murphy’s squad ultimately came up short, he’ll never forget Pacioretty’s performance with so much on the line.

“We ended up losing that championship game 4-3. There were a lot of great players on the ice at the time. Salisbury had the Biegas and Mark Arcobello, too. That was a pretty big game for New England players because both teams had a lot of guys who were going to play Division I. That night, Max was the most dominant player out there on both teams,” confided Murphy, whose club had posted a 21-5 record to earn a share of the Founders League Regular Season Championship before falling one victory short of winning it all. “Every time Max hit the ice, he made something happen. He was either creating Grade ‘A’ scoring chances for us or breaking up plays. He was playing unbelievable hockey against the most talented players in the area. Max put the whole team on his back in that game and led the charge.”

But, Pacioretty’s time under Murphy’s tutelage – which came to an end following the 2005-06 season – was about much more than just bulking up, winning and racking up points. Murphy wanted to teach the eventual USHL and University of Michigan product life lessons that would serve to guide him along a path to reaching his full potential.

“As much as I tried to teach Max the intricacies of the game, the X’s and O’s, I think more of my coaching with him was about being a good person, making good decisions with his teammates, making good decisions on campus and holding himself accountable. Knowing that someday he’d be playing at a top-tier school like Michigan, he was going to be in a little bit of a fishbowl. That meant that it was important for him to get the basics right – get to class on time, do his homework and get proper rest. I was trying to teach him all the little things that I thought would make him successful at the college level,” offered Murphy, who saw Pacioretty forgo his senior season at Taft to join the Sioux City Musketeers before making the jump to the collegiate ranks in Ann Arbor, MI.

“My emphasis with him was more on character development and making sure that he was an outstanding person. He probably sees those discussions playing out a lot now that he’s in Montreal where players are always under a microscope and they need to make the right decisions,” added Murphy, who admits being somewhat hard on his players, including Pacioretty, but for good reasons. “I always talked about karma with Max and the kids, too. I’m a big believer that if you do all the right things you’re supposed to do, good things are going to happen. He’s definitely held on to those points.”

Pleased to see the Canadiens’ No. 67 thriving in his hockey home, Murphy is excited to see what Pacioretty will accomplish next both on and off the ice.

“Just to put Max’s time at Taft into perspective, we all knew that he wasn’t going to play his senior season with us, but I made sure that he was still a candidate for team captain that year. Believe it or not, he was the team’s unanimous pick regardless of the fact that he wasn’t coming back. I thought it was important that he knew how highly thought of he was by his teammates. He was a natural leader,” concluded Murphy, who keeps a close eye on all the latest hockey developments coming out of Montreal these days. “It gives me chills to hear his name in those [captaincy] discussions. It really does. I think he really understands the history of the organization, the importance of hockey to the people of Montreal, and the level of expectation that comes with a role like that. My understanding of him is that he will continue to hold himself to the highest standard and really make everyone proud.”

Matt Cudzinowski is a writer for canadiens.com.

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