MONTREAL - Every NHL player has his own unique pre-game routine. For the vast majority of Habs, playing two-touch soccer has become a staple before hitting the ice for warmups.
In fact, the sheer size of the Canadiens' soccer circles this season has everybody in the locker room talking. It's a good indication that this group, in particular, is especially close.
"I don't know how the circle got so big. We used to play a game called soccer-volley and that got really out of hand," said captain Max Pacioretty with a laugh. "I think there's a certain vibe around the game and it forces guys to kind of get out of their comfort zones and want to play. I know every team plays soccer before a game, but the way we do it says a lot about our team."
In its simplest form, two-touch is all about ball control. Players are limited to two touches per volley, moving the ball around the circle in an attempt to keep it airborne, often going all-out to ensure their survival. One by one, the last player to touch the ball before it hits the ground is eliminated, until a lone player is left standing and declared the winner.
Along the way, the game heats up as players actively try to take each other out, making the off-ice warmup more competitive as the season rolls on. Rivalries are born over time, and one-on-one battles ensue, getting guys pumped while breeding camaraderie and building friendships.
"You would think that those individual battles mean that guys don't like each other, but at the end of the day it means that they really do. It's cool to have relationships like that and have certain guys you go after. It's a good sign if you go after someone," explained Pacioretty. "I think it means you like them more than people think."
If that's the case, then it's safe to say that Brendan Gallagher's teammates are also some of his biggest fans. The gritty sparkplug often finds himself targeted by his peers - and with good reason, according to defenseman Jeff Petry.
"Everyone goes after Gally," cracked Petry. "He just gets so upset when he gets knocked out. He takes it really personally."
Fortunately, those who have been knocked out don't have to wait until a game ends to make their way back into the circle. The oft-invoked "New Player Rule" stipulates that if a new participant joins the game at any point in time, everyone who's been eliminated can return and things start from scratch.
"I'd never seen that rule before. I don't know who brought it, but it's a really good rule because it promotes team bonding and inclusion," said Pacioretty, who says recruiting "new players" isn't limited to seeking out his teammates alone. "That's why you see security guards play and training staff joining in. It's fun."
Paul Byron was one of those "new players" just a short time ago. Now a two-touch regular, the seven-year NHL veteran fondly recalls being encouraged to join the group by a certain Russian sniper earlier this season.
"Radu [Alexander Radulov] would always come and grab me because guys would target him. I was like - 'Well, you just keep dragging me into the game, so I might as well start playing,'" mentioned Byron. "It keeps you loose. There's a little bond between guys. It's definitely something that brings us together."
It also helps to bring newcomers into the fold, too, one of whom has quickly established himself as a force to be reckoned with already.
"[Andreas Martinsen] can handle anything," praised Petry. "He's just got really good control with the ball, and the only way you can get him out is if you really get him stretching and it goes off his toe."
The 26-year-old Norwegian is rather humble with respect to his soccer skills, despite being the consensus pick as the Canadiens' reigning "King of the Ring." Pacioretty even calls him "the best soccer player [he's] ever seen."
"I'm up there, yeah, but there are a couple of really good players," said Martinsen. "I don't do anything crazy out there. I just know how to control the ball. It makes you look much better, but it's nothing special."
What is special, though, is seeing the way these games steadily grow in intensity as the circle gets bigger and bigger. There's no lack of chirping and cheering, either, which helps build energy off the ice before the guys get down to the business of beating their real opponents.
"Before a game, it's important to feel good about yourself, have some fun and not think too hard about the game," explained Pacioretty. "That's what soccer - especially the way we do it - does. We've seen a lot of new people come and play with us. It's good for chemistry."