Blossoming under big minutes and even bigger responsibility, Ben Chiarot
has been busy authoring the tale of an exceptional rookie campaign here in Winnipeg.
Nimble, fast and physical, Chiarot – a 6-foot-3, 215-pound force – brings an element to the game the Jets haven’t had in recent years. The smooth-skating, puck-moving defenceman has a booming shot from the point, but isn’t known as much of a goal-scorer. Instead, and especially this year in the bigs, he developed a sterling reputation as a shutdown defender before being felled by injury.
The 23-year-old recorded his first NHL goal against the Toronto Maple Leafs on Jan. 3 – “It was one of the nicer goals I’ve scored,” he recalls.
Yes, sir. The NHL. A dream realized by the talented blueliner after years of rehearsal and an insatiable appetite for greatness.
It doesn’t get any better.
“It was a pretty special night for me and my family. Similar to my first (NHL) game, it was Hockey Night in Canada and we were playing the Toronto Maple Leafs.
“You couldn’t have scripted it any better.”
It’s amazing how things come full circle.
Chiarot broke his hand in a fight with then-Leafs forward Daniel Winnik on Feb. 21, adding another bit of yarn to the ongoing tale of the impressionable youngster and his favourite team growing up.
Less than a year ago, Chiarot was patrolling the blue line of the Jets’ top affiliate in St. John’s, Newfoundland – the one-time home of the ‘baby’ Leafs many moons ago. It was here with the AHL’s IceCaps where Chiarot honed his craft, skillfully developing his game in an effort to become one of the NHL’s top prospects on the cusp of full-time duty.
And boy, did he ever.
The product of Hamilton, Ontario, spent parts of four seasons in St. John’s, where the steadily rising boxcars were soon impossible to ignore. In 65 regular-season games last year, Chiarot posted a professional career-high of six goals and 14 assists, helping the IceCaps advance to the playoffs and, eventually, an appearance in the Calder Cup Final against the Texas Stars.
In 21 post-season contests, he tallied twice and added three assists.
The experience of those meaningful nights prepared him well for the rigours, the pace and the passion of day-to-day life in the National Hockey League.
“(Jets Assistant Coach) Charlie Huddy told me, ‘Those playoff games – that intensity – that’s what it’s like in the NHL, every single day.’ I thought about that and used it when I went into the playoffs. I was taught from a young age that you have to elevate your game there. That’s when your best hockey has to come out.
“I tried to get as geared up as possible for those games, knowing what they meant, beyond the moment.”
The IceCaps unfortunately lost the best-of-seven series four games to one, giving the Stars their first championship in franchise history.
As for Chiarot, it was only the beginning.
“I saw Ben play in Games 4 and 5 of the conference final last year and I thought he was the best player on the ice,” Head Coach Paul Maurice said.
“Great decisions. He was physical; he moved the puck well… He was extremely composed playing in games of high pressure. That showed a lot.
“He’s been very, very good for us this year. He’s moved the puck pretty quickly. He hasn’t been cautious and he hasn’t been afraid to try and make a play. At the same time, he’s kept the right level of simplicity in his game.”
Chiarot made his NHL debut last year against the Chicago Blackhawks, but the one-game stint did little to satisfy his craving for excellence. By the time Jets training camp rolled around last fall, he was hungrier than ever to perform.
“I was excited. I thought I was good to go start a new chapter (in the NHL),” he said.
But he was back on the Rock just a few weeks later.
“It was disappointing at the time, but I kept working,” Chiarot said. “I took it (being sent down) as a challenge. I wanted to go to St. John’s and show them that I could not only be one of the best defencemen on the team, but one of the best players in the American Hockey League. … I wanted to show them that I was ready to be an NHL player.
“The first two months of the season really grew my confidence and I saw how far I could take my game. Even though it was another 21 games, it really gave me a boost before I got the call.”
Chiarot was recalled on Dec. 2, 2014 and has been up ever since – flourishing, just like he did on the farm those many weeks, months and years leading up. Drafted in the fourth round, 120th overall back in 2009, Chiarot was now an every day NHL defenceman averaging more than 15 minutes per game. To his right, NHL All-Star Dustin Byfuglien, who, Chiarot says, was the perfect partner in crime.
Beyond that, he was and continues to be a mentor for young No. 63.
“He’s such an impressive player. I think he’s one of the best in the league,” Chiarot said of Byfuglien. “It was a perfect situation. To work with a dominant player like Buff and get so many minutes, it made my transition a lot easier.
“I couldn’t have asked for a better partner and a better introduction to the NHL. When you’re trying to get comfortable with a new team and a new league, you want as much ice time as you can get so you can get into the flow of the game and figure out what works and what doesn’t.”
Chiarot has since played with a variety of partners, each offering their own style to learn from.
“I try and learn every day watching the guys around me. A guy like Mark Stuart and how hard he plays, and the patience Jacob Trouba has with the puck. … Everyone’s in the NHL for a reason, so I try to learn different things from all the guys around me and implement parts of their game into mine.”
It’s all part of the process, which has ultimately been sped by the success of a team in a playoff race.
Year over year, Chiarot says, it still feels like a dream.
“It’s exciting. I’m still smiling about it daily. Beginning with the Calder Cup run and being here now, this is the most fun I’ve ever had playing hockey. Going that deep into the playoffs, getting to the final, being so tight with that team, the people of St. John’s, now being here… It’s a blast.”
— Ryan Dittrick, WinnipegJets.com/InFlight Magazine