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Cole embracing all that comes with being a Hab

by Arpon Basu
BROSSARD, Que. -- Erik Cole got a very quick indication that he's not in Carolina anymore.

Cole was at the Montreal Canadiens' practice facility Thursday to skate with some youngsters taking part in the team's summer hockey camp, sign some autographs and show the local media his unusual new jersey number.

About 25 members of the local and national media came to watch the event and speak to the Canadiens' big summer free-agent acquisition for the first time on home soil.

When asked if he was surprised to see the turnout for an event of this nature in the middle of summer, Cole said the day actually was a very meaningful one for him.

"You guys might not be excited about it, but I am," Cole said. "It's a big day for me and my family, and hopefully it's a big day and a good day for the Montreal Canadiens."

Cole needed to stand on a wooden box to make sure all the cameras on hand got a good shot of him. The media crush, however, did not seem to faze or intimidate him.

He asked, "Do I have to stand on a soapbox every day?" When told that wouldn't be necessary, he said, "Then I think I'll be O.K."

Cole also showed he's adept at the No. 1 public relations ploy a new member of the Canadiens can use when he asked whether he's worried about the distractions that come with playing in such an all-encompassing hockey market like Montreal.

He took some time to think about his answer, and then said, "I am proud to play for a team that has such passionate fans."

Except he said it in French.

"I've said it before -- the passion here is unbelievable," said Cole. "Lots of times when I'm asked why I play well here, I say it's because of them, because of the passion that's here. It was probably the one arena where you'd never want the door closed to the locker room before the game while you're waiting to go on the ice. You want to be able to hear it and enjoy it."

The most newsworthy element of Cole’s visit was the unveiling of his No. 72 jersey, making him the second player in team history to wear the number; Mathieu Carle wore it for three games in 2009-10.

The only number Cole has worn in the NHL is 26, but that belongs to Canadiens defenseman Josh Gorges, and Cole didn't get the impression it was negotiable.

"I never heard back," Cole said, "so I figured it wasn't on the market."

Cole did not choose his new number out of thin air. He said he wore No. 72 in his lone season of Junior 'B' hockey with the Gananoque Islanders of the Eastern Ontario Junior Hockey League.

He said he was given the number because it belonged to the previous year's league rookie of the year. Cole then won the rookie of the year award himself in 1996.

"Lots of times when I'm asked why I play well here, I say it's because of them, because of the passion that's here. It was probably the one arena where you'd never want the door closed to the locker room before the game while you're waiting to go on the ice. You want to be able to hear it and enjoy it."
-- Erik Cole, on Canadiens fans

The biggest challenge he has with the change in number is that Cole will have to make an adjustment to his autograph, but he was quite proud with his initial effort Thursday.

"I think I only messed it up twice," he said, smiling at the accomplishment. "And I signed a lot of autographs."

This kind of attention from fans and the media is not the only thing Cole will need to get used to. In fact, he will be looking to fight a widely held perception that his success to this point in his career was tied directly to playing for the Carolina Hurricanes.

The one time Cole played for an NHL team besides Carolina was in 2008-09, after an offseason trade to the Edmonton Oiler in exchange for defenseman Joni Pitkanen.

Through his first 33 games that season Cole had just 4 goals and 5 assists, and the trade was being panned in Edmonton.

Over the next 30 games, however, he had 12 goals and 6 assists, but he was traded by the Oilers at the trade deadline -- right back to the Hurricanes.

He finished that regular season with 15 points in his final 17 games with Carolina, perhaps feeding the perception with such a strong finish.

Cole bristled at the suggestion now that he is unable to play away from Carolina, or that his experience in Edmonton was a bad one.

"I was a player adjusting to a new environment after being with one organization for a number of years, so it took some time to get comfortable and to figure things out and to be comfortable with the coach and what he was looking for out of me," Cole said. "The day I got traded, the conversation with (Oilers general manager Steve Tambellini) and (coach Craig MacTavish) was that, especially over the past couple of months, it certainly wasn't about my play because I was playing really well. It was about managing assets and that's what they felt they needed to do. To be perfectly honest, at the time I would have been more than happy to stay."

That adjustment period may very well be needed for Cole to get settled in Montreal, where he will have to learn the system of coach Jacques Martin and get acquainted with teammates he's never played with before.

But the day Cole signed his four-year, $18 million contract with Montreal, he said he did so because he wants to know he's making the playoffs every season, and he remains quite confident his new team -- backstopped by Carey Price in goal -- will be able to do far more than that.

"I was very impressed with the way (Price) responded to everything that happened in the summer and the season prior," Cole said. "When you look at what the guys in this lineup are capable of, top to bottom, there's a lot of talent in this room."

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