Slumped in the back seat of a car heading from Rochester to Toronto on Dec. 21, Grand Rapids rookie forward Francis Pare
felt an odd sensation come over him.
It was a condition known as "fatigue." It's a common affliction among hockey players who get a lot of ice time, but since that description hadn't applied to Pare for most of the season he didn't know whether to yawn or smile.
Pare decided to do both on the trip to Toronto, from where he would catch a flight to his native Montreal for the holiday break. They were apt responses to his first stretch of four games in five nights this season.
"I was so tired. I was listening to my music. I was trying to catch my breath after the big weekend," said Pare, 21. "I was happy, because next game I'll be in, probably."
Pare is wise to understand that nothing is a certainty with the way his year has gone, but he should be able to bank on a heavy workload for the immediate future. In those four games, he pocketed 3 goals and 4 assists to earn AHL Player of the Week honors.
"Every time he goes into the lineup, he contributes offense," said Griffins coach Curt Fraser
. "He's a kid who is very talented. He's earned his way into the lineup. You're going to see a lot more of Francis Pare
as the season goes along."
That's encouraging and a tribute to Pare's perseverance, but the preseason line of thinking might have had him as a top-line linchpin from the season's first faceoff.
Although he was never drafted, he joined the Griffins off a 2007-08 season in which he was named the QMJHL MVP after scoring 102 points for Chicoutimi. He was also more than a point-per-game guy for each of the two seasons before that with Shawinigan.
He also posted a goal and an assist in his first game for Grand Rapids, and another goal in his second. The catch was that his debut came after he was a healthy scratch the first two games on the Griffins' schedule. He then sat out again before playing in his second game.
Fraser said he liked his young center from the start, but Grand Rapids was overflowing with talent up front. He explained to Pare that he'd be one of a few younger guys who rotated in and out. For Pare, that's meant action in just 16 of Grand Rapids' first 31 games.
"He's a first-year kid. Even though he's a high-end scorer in juniors, now he's playing against a lot bigger, faster, stronger players," Fraser said. "He kept learning and working very hard to keep ready for the lineup."
In his mind, Pare had no choice. He looked around the dressing room full of skill and didn't wonder how he might do in the AHL. He started considering whether he'd take his first pro shifts in the ECHL.
"I was nervous at the beginning. I was not sure about staying in Grand Rapids the whole year," he said. "You take (sitting out) personal. You think you are not good enough to play in that league. I was kind of rattled. But I'm in the Detroit organization. There's a lot of good young guys. I'll wait for my chance."
"I was confident about my game and everything. But in the beginning, I had some stuff to learn. Everything is going faster. You have to think positioning every single second on the ice. It's a great challenge."
-- Francis Pare
Griffins assistant Jim Paek
kept reassuring Pare that patience would be rewarded, and talked him back off the edge. Pare kept producing in spurts, a goal here, an assist there (he's 7-8 overall). A few weeks ago, Griffins General Manager Bob McNamara put the final mint on Pare's welcoming pillow by telling him he could finally get his own place.
"I was confident about my game and everything. But in the beginning, I had some stuff to learn," Pare said. "Everything is going faster. You have to think positioning every single second on the ice. It's a great challenge."
Fraser keeps putting a fresh spin on it. The coach helped ignite Pare's big weekend by moving him to right wing on a line with center Evan McGrath
and left wing Francis Lemieux
The combination of Lemieux and Pare, both natives of the Montreal area, is a natural. Pare, as the younger Francis, has picked up the nickname of "Junior," though there's nothing deferential about his production.
"He's a kid that can play everywhere. Left wing. Right wing. Center," Fraser said. "He's very versatile and he has a great touch around the net. If he gets open for just a second, the scoring chances he produces are very good ones."
Pare lives just a few minutes from Lemieux at home, but the two didn't really know each other until this season. If the past few games are any indication, the relationship might have some legs.
"We had so much fun during the weekend. I guess it showed on the scoreboard," Pare said. "We'll see some day if I'm able to keep that pace. As long as I'm in the lineup, I'll play with anybody. I'm not in the stage to ask the coach to play with one player."
Pare knows from painful experience how quickly a slip here or there can turn someone else from a linemate into the guy who's keeping you in the stands.
That's why besides satisfaction and weariness there was one more emotion running through Pare's mind on his car trip to Toronto - insecurity.
It may turn out to be the most important thought of all.
"I knew I had a good weekend," he said. "But you never know when another player is going to have a better weekend than you. Right now I'm just looking to stay in the lineup every single game."