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This story appears in full in the September/October 2012 issue of CANADIENS magazine. Subscribe today!

Learning to Fly

By Shauna Denis

He might not have a degree to hang on the wall and he won't be crossing a stage in a cap and gown anytime soon, but Max Pacioretty has ended up with the best education he could have imagined.

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It’s been four years since Max Pacioretty decided to pack up his dorm at the University of Michigan to turn pro after only one season. Rather than spend time cramming for midterms and competing in the Frozen Four, he traded in the comforts of campus life for practical, on-the-job training. From long bus rides in the minors to a remarkable comeback from a potentially career-threatening injury, the 23-year-old knows he’s learned more from those experiences than he ever would have in a lecture hall.

“People maybe questioned whether or not I should have left school after my freshman year, but I’m where I am today because of that decision,” stressed Pacioretty, who had 39 points in 37 games in his only season as a Wolverine. “I’ve never, ever regretted it. Looking back on it, it was definitely the best thing I could have done for my career. That’s not a knock against Michigan at all because it was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made to go there, but I knew it was time to move on.

“One thing we joke about in my family is my little sister, Katie, is at Michigan now and I couldn’t even imagine going to the same school as her and going to parties and playing with guys the same age as her. She still seems so young to me,” he chuckled before adding that living 1,000 km from Ann Arbor hasn’t stopped him from keeping an eye on his 21-year-old sister. “Trust me; I’ve still got a lot of contacts there.”

People may have questioned Pacioretty’s choices at the time, but it didn’t take long for the power-forward-in-the-making to silence his critics. Making the jump to Montreal after spending just half a season in Hamilton, the rookie winger scored his first career NHL goal on his first-ever shot. His first day on the job may have seemed easy, but the next 1,191 that followed turned out to be anything but.

“I’ve had five different NHL coaches, three different AHL coaches, two different captains and three different GMs – and it’s all been with one organization,” noted Pacioretty, who has also played with over two dozen different linemates in that span. “I’ve had a lot of bumps in the road, getting sent down and getting called up and never knowing how long I’d be staying, but it’s all worth it now. That just makes me appreciate things more.”

Despite splitting his first three seasons between Montreal and Hamilton, the New Canaan, CT native is already one of the team’s longest-tenured veterans.

“It feels weird that it’s only considered that I’ve played one full NHL season because I think all told I have about 200 games under my belt. It definitely feels like I’ve been here for a while,” he admitted. “My first year was the Saku Koivu generation, so I was here when they cleaned house the first time [in 2009]. Then they kind of did it again this summer.”

Tirelessly working his way up from the bottom since 2008, Pacioretty has already had to prove himself to more coaches in his short time in the league than most players go through in a career – and he’s about to do it again this fall with Michel Therrien. Coming off a career year that saw him lead the Canadiens with 65 points, the 6-foot-2 winger knows he won’t be starting from scratch this season, but he’s still hoping to make a strong first impression. 

“Michel obviously has a good grasp on our team having worked for the Montreal media for the past few years, but when you come into camp, none of that matters,” he stressed. “You have to impress him and the new management and the new staff in every category: on the ice, in the weight room, attitude, work ethic – everything.

“But I don’t think about it like I’m starting from square one again; I look at it more as an opportunity to maybe even improve everyone’s image of me,” continued the 2012 Masterton Trophy winner. “The reason I try to play the way I do is I don’t think any coach is going to tell me to stop playing that way. I play simple and I don’t really try too much or take big risks. I just try to get pucks deep and then retrieve them or keep it along the wall and drive wide. It’s obviously worked for a guy like Colesy [Erik Cole] for this long and I don’t think a coach has ever had a problem with a guy like him. I hope to model my career off that.” 

It wouldn’t be the first time Pacioretty has looked to his wingman for inspiration. Coming into the 2011-12 season hoping for a bounce-back year after suffering a fractured vertebra in March 2011, the rugged forward knew he had his work cut out for him. Having already gone through the exact same situation himself six years earlier, Cole managed to provide Pacioretty with the perfect blueprint for success.

“There were some steps I had to take in my recovery and some of them were more mental than physical – like needing to just take that first hit to know I’d be ok,” shared Pacioretty, who returned from injury to become the first American-born Hab to score 30 goals in a season, followed a few games later by Cole. “I think the biggest thing was in preseason watching a guy like Colesy who’s had the same injury as me going Banzai into the post at 100 miles an hour on every rush. That definitely helped me mentally. I’m way past that point now and I don’t even think about it anymore, but it took a few hits to really get to the stage where my neck wasn’t something I worried about in the back of my mind.”

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