On Sunday Byron scored his 20th goal of the season as part of a 4-1 win over the Ottawa Senators, and on Wednesday he was informed that the Montreal chapter of the Professional Hockey Writers Association had nominated him to be the Canadiens’ representative for the Bill Masterton Trophy, which is awarded annually “to the player who best exemplifies the qualities of perseverance, sportsmanship, and dedication to ice hockey.”
The video, which played a role in Montreal’s decision to claim Byron off of waivers last fall, is labelled Paul ‘Breakaway’ Byron. It spans three minutes and 49 seconds, is set to the tune of old-time comedy show Benny Hill, and it features Byron failing to score on 10 consecutive breakaways before he finally capitalizes on the 11th.
Some teams may have been scared off by that success rate, but Canadiens assistant general manager Larry Carriere said he and the team’s brass saw a quality in Byron—in the video and in games they scouted—that fit perfectly with their group.
“Speed kills,” he told Sportsnet in October of 2015.
Byron’s proven it with every stride he’s taken in a Canadiens uniform, and the opportunity to do so is one he says he’s eternally grateful for.
Consider the path he travelled to arrive at this point. He was a sixth-round pick of the Buffalo Sabres in 2007. He played eight games in their uniform before he was traded to Calgary in the summer of 2011. And then several injuries set him back and placed him at the crossroads of his career.
Right as he was on the verge of breaking through with the Flames, Byron suffered a shoulder injury that kept him out of the first month of the lockout-abridged 2012-13 season. He healed up, and was recalled in February before suffering a broken hand early in his first game.
His dicey contract negotiation in the summer of 2014 had him seriously mulling an offer to go play hockey in Switzerland, but he stuck it out for one more season and made an impression on Flames coach Bob Hartley. Sports hernia and wrist injuries that required off-season surgeries in the summer of 2015 set things in motion for his eventual submission to waivers on the eve of the 2015-16 season.
The possibility of his NHL dream evaporating loomed large, but Byron did his best to maintain a positive outlook.
“I never thought about quitting hockey,” he said on Wednesday. “I don’t even know what I’d do without hockey. It’s been part of my life since the time I was two years old. It’s just been entrenched in me, and everything I’ve done in my life has revolved around hockey.”
Being claimed by Montreal brought the Ottawa native’s perseverance and dedication to the forefront.
Halfway through a season that saw him excel as an elite penalty killer and versatile winger, Canadiens general manager Marc Bergevin offered Byron the security he had coveted in the form of a three-year, $3.5-million contract.
“It was amazing,” said Byron. “We were talking pre-deadline about a contract and we were able to work something out. The last couple of years it’s always been one-year deals, one-year deals. You have a lot of weight, a lot pressure on your shoulders; you never know how you fit. But when an organization’s GM steps up and offers you that kind of stability, it’s a pretty incredible feeling—especially where I came from in September. Obviously a very, very proud moment for my family, and we were very, very appreciative.”
Byron finished 2015-16 with a career-high 11 goals in 62 games.
It was an impressive feat, but what he’s done this year—notching 20 goals and adding 17 assists in 72 games—has some wondering if he’ll finally shed that underdog tag.
“I think I’ll be labelled [an underdog] as long as I play hockey,” he said. “When you’re 5-foot-9, 160 pounds, everyone looks at you like you shouldn’t be there, [like] you don’t belong. They don’t understand it, and I’m okay with that because in my mind I think I’m 6-feet, 200 pounds. I don’t let the scale tell me how big I am or how I should play.”
It’s a statement full of the confidence you might not find in a player who just about became a viral sensation for getting stopped on breakaways.
But Byron, who had been told of his popularity on YouTube by a few of his former Flames teammates, always believed in himself.
“You do nine or 10 good things to get the breakaway or create the breakaway, and then you miss the one big chance and everyone’s making fun of you,” he said. “It’s OK, though. It was kinda my worst year of my career shooting-wise—just one of those things where pucks weren’t bouncing for me.”
Ironically, he is being recognized for this trophy—which bears the name of the only player to have ever died as a direct result of injuries suffered in an NHL game—at least in part because he owns the NHL’s second-best shooting percentage (22.7 per cent) this season.
Considering how Byron has tackled every obstacle in his way and done so with grace and humility, there may not be a better candidate for the award this season.
“There’s a lot of deserving people around the team, around the league,” he said. “You could pick any guy aside and see how much work and time go into their careers, but to be recognized for that—that’s an incredible accomplishment.”