Ben Chiarot a perfect candidate to help Canadiens recruit free agents

Montreal Canadiens defenseman Ben Chiarot (8) celebrates his game-winning goal with center Max Domi (13) in overtime of an NHL hockey game against the Washington Capitals, Thursday, Feb. 20, 2020, in Washington. The Canadiens won 4-3 in overtime. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)

MONTREAL — Ben Chiarot chose the Montreal Canadiens.

With several other opportunities to consider, the 28-year-old Hamilton, Ont., native chose to live with all the drawbacks of playing in this market—the unappealing winter weather, the language barrier for an English-speaking family, the practically unparalleled and certainly overbearing media presence, the intense fan scrutiny, and having more than 53 per cent of his income taxed—and he ultimately did it because of a conversation he had with Marc Bergevin on July 3, 2019.

“He kind of explained to me what he sees for me and how he’s always appreciated my game, and explained to me what he was all about, how he’s a hockey guy,” Chiarot recounted towards the end of a 30-minute conference call with Montreal reporters on Thursday morning. “I liked everything that Berge had to say and he did a good job selling me on Montreal and what my role would be, and he really made it an easy decision to come over there.”

It’s got to be a comfort to Montreal fans to hear that after all the issues the Canadiens have had in attracting free agents over the last number of years.

The fact is, there’s only so much Bergevin can say to mitigate all those factors that keep players from picking Montreal over, say, the Tampa Bay Lightning or Nashville Predators. But, we’d imagine people in these parts would like to know that the team is doing everything it can to sell Montreal as a destination of choice—regardless of all the hurdles they need to jump over to do it—and that it is still possible to do.

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It wasn’t because of any failings on Bergevin’s part that a top free agent like Matt Duchene chose to sign a seven-year, $56-million contract with the Predators last July.

As Duchene put it to Sportsnet on Thursday, Montreal’s pitch, which he received in person on June 26, certainly piqued his interest—even if it was widely known he had his heart set on Nashville from the start.

“First of all, those two guys (Bergevin and team owner Geoff Molson) are first class all the way,” Duchene said in a telephone interview. “The word that comes to mind when you think of the Canadiens organization over all the years is class. So that was definitely portrayed in our meetings, and I was left very impressed.”

Duchene’s visit was brief.

“It was kind of something we threw together last second,” he explained.

But the 29-year-old still had enough time with Bergevin and Molson to form an impression of what life would be like as a Canadien.

“I definitely got a sense for what things would be like at the rink,” Duchene said. “It was great to see the building and just the history of the team and how special what they have is there. So Mr. Molson and Berge did a really good job with that. We were all really impressed.”

Chiarot was also clearly impressed after his conversation with Bergevin.

Later on Thursday, he confirmed to Sportsnet that the Toronto Maple Leafs were the first team to contact him once the free-agent courting period leading up to July 1 had begun.

He also said that he had fielded at least one more offer that was more lucrative than the three-year, $10.5-million deal he signed with Montreal, and he explained that he got deep into negotiations with the Detroit Red Wings.

“You hear that ‘You’re our guy, you’re the guy we want, you’re our first priority,’ but then when it comes to actually presenting a contract, yourself and the team may not be on the same page as far as term or dollars or your role or wherever they see you and so that kind of falls apart,” Chiarot explained on the conference call earlier in the day. “So you go through the whole week thinking you’re going one place, and then it kind of falls apart at the end.”

But it came together quickly when Chiarot got the call from Bergevin.

“I got better offers, but the way my role was sold to me was the key,” he told Sportsnet. “There’s a lot of factors—the money’s not everything—and I also just thought I’d be kicking myself if I turned down the opportunity to play with that kind of organization.

“And then, as I’ve said, you get a chance to pull on that red Habs jersey on a snowy Saturday at the Bell Centre and there’s nothing like it.”

It’s something Chiarot could envision before landing in Montreal. After all, he had lived in a hockey-mad city over six years with the Winnipeg Jets to start his career.

But Chiarot couldn’t know for sure what it would be like playing for the Canadiens until he finally did it.

The six-foot-three, 225-pounder averaged close to 24 minutes per game, he often played as a top-pairing defenceman, and he put up a career-high nine goals and 21 points in his first season with the team.

That Chiarot’s experience with the Canadiens has been so positive to date can only help Bergevin in the recruitment process.

“I would say if you like playing in front of a full building and a place where they love hockey—and there’s so much history in the city around the team and in the Bell Centre—it’s a perfect place to play as a hockey player,” Chiarot said on the conference call. “For me, there’s no better place to play than in Montreal. Hockey is everything there and I think, as a hockey player, that’s what you want. You want a place that cares and a place that loves hockey, and that was a big reason why I signed there. So that would be the first thing that I would tell someone if they’re were trying to decide on coming to Montreal.”


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