BROSSARD, Que. — The long wait is over.
It’s been 444 days since Brian Gionta left the Montreal Canadiens and signed as a free agent with the Buffalo Sabres. In his wake, the team’s captaincy was left vacant and remained that way throughout the entire 2014-15 season.
At the opening of training camp this season, the players voted on their next captain. Later that night, Max Pacioretty received a phone call from GM Marc Bergevin telling him to open his front door. To Pacioretty’s surprise, there was no one outside.
It turns out Bergevin and coach Michel Therrien had gone to the wrong house.
When the two did arrive on Pacioretty’s step, no words needed to be exchanged. It was clear they were there to tell him that he had been selected as the 29th captain in Canadiens team history.
“The majority of our players voted for Max,” Bergevin said in French. “I’m not going to get into the details, but we didn’t have to count twice.”
Pacioretty, 26, becomes the third American-born player to captain the team after Gionta and Chris Chelios, who co-captained in 1989 with Guy Carbonneau.
Through choked back tears, Pacioretty reflected on the maturation process that enabled him to become a worthy candidate for the position.
“I’ve been here for seven years now, and I’ve seen people come and go, and I’ve seen what it takes to be a Montreal Canadien,” Pacioretty said. “Maybe when you’re younger you don’t really appreciate it as much or you don’t understand how important it is, but… the last couple of years, I’ve really understood what it takes to be a Montreal Canadien and every time I put on the jersey I’m thankful that I’ve been given this opportunity.”
His name now appears on a rather prestigious list.
Pacioretty joins the late and beloved Maurice Richard, Doug Harvey and Jean Beliveau, their successors Henri Richard, Yvon Cournoyer, Serge Savard and Bob Gainey, and a slew of other Hall of Famers and popular players who served as Canadiens captains.
Bergevin, who was born and raised in Quebec and grew up a fan of the Canadiens, has a profound sense of what the honour entails.
“His work ethic, the way he is on and off the ice, the way he is with his teammates; he’s respected by his teammates and obviously them choosing him as captain says a lot,” Bergevin said.
For his part, Pacioretty was humbled by the news.
“I just can’t believe that I’ll be put in the same category as the people before me. I really am honoured. That’s what is the most shocking part about this for me; I don’t think I belong in the same sentence as any of those 28 other captains.”
Andrei Markov, Tomas Plekanec and P.K. Subban, who served as associate captains on last year’s team, will be joined by Brendan Gallagher as ‘A’ wearers this season.
Subban, who many outside of Montreal’s room thought would be captain, shared his respect for the decision his teammates made.
“Ultimately, a captain is a guy who’s gotta take control,” Subban said. “There’s no question when you look around the league at the captains – you look at (Sidney) Crosby, (Jonathan) Toews and all these guys – ultimately when the chips are down their teammates are looking at them to step up and make the difference. I think Max is capable of doing that, and he’s in the position to do that now.”
Gallagher spoke about some of the other elements that make Pacioretty the right choice as the team’s appointed leader.
“He’s been a guy that hasn’t been afraid to invite you for dinner to talk,” Gallagher said. “I think when you’re going through a tough time – he went through everything like that – I think he’ll talk you through it, make sure that you understand ways to get out of it. I think he’s a very good leader like that, he’s very good with young guys coming up.”
The only question that remains is how long we’ll have to wait for Pacioretty to make his debut as Canadiens captain. The tibial plateau fracture he suffered just below his left knee on July 10 is keeping him out of training camp, though he’s training hard in the gym and skating on his own to hopefully be ready for the start of the regular season when the Canadiens visit Toronto on October 7.
Pacioretty read a long statement in French to begin his press conference Thursday.
When asked about the importance of speaking French in his new role with the Canadiens, Pacioretty said he’s dedicated to continuing the lessons he began taking last season.
“We call Montreal home and this is a big part of the culture,” he said. “I hope to be able to (conduct interviews in French). I don’t think I’m going to be perfect overnight, but I’m going to do the best I can.”