MONTREAL — When I caught up with Ben Chiarot on Friday, he had just returned home from his daily walk with his wife Jacqueline, daughter Emmerson and dog Bailey.
“Highlight of my days,” the 28-year-old Montreal Canadiens defenceman said from his Waterloo, Ont., home.
Chiarot’s nights have been occupied by Sportsnet’s rewind broadcasts.
One, in particular, had him on the edge of his seat.
“They were showing Game 7, Toronto-Detroit, from the first round of the 1993 playoffs,” he said. “Nikolai Borschevsky scored the overtime winner. I think it was (Nicklas) Lidstrom’s rookie season. That Toronto team had Wendel Clark, Doug Gilmour and all those guys I grew up idolizing.”
One of those guys was Mike Foligno.
“He was my coach in junior (with the OHL’s Sudbury Wolves), so it was funny to watch him,” Chiarot said. “I actually lived with him a bit, too, and he had that old JOFA helmet in his office at the house.
“I played with (Foligno’s son and Minnesota Wild forward) Marcus. Me and Marcus are pretty good buddies. And I got to know (older son and Columbus Blue Jackets captain) Nick well, too.”
And this is where the conversation went from small talk to real talk.
I interjected: “Nick really carved out quite the career for himself. I think he’s been better than anyone thought he’d be, especially over the last few years.”
“After he was traded from Ottawa to Columbus (for defenceman Marc Methot in July of 2012) he really took off and found another level of his game,” Chiarot said of the 32-year-old who put up 31 goals and 73 points and was named an all-star in his third season with the Blue Jackets. “You see a lot of cases like that — guys who get an opportunity to do more and get more responsibility, and just take advantage of the opportunity.”
Chiarot didn’t arrive in Montreal via trade, but it’s fair to say that when he signed a three-year, $10.5-million deal back in July, after five full seasons spent mostly as a depth defenceman with the Winnipeg Jets, virtually no one — not even Canadiens general manager Marc Bergevin — expected him to rise to the occasion as much as he did.
The opportunity was there for the Hamilton native in a way it never had been in Winnipeg, and he ran with it — scoring a career-high nine goals and 21 points in 69 games this season (or four more goals and one more point than he had in 78 games with the Jets in 2018-19) and earning his way onto Montreal’s top defensive pair with his unheralded skating ability and his all-around game.
A fair portion of our conversation centred on that. Much of it also focused on his Canadiens teammates and what he feels is the promise of this group moving forward.
So, this is Part 1 of a two-part interview to run Wednesday and Thursday here on Sportnset.ca, exploring Chiarot’s breakthrough season and what he learned about himself in the process:
Sportsnet: Do you realize you averaged close to seven minutes more per game this season than your career average?
Ben Chiarot: I knew it was up there. For my first three years in Winnipeg, I was pretty much solely on the third pairing and we’d play 12-15 minutes. And as I got a little older, I’d get 16, 17, 18. And the year before I came to Montreal, I was up around 18, 19. So it’s kind of been a gradual progression up.
But this year was definitely a big step up from what I was doing in Winnipeg.
A big portion of that is special teams. Me and Shea (Weber) would always go out first for the penalty kill, and 4-on-4 I was always out there. Then overtime, even some power play — in the second half of the season I’d get out there here and there.
In Winnipeg, I was first, sometimes second for PK, and 4-on-4 was usually a stretch unless one of the D were in the box. So it’s more the special teams stuff that really gives you the extra ice time along with a few more 5-on-5 shifts.
SN: How crucial was it being a part of such a quality defence group in Winnipeg in terms of your gradual development?
BC: I think the competition created is what drives everyone to be better. In my case, in Winnipeg, the five guys we had — and six when Toby Enstrom was there, and he was an all-star calibre defenceman in his prime — if I wasn’t getting better or trying to get better, I wasn’t going to play. So I had to, every year, improve, come back stronger, come back faster, work on my game. The amount of good players we had created that culture that you had to be improving or you’re going to fall behind. That was the big thing for me, and that was probably the most beneficial thing for me was playing with that many good players because it forced me to take the next steps or I was going to get left behind.
SN: So you’re brought in to Montreal after all that. What do you think about when you look back on the first few weeks with the Canadiens?
BC: I know people were saying, ‘He’s having a hard time adjusting,’ or ‘He’s not fitting in.’ Maybe the first four games of the season I was just getting adjusted, but I’m that way pretty much every year. The first three or four games, I’m just kind of finding my rhythm and finding my timing. And then you throw in a whole new team, and whole new surroundings, and it kind of compounded that with the start of a new season.
But I thought it was a bit premature when people were saying I was having a hard time fitting in when I had played only three or four games on the team. I thought once I got comfortable, and found my game and my rhythm, everything just kind of smoothed out from there.
SN: You played in a hockey hotbed in Winnipeg, but I’m assuming it didn’t take long for you to realize Montreal was a different animal. Or that it was the same animal, but just on steroids in terms of the pressure from outside.
BC: One of the good things I learned in Winnipeg — and there’s quite a bit of media in Winnipeg, but obviously not to the extent of Montreal — is you can’t pay attention to it. Winnipeg was great for teaching me that.
When times are good, you want to read everything and read all the good stuff that’s being said. But in the bad times, no one wants to see things written about them that aren’t that great. I think when I was young I learned you can read it, but that you can’t read into it or pay attention to it too much. You try to keep an even keel, as everyone says, and just take care of your business. A valuable lesson in Winnipeg applied to coming to Montreal was just trying to keep an even keel no matter what everyone says. Whether things are going great or not going well, you keep doing what you do and it’ll all take care of itself.
SN: What did you learn about yourself this year? What did you learn about thriving under being pushed to such a threshold? At one point you were playing close to half of every game.
BC: I definitely think I found new levels to my game — certainly offensively, but defensively too. I’ve always taken pride on the defensive side but, even this year, just being out there more and being defensively relied on to play against top lines every night, I feel like I got better at it as well.
Offensively, with the style that we play in Montreal, it promotes … they want us to join the rush, want us to be involved. So, I think, offensively, I grew as a player. In Winnipeg, I would never be thought of as getting out on the power play, and then I get to Montreal and am able to show that I can create some offence, and then I get a chance to play on the power play a little bit. And that was huge for my confidence and just knowing how far I’ve come as a player.
So the new levels that I reached as a player were pretty rewarding. The biggest thing I learned about myself is that I have more to offer than just being solid defensively.
SN: Every player hits the wall eventually. How did those elevated minutes impact that reality? How did you deal with it when it happened?
BC: I think that’s pretty common. You ask any player — to say that you’re going to feel that you’re at your best for 82 games is a stretch. Certainly, in the second half, there are times when you’re run down. And I had my bumps and my bruises and my energy-level dips at certain points of the season. There are definitely times you’re not going to feel your best, and I think I did a good job still finding a way to be effective.
Maybe you’re not as aggressive joining the rush, or your legs aren’t quite there on some nights to join or close quickly defensively.
I think that’s another thing I learned this year was that when you don’t feel at your best, you really have to focus on your positioning. Because you’re playing against dangerous players every night and if your legs aren’t there, you can get exposed pretty quickly. What I learned is to use positioning and being in the right spot on those nights, you can still be effective.
SN: How do you manage the mental side of the game? Are there any particular techniques you practise?
BC: I do a lot of visualization. Usually the night before the game I’ll start visualizing what I’m doing and kind of remember the things that are important for me being effective out there. It’s been a part of my game for a long time.
SN: Who do you talk your games through with?
BC: I wouldn’t say I talk to anyone on a game-to-game basis. I know when I’m at my best and when I’m doing the things I need to do to be successful, and that just comes with being around a while and knowing what my best looks like and what it feels like.
That’s something I learned this year, too, is that I have another level to my game and now I expect that from myself every night.
SN: So how do you return to the base when it gets away from you? Assuming that happens faster now with experience under your belt.
BC: The biggest thing I rely on — and I found that this year more than ever I focus on — is having my gap defensively. So, whether I’m gapping up in the neutral zone or gapping up in the defensive zone, when I’m right on top of the guy that I’m supposed to be on top of, I find that everything else in my game falls into place — whether it’s offensively because I can turn the puck over off of that and make plays, or defensively because I can get a stick on the puck or make a hit. So that was the biggest thing that I found helped me be the most effective this year. When my gap was tight, everything in my game flowed off of that.
SN: We spoke on a few occasions about your pride in being a Montreal Canadien as a factor in your success. Now that you’ve experienced it for a season, can you describe what it means to you?
BC: I was thinking about that. I figured you would ask that. Even for our last game of the year, we played Nashville at home, and it was Game 70 of the season, and still putting on the red Habs jersey gave me chills. Like, I still got excited to put it on, you know what I mean? I had been doing it for five, six months and I’m still throwing it on and still excited to put it on and go out and play in the Bell Centre. So I think those are the two things that excite me most about playing for the Habs is that sweater, and playing in Montreal on a Saturday night is a pretty special feeling.
Leafs TV is playing classic games right now, too, and they were showing the 1967 Toronto-Montreal Final the other day. And my wife’s sitting there and I turned to her and said, ‘Those jerseys that they’re wearing are the exact same jerseys we wear now, and they’re playing on a Saturday night, and it’s the same setup we have.’
I don’t even know how to explain it, but it’s like religion in hockey — the Toronto-Montreal rivalry on a Saturday night. Something about being a part of that is just different than anything else in hockey.