Q&A: Canadiens’ Paul Byron on COVID-19 realities, injury-plagued season

With the NHL season on pause right now, here's quick at all the best moments from the Montreal Canadiens, so far in 2019-20.

MONTREAL — Paul Byron has spent the last three weeks bunkered in with his family — playing ball hockey with his two kids, Brysen and Ellie, in the driveway of their south shore home, enjoying family movie nights and postponing bedtimes. Like you and me, he’s been as concerned as anyone about the COVID-19 pandemic that’s swept through the world and upended lives in every imaginable way.

And then there’s this: Byron’s 66-year-old father, Randy, has chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. And his 63-year-old mother, Gail, just returned to work as a Loblaws analyst who checks all the stock in the aisles and does all the ordering for an Ottawa-based location.

From a couple hundred kilometres away, the 30-year-old alternate captain of the Montreal Canadiens is keeping close tabs on his parents.

"My dad is at home now. (Given his condition) he’s probably a little bit stressed about what’s going on, but he’s doing his best to stay home in isolation," Byron said. "My mom was off the last three weeks, so she’s just back now.

"I can’t imagine what it’s like working in a grocery store right now and how much extra work they’re all doing, how much extra food they have to order, how many more online deliveries they have. It’s amazing how much work those people have put in for everyone to have a normal life and have food. They’re not allowed to take time off. They’re putting their lives at risk for everybody, so we should all be thankful for that."

Amen!

We’re also thankful Byron took 30 minutes out of his Wednesday schedule to chat with us on the phone about his injury-plagued season, to share insight about Canadiens general manager Marc Bergevin and head coach Claude Julien, and to give us a full evaluation of the team and its direction.

What follows is the first part of our conversation, which focuses specifically on his personal season. Part 2 will run on sportsnet.ca this coming Monday.

Sportsnet: Starting at the beginning of the season, what happened in training camp? What was the injury you were dealing with?

Paul Byron: I took an elbow to the neck, to the head. I passed all the concussion testing, so it wasn’t a concussion. But at that point it was one of those things where the team felt it was best to keep me out from the games and make sure I’m 100 per cent healthy before re-entering the action again. And, of course, I was in agreement.

Like I said when it happened, it was the beginning of the year and I was fine. I felt fine. I had no problems that night, I had no problems the next day, and I had no problems the next week. They did everything they should have done, and did it right. We were all in agreement with what to do and how to proceed.

I don’t think it was anything more than being an older guy and everyone knowing what I bring to the team. It wasn’t like I had to go out there and learn when to turn the switch on. Everyone knows how I play; the switch is always on. I don’t really need those ramp-up games as much as other guys do (for systems and structure and proving yourself).

SN: Do you and the other players have a greater appreciation for the type of precautions the medical staff now takes in concussion situations given how much we’ve learned about those injuries? Do you appreciate that they took extra measures with you given you had suffered a concussion late in the 2018-19 season?

PB: Of course. I love our medical team. I love our trainers, our doctors. I think they do an amazing job for us. They’re always looking out for our best interest.

The game has changed so much since I’ve entered the NHL. I know a lot of people talk about change and how the NHL has not (changed), but I don’t know how you could go back and watch a game from 2007-2008 and watch a game now and not see how much it’s changed since then. The players that are in the NHL today, the game itself — it’s almost like a different game than it was back then. And the training staffs and medical people are a big part of that. They’re identifying injuries right away or earlier and there’s a lot more players going to the room and getting tested. But, before, nothing like that was even being looked at. So I think we’re all really appreciative of those guys, because they’re going to keep us living longer, they’re going to keep us healthier and we’re going to be better players because of it.

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SN: Can you explain what it’s like to have your rhythm disrupted at that crucial time before the regular season starts? It seemed clear it affected your game in the early parts of the season.

PB: Honestly, it’s terrible. Every player, I think, goes into training camp thinking they don’t need training camp, they don’t really want to push too hard because they don’t want to get hurt, and we’ve all been training and skating so much all summer that we don’t necessarily need it.

But you do need it. Honestly. It sounds weird, but there’s a lot of rust in your game, and there’s a lot of habits you develop over the summer that you need to work through — timing, little things like giving passes, receiving passes, where to put pucks, how to chip pucks out. Those are little things that you have to work on before you start playing games at full speed. Understanding a pre-season game isn’t like a regular season game, it still gives you time to make the adjustments and play with little things within your game and figure out the rhythm.

To lose that and all of a sudden be playing in the regular season trying to work through those things, while the game is full speed and guys are hitting at full tilt and everyone’s feeling fresh and good and everyone’s got a full amount of energy… it’s not like the end of the season when everyone’s kind of worn down and some players are playing through injury. Everybody’s fresh at the beginning of the year and that makes it hard to just tweak it up when you’ve been on the sidelines.

Over an 82-game season, you’ve got to make sure you pace yourself. You have to make sure you can play the same way over the full 82 games. Missing training camp was hard, but I think it just took a few more games than normal to get going. And I started to feel like I was going before I hurt my knee (on Nov. 15)."

Jeff Marek and Elliotte Friedman talk to a lot of people around the hockey world, and then they tell listeners all about what they’ve heard and what they think about it.

SN: Obviously that first month was a challenge. Can you take us inside the mental grind of a slump?

PB: The longer it goes, the more it starts creeping into your mind. Obviously, playing in Montreal there’s a lot more questions being asked, a lot more opinions, and a lot more voices to deal with. The older you are, the more confident you are you’ll be able to block out those voices and block out those opinions.

But then when you come home and your dad’s calling you and asking you if something’s wrong or your father-in-law is asking you if something’s wrong or your wife’s asking you, it’s sometimes hard to push out those thoughts. You’re thinking, ‘Are they right? Am I the one who’s wrong?’

But it’s something you’ve got to work through as a player. You work so hard to be where you are your whole life. You’ve fought through so many obstacles, so many different levels of hockey. You’ve gone through ups and downs and this is just another challenge. You’ve got to believe in yourself and you’ve got to believe you’re going to turn the corner and that you’re a better hockey player. It’s just what you have to do. And players who are mentally strong, players who can play through that, are the ones who get through it and thrive.

There was certainly a point where I was starting to doubt myself for sure, but the same people who were asking me if I was OK are the ones who helped me through. They’re the ones who believe in me, the ones who expect me to be a better player and know I can be a better player, and it’s just sometimes a matter of figuring out: what did I do before and what am I not doing now and how do I get back to doing those things? Sitting out with the injury allowed me to sift through my game and really watch what I did before and how to get back to it, and that helped me a lot.

canadiens-paul-byron-scores-against-islanders
Montreal Canadiens left wing Paul Byron (41) watches his power-play goal go into the net behind New York Islanders goaltender Semyon Varlamov (40) during the second period, Tuesday, March 3, 2020, in New York. (Kathy Willens/AP)

SN: Is it fair to assume it takes a long time and then boom — it could be as little as doing something right on one shift to get you back?

PB: Absolutely. It could be a goal. It could be an assist. It could be a scoring chance, a rush, something you weren’t doing for a period of time and then just something you do breaks you out of it. Players who have done it before have felt it and experienced it, but it could be one shift or one thing you do. You just know, ‘I’m back.’ You just know it.

SN: When you went down with a knee injury, we were told it would be approximately four weeks before you returned. What slowed that process and turned it into three months?

PB: Swelling in my knee. That’s what slowed everything down. I remember talking in Detroit (upon returning on Feb. 18) to everyone, and they asked me what happened, and I remember saying in a recovery like this with the meniscus there normally is a bit of swelling and I was going to be bothered skating and it was all normal stuff.

So, when the swelling came (in December), I thought it was all normal and I was pushing it and skating every day to try to return as fast as possible and get back to the games. But one day it was a lot more sore than normal, and a couple of days later it kind of hit that I didn’t think the feeling was normal and I should talk to the doctor. I did and told them the pain I was experiencing wasn’t normal. We did an MRI and saw the swelling was going into the bone and the knee and from that point on it was total shutdown for a while. There wasn’t really anything I could do until the swelling started to go away.

SN: Did you ever talk to Carey (Price) about it, considering what he went through in the 2015-16 season, when he hurt his knee and his recovery just kept getting delayed and delayed?

PB: I talked to Carey. We’re neighbours and we talk on the way to the rink. I talked to him, I talked to players with similar injuries, and every injury is different. Especially for athletes. That’s one thing we’ve all learned is we’re all different. We all use our bodies differently — the mechanics — and it’s pretty complicated stuff. Not every injury is black and white.

SN: How huge was it for your confidence to play the way you did when you finally came back? (Byron had three goals and three assists in his 10 games back from injury before the season was paused.)

PB: It was big. Big for the confidence. It just kind of reassured everything I believed in all year. I knew I was a better hockey player than what I showed.

And, honestly, it didn’t bother me when I was struggling because the team was winning hockey games (at the start). I think we were third or fourth in the league in scoring goals. At the time I remember focusing on just, ‘Do your job, be a good defensive hockey player, do things you can to help the team win. You’re not scoring, but who cares?’ I think the team was battling for second against either Buffalo or Toronto at the time and we had just beat Boston and Washington. ‘Just do your job, don’t worry about scoring,’ — that’s what I kept telling myself. And when the team was in a funk I was fighting to come back and help the team, and I felt pretty good to do that because it was really tough watching. I just kept hoping when I could get back we’d be in a playoff spot. We were so close and everyone was working so hard, so I just want to come back and try to help the guys.

So, when I came back and started playing better, it felt good. Because I want to be someone who helps the team win. I don’t want to be the guy who’s kind of dragging everybody else down. It’s not a good feeling.

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