Mr. Big Shot

Francois Lacasse/NHLI/Getty

Despite being a badly needed sniper for the offence-starved Habs, Max Pacioretty isn’t a huge star in Montreal. And that’s fine with him.

Max Pacioretty is usually focused on getting home quickly after games, but following a big win over the Colorado Avalanche, a few other Habs emerge from the dressing room first. Carey Price dutifully plays the leading-man role of golden goalie, still in sweats as he poses for pictures with a few lucky admirers and that special medal. Andrei Markov materializes in a suit they had better not sell to North Americans, because you have to be Euro-cool to make tight look so right. Still no Pacioretty. But there’s his new linemate, Thomas Vanek, who just scored the first three goals of his Canadiens career to trigger a crash course on hero worship in Montreal. Based on the ferocious applause he experienced while taking a twirl around the ice after being named the game’s first star, Vanek looks a little curious—and possibly a touch concerned—about what might await him outside. At the other end of the hesitancy scale, P.K. Subban shoots through the hallway that flanks the Canadiens dressing room with purpose. Then he makes the kind of sudden stop that, if performed on skates, would spray ice to the tip of the glass. His self-admonishing head bow makes Subban look like an 11-year-old kid who walked all the way to school before remembering he left the best lunch his mom ever packed sitting on the kitchen counter. He whirls back into the darkness, returning a few moments later, a scarf retrieved, an outfit complete.

Finally Montreal’s top sniper swoops around the corner. Based on stature alone, the six-foot-two Pacioretty stands out from many of his smaller teammates, including the one he’s walking alongside, best buddy and linemate David Desharnais. Couple his size with an all-world ability to bury pucks on an offence-starved team and you’d think Pacioretty would be the object of endless fawning by the Montreal faithful. But while others absorb the lion’s share of the spotlight, Pacioretty has, to a degree, toiled in whatever passes for a shadow in this hockey-mad metropolis. How much he’s feted doesn’t seem of great concern to the young family man, who has fought through every typical obstacle—as well as a frighteningly exceptional one—to become an increasingly rounded player.

A few hours earlier, the Habs’ unofficial popularity hierarchy is confirmed before puck drop by jovial house announcer Michel Lacroix and the 21,273 ravenous fans who show up to watch Montreal host the Avalanche in late March. Lacroix may simply be calling the six names in the Canadiens’ starting lineup, but this is theatre, and he’s there to help drive the drama. As such, Lacroix identifies the supporting characters first, then more slowly draws out the names of the lead players: “At left wing, Mmmmax Paaaacioretty!” That cues the fans to kick it up, and they respond with the loudest ovation heard so far. But there are still two names to come, and when Lacroix introduces Subban, supporters are in full throat. When Price’s name is called, you wonder if the ice might crack.

That greater adulation would land on Subban and Price is no surprise. Price tends the Canadiens’ goal—possibly the most scrutinized way to earn a paycheque in this country. And from his stellar performance on the world juniors stage in 2007 to his gold-medal showing at the Olympics in February, Price is a nationally known entity. Subban is, too, thanks to his own stints with Canadian national teams and a flamboyance that makes him one of the most polarizing figures on skates. That would seem to leave a quieter sliver of space for Pacioretty to go about his business.

“Probably enough where he doesn’t have to worry about what’s going on outside the rink,” says veteran Habs blueliner Josh Gorges. “He can focus on hockey when he’s at the rink and family when he’s away.”

That appears to be the perfect formula for Pacioretty, and any number of markers indicate the Connecticut native is becoming a true impact NHLer—including one on his jersey. Gorges wasn’t in the lineup when Montreal topped Colorado, forced out by a broken hand. In his absence, the coaching staff stuck Gorges’s assistant captain’s “A” on Pacioretty’s chest. That’s an especially noteworthy endorsement given the whispers that Pacioretty and Michel Therrien, in his second season behind the Habs bench, didn’t initially share the warmest relationship.“I just think it took me a little while to earn his respect and his trust,” Pacioretty says. “When it comes like that, rather than just being given to you, you value it more and you want to do more to prove he made the right decision.”

In this case, “A” can certainly stand for acknowledgement—of a goal-scorer who’s learned to kill penalties this year and who didn’t kick up any outward fuss when Vanek’s arrival changed the dynamic of a line that was already the one trio in Montreal capable of consistent production. When Brendan Gallagher played right wing with Pacioretty on the left and Desharnais in the middle, the ideal plan went something like this: Gallagher sniffed the puck out of the corner like a crazed beagle, kicked it to Desharnais, who found Pacioretty’s cocked stick. Now, things orbit more around Vanek because he’s a net-front guy who lives to shoot. That means Pacioretty—who had just 18 assists compared to 30 goals through 62 games—is expected to dish more instead of always firing darts. Even though the best goal-scorers need to be a bit selfish, Pacioretty seems to genuinely relish the opportunity to diversify. “If you look at the top players around the league, they’re able to do both,” he says. “That’s my goal, and maybe playing with a guy like Vanek can help me work on my playmaking.”

That was certainly the case in the win over Colorado, as he drew a pair of helpers on Vanek goals. Two nights later, Pacioretty sent a sizzling pass across the offensive zone that his new linemate converted for a third-period, game-tying goal in a contest the Canadiens ultimately lost to the Columbus Blue Jackets.

But as malleable as Pacioretty may be, it’s his innate ability to hit the back of the net that got him locked up through the 2018–19 season. After being drafted 22nd overall in 2007, Pacioretty established himself in 2011–12 with 29 even-strength tallies, more than anyone in the league save Steven Stamkos, Evgeni Malkin and Marian Gaborik. This year, Pacioretty’s 0.48 goals per game (he missed nine contests with wrist and hamstring ailments early in the season) put him on par with Phil Kessel and James Neal, and his eight game-winning goals are exceeded only by Alex Ovechkin and Corey Perry. Pacioretty benefits from an unlikely combination of size and speed, and if you replaced the six in his No. 67 sweater with a two, those of a certain vintage might swear they were looking at Frank Mahovlich cutting in from the wing like the most elegant freight train you’ve ever seen.

Still, those attributes don’t make a goal-scorer on their own. The label speaks as much to mentality as ability, the way calling someone a rock star implies more than an ability to stand in front of a band and sing. Pacioretty has had to learn that even if you can’t score every night, you better look and act as if you can. “Early in his career, once in a while he would shy away from it or just say, ‘Well, not tonight,’” says Guy Carbonneau, Pacioretty’s first NHL coach. “Right now, you see more often he’s fighting through.”

Pacioretty confirms he has a different approach for when the groove isn’t easily found. “I try to tell myself on nights like that, all it takes is one shot,” he says. “One bounce, one shot, one opportunity for me to score and to not just salvage the game, but change the game. I like being that player.”

Of course, learning to push through tight checking pales in comparison to the fortitude required to return from a broken neck. It was just over three years ago at the Bell Centre that Pacioretty was squeezed off along the boards by behemoth Boston Bruins defenceman Zdeno Chara and went full speed, headfirst into the stanchion that protruded at the end of the B’s bench. Pacioretty was carried off the ice on a stretcher with a neck brace—his movement basically limited to blinking. In the following days, it was revealed that he had fractured the fourth cervical vertebra, though it was not displaced. That meant that after a summer of rehab in 2011, Pacioretty was ready to go on the first day of training camp. “Obviously, it was close to being really bad—and it was pretty bad—but as soon as I realized my (most severe) symptoms weren’t there, I just treated it like any other injury,” he says. “I didn’t want anyone’s sympathy; I just treated it like I had a broken hand.”

The difference, of course, is that when you’ve experienced a devastating neck injury, healing isn’t limited to the body. It takes a huge mental leap to throw yourself back in the line of danger, something Pacioretty was bent on doing so that his teammates would know he had made it all the way back. Opponents noticed, too. “The biggest thing is that he hasn’t been gun-shy,” says Avalanche centre Paul Stastny, who has skated beside Pacioretty on Team USA. “He’s played the exact same way.” Pacioretty scored a career-high 33 goals in 2011–12, his first season after the injury, making him an obvious choice for the Masterton Trophy, which recognizes perseverance and dedication to hockey.

There’s a lot more to dedicate himself to now. Two days before last Christmas, Pacioretty and his wife, Katia, welcomed their first son, Lorenzo—a name that initially wasn’t popular with Katia. “She loves it now,” Pacioretty says.

Katia is the sister of former Buffalo Sabres speedster Maxim Afinogenov, though she and Pacioretty didn’t meet through hockey circles. Before Afinogenov came to North America to suit up for the Sabres, Katia did what many aspiring Russian tennis players do and moved to Florida, where she ultimately crossed paths with Pacioretty. Now, the couple’s parents live about a mile apart in Boca Raton, Fla., while Pacioretty and Katia have settled just a short distance from the Canadiens’ practice facility in suburban Brossard. A happy, busy home life has been a huge calming factor for a guy who endured the predictable stress of being a young scorer in a city that can be irrationally tough on every player. “It was hard early on being around the noise and worrying about my position,” Pacioretty says.

That’s not much of a concern now. Montreal being Montreal, trade rumours will inevitably spill out, but Pacioretty has learned to block out the constant buzz. And whatever cut of the adoration he gets seems completely fine for a player and person who has found equilibrium. “I just feel my situation here couldn’t be any better,” he says. “Now all we have to do is win.”

Lead the Canadiens over that hump, and Pacioretty might just spend the rest of his career waiting a little longer to hear his name called at the start of each game.

This story originally appeared in Sportsnet magazine. Subscribe here.

When submitting content, please abide by our submission guidelines, and avoid posting profanity, personal attacks or harassment. Should you violate our submissions guidelines, we reserve the right to remove your comments and block your account. Sportsnet reserves the right to close a story’s comment section at any time.