MONTREAL — Before getting traded to the Florida Panthers for Ty Smilanic, a fourth-round pick in 2022 and a first-round pick in 2023, Ben Chiarot took some time with us to talk about his three seasons with the Montreal Canadiens, the 2021 run to the Stanley Cup Final, the bright future for some of his former teammates, the impressive impact of Martin St. Louis, his impression of management, how he and his family dealt with rumours all season and, quickly, about the team he’s now joining to pursue winning his first Cup.
Eric Engels: Let’s go back to when you signed in Montreal. What were you feeling about the decision?
Ben Chiarot: It was exciting. I grew up just down the road from Scotiabank Arena, so obviously I grew up a Leafs fan. So, signing with Montreal was, at first, like, “Oh wow. Montreal! I never thought that would happen.” And then once you think about it more, you get really excited about it. An Original Six team. Beautiful city. Always loved playing in the Bell Centre. I got really excited pretty quick once I signed there.
EE: How was the experience the last three years?
BC: I still get excited driving into downtown for games on a Saturday night, still get excited putting on the red Habs jersey. It’s a unique experience that you don’t get all over the NHL. It’s something that, when I’m done my career, I’ll always be really happy that I experienced it here.
EE: It would be fair to say these were the best seasons of your career. How have you grown here?
BC: From when I got here to now, I think I’m really a way better player defensively and offensively. A big credit of that goes to (Canadiens defence coach) Luke Richardson, who really believed in me and got me to play a certain way. Probably also brought out some of the really nasty part of my game. A lot of the credit goes to him. The partners I had…I got to play with one of the best defencemen of our generation. Shea Weber helped a lot. Carey Price behind me—I mean, it was a great situation to come into. Really fortunate to have gotten to play with those guys and play for Luke. I couldn’t have asked for a better situation once I got here.
EE: What will you take from the run to last year’s Final?
BC: Just the grind that it is. You’ll be in the middle of a game and your heart’s beating out of your chest and somehow you just find a way to get beck out there the next shift and go back at it again. And you just keep doing it over and over and over. And the exhausted feeling you have after games is something you can’t forget. Then you take a day to rest, and you fire it back up again. It’s hard to explain unless you’ve kind of done it. It’s a great memory. Getting to the Finals is the pinnacle of what hockey is when you’re playing for the Stanley Cup and its down to two teams. I’ll always be grateful that I had that experience because it’s not one that everybody gets.
EE: Was it extra special to experience it in Montreal?
BC: I’ve said it many times that playing in the Bell Centre is unique versus anywhere else in the NHL. Getting the fans back was unbelievable. And it was wild in Vegas and Tampa, with both buildings packed. But it was just special in Montreal. When the playoffs are done and you’re home in the summer and you close your eyes to go to sleep, sometimes it just comes back to you—the craziness of the games and the sounds of the Bell Centre. It’s hard to explain how cool it is.
EE: Let’s talk about some of the players you’re leaving behind here. What do you think the future holds for Nick Suzuki?
BC: I think it’s completely up to him. He’s as talented as anyone in the NHL and mature beyond his 22 years. I see him being a leader here for a long time; being a top player and obviously the face of the franchise here. I see a passing of the torch from Shea and Carey to Nick. That’s how I see it going, and I can’t think of someone better suited for it considering how mature he is and how he handles himself. On the ice and off the ice, I think he’ll be great with the media and the people around the city. Montreal’s got a good one with him.
EE: Sounds like you’re saying he should be the next captain…
BC: In my mind, he’ll be the captain.
EE: What about Cole Caufield’s future?
BC: Similar to Nick, obviously a great guy. Great guy in the room. Obviously, he’s extremely talented. I see those two being a pretty dynamic duo here for a long time. I think their style of play also suits playing here in that they love to play and love to put on a show. I think people here have a lot to look forward to with those two guys steering the ship going forward.
EE: You’ve played a lot of games with Alex Romanov of late. What have you made of his evolution?
BC: Same as those other two, I see him eventually being a leader on the back end. It takes defencemen a little longer. But just in the short time he’s been in the league he’s grown so much and developed so much as a player. I loved playing with him the last month or two here and being able to share with him my experience—I think we play the game similarly; we both like to be physical—has been fun. I think he’ll continue to learn there’s times to pick your spots as far as being physical, but that’s an aspect that makes him unique and will make him a special player. He’s going to be feared here as he gets older; guys are going to not want to go down his side because they’ll know they’re going to have to pay a price. And, as his confidence grows, he’ll only get better with the puck and offensively. The sky’s the limit for Romy, and he’s another key piece like Nick and Cole. Those three guys will be core players here for a long time.
EE: What impression did Kaiden Guhle leave on you after an impressive training camp?
BC: He’s another one. Pretty short time with him, but he seemed like a very mature kid for 19 years old—off the ice, but also on the ice. He plays a professional game. When he gets in and gets to play with guys like Joel Edmundson and David Savard, I think he’ll be able to soak up what those guys do and, with time, be the same as Romy. He’ll develop into a leader on the team and a big part of the defence.
EE: What have you taken from Martin St. Louis? Where is he taking this team?
BC: It’s been so much fun, honestly, since Marty came in. Everything from practices to meetings to pregame speeches—he’s been phenomenal for us. And that goes from the youngest guy in Cole to the older guys like me and Jeff Petry. He’s been great for everyone. He’s been in everyone’s shoes, he knows what everyone’s thinking. It’s honestly some of the most fun I’ve had playing hockey in the NHL since Marty took over.
He’s a natural. He’s new to running a bench, but he’s not new to the NHL. He’s got a lifetime of experience in the NHL, so the only thing he’s really new to is calling out the lines and running practice. But he’s not having any issues with that. As time goes on, he’ll feel more comfortable in that. Honestly, there hasn’t been one time I’ve thought in my head that, “Oh, he’s new to this…” With everything he’s done, it seems like he’s been coaching for the NHL for 10 years. He’s been great. I’ve got nothing but good things to say about Marty. Hope he stays because he’ll make this even more of an attractive place to play.
He’s just got this mentality. If you think about it, he was the smallest guy in the NHL and won the MVP. He’s just got this grit to him that he can pass off into everyone else. You can feel the determination off of him and it kinda feeds through the team.
EE: What stands out to me is his ability to inspire confidence…
BC: A part of that is, and I find this, getting your confidence is an everyday thing. It’s practice and being good at practice. You do all the right things to be prepared. And when we have practices like we do, everyone has a chance to make plays, everyone has a chance to score goals, everyone has a chance to feel good about what they’re doing on the ice. And in the games he just lets guys play hockey, so everyone just feels better all the time.
EE: His practices look different. What makes them different, and what’s good about it?
BC: His practices are about making you think and making you play hockey and making plays. It’s all game situations for every single drill we do. It gets your hands, it gets your head, it makes you move your feet; you’re playing hockey the whole practice. It’s not working on the neutral zone here and working on offensive zone; you’re playing hockey the whole practice and it makes it so much fun. Guys love it. It gets the competitive juices flowing every day, so the days where you’re kind of dragging or you’re tired or don’t have your legs, it gets you going because it’s competitive and you’re constantly in a game. It’s been fun. I honestly looked forward going out to practices every day.
EE: What impression have Jeff Gorton and Kent Hughes left on you in a short time?
BC: Probably just how open they are. With my situation, they’ve been completely transparent with what’s going on and, as an older guy, I’ve really appreciated that. I think they have a good idea of where they want to take this team, and they seem like two pretty organized individuals. Nothing but great things to say. They’ve been great with me.
EE: If they come calling in the summer, will you pick up the phone?
BC: Absolutely! I’ve loved my time in Montreal. Nothing but good things to say about the team and the city. It’s been everything I thought it would be. With all the highs and lows that come with being in a market like this, it fits my personality and I love it. I’d come back here in a heartbeat.
EE: How has this year been for your wife and your family?
BC: My name has been out there since the beginning, so that certainly creates uncertainty in my family’s future, which is something I haven’t really experienced before. I’ve always had a stable situation. My name had really never been out there until this year. It creates a little stress for your family, but it’s part of the business. And we’re far enough prolonged into my career that we’ve come to understand it. She’s been great from a family standpoint, getting us to worry about what we can control and not looking too far into the future and just trying to stay grounded. When I’m home, it’s home time and we’ve just shut the hockey thing off until it was time to discuss it.
EE: How have you dealt with it? You’ve said all the right things, but you’re a human being and it has to be on your mind.
BC: It really wasn’t for a long time. It didn’t really bug me at all. There’s was nothing I could really do about it, so I was just going to go out play and do my job. As we were losing and things were looking dark a while ago, I kind of just wanted to get on with it. It was, “If they’re going to move me, then move me.”
But as it looked like it was going to go closer to the deadline, you just try to focus on playing well and being part of a team and whatever takes place takes place. I guess it’s been a little bit of a rollercoaster of emotion, but for the most part, it hasn’t bugged me outside of a little two-week stretch.
EE: Thoughts on the Florida Panthers?
BC: They’ve been a powerhouse team all year long. Seems like they score at will. They’ve been at the top of the standing since pretty much Day 1, and they’re a team no one’s really looking forward to playing in the playoffs.
EE: Good luck, Ben. It’s been a pleasure.
BC: Thanks, Eric.