This year, most of the Montreal Canadiens' fairytale storylines have been of The Brothers Grimm variety. Disney may have tried to sanitize the sadisitic old Germans for the consumption of vulnerable North American kids, but those guys had no problem killing princesses or destroying dreams, much like this edition of our beloved Habs.
There is, in the midst of all the darkness and dungeons, however, a tale Walt Disney's descendents would love to make into a modern-day hero story. It would go like this: A young up-and-coming hockey player with lots of potential, who'd never really found a way to unlock it, gets sent to the minors to find himself. It's a tough time for him because he was a first-round draft pick with expectations. While toiling in the land of epic bus trips, he's paired up with a plucky but undersized linemate. The underachieving big guy and his overachieving, pint-sized buddy find instant chemistry and they shoot to the top of league scoring together. Then they get called up to the big team within a week of each other. Our hero finds a new level of confidence and begins to finally show signs of living up to the talent everyone knows he has. Enter the villain.
One night, the emerging star is cutting down the wing on a fast break, fire in his eyes as he races for the puck. He doesn't realize the behemoth defender skating for his team's hated rival has him in his sights. There's a history there. In the previous game, the two had tangled briefly and the big guy remembers that. He cuts across to intercept our hero and levels him, driving his head into a rink stanchion. The young man drops to the ice as though shot, and lies unmoving as onlookers cover their mouths in fear and horror. Everyone watching knows this is bad, potentially really bad. Their fears aren't allayed as the team doctors race down to ice level and the stretcher rolls out. It turns out he's not only got a head injury, but the hit has broken his neck.
Flash forward to one year from the day of his injury. The young man has worked his way back from injury and is once more paired with his old buddy from the minors, who's having a breakout year in the big league. The team isn't doing so well, but the two of them are the bright spots in a lousy season. On the first anniversary of the hit that nearly ruined his life, with dramatic music rising to a crescendo, our hero scores his 30th goal of the year, finally fulfilling all his early potential and delighting the legions who have tracked his journey.
It's a great story, all the more so because it's true. Like all fairy tales (notwithstanding the Grimm ones), however, it's a purely romantic tale. It doesn't look beneath the surface to the nights in the hospital when a young hockey player wondered if he'd ever be the same. It doesn't spend long, sweaty hours in a gym with him as he rebuilds a broken body. It doesn't delve inside his head to witness the doubts about his ability or the fear of playing again that surely must have resided there. It's not present on the dark nights when a return to the game seemed very far away. True stories can translate to the world of fairy tales, but the reality is often more Grimm than Disney.
That's why Max Pacioretty should win the Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy this year. The award is meant to pay tribute to the man who best exemplifies perseverence, sportsmanship and dedication to hockey. Few players in the NHL this year have persevered through more obstacles than Pacioretty, not only in the recovery from his own injury and the mental roadblocks it set for him, but also in dealing with the public fallout of the injury. The Chara hit on him became emblematic of a head-shot epidemic in the NHL and enraged a sports community and a nation. When, after all, has anyone heard of major sponsors threatening to pull their support if the league doesn't clean up its act? It happened to the NHL after the Pacioretty injury. Changes have begun to creep into the game, partially spurred on by the horror of the hit and the furor over the league's subsequent lack of action against Chara.
In regards to sportsmanship, Pacioretty has always been a physical, but clean, player. Then, this year, he hit the Penguins' Kris Letang in the head and got suspended. In an ironic twist, he committed the same crime that had rallied people in his support a year before. Pacioretty, however, immediately expressed remorse and concern for Letang's well-being. It may be a sign of how deeply affected he was by the hit that his own play suffered afterwords, by his own admission because he was unsure about what he could and could not safely do on the ice. If the Letang play came naturally to him, he would not have been bothered by it later, and that would make him less than the sportsman he's been for the majority of his career.
As for dedication to hockey, well, the very fact that Pacioretty was so driven to return to the game that could very easily have cost his life is testament to how he feels about the sport. That he's come back to the NHL to play every shift with effort and determination is the very embodiment of dedication. To do it in the lowering environment that is Montreal this year is impressive. To do it while working off the ice to improve medical treatment for people with his kind of injury is inspiring.
Sometimes, even Grimm fairy tales have happy endings. Let this be one of those for Max Pacioretty. The Montreal Canadiens might not deserve many honours this year, but this young man really does.