The great Irish rugby captain Brian O'Driscoll once said "When you are captain, you are never speaking for yourself." That voice of experience is speaking directly to the Canadiens' Max Pacioretty this week.
Pacioretty got a sense of what it really means to be the captain of the Canadiens last year, when the team lost the immortal Jean Beliveau. The outpouring of love for the Beliveau family and the thousands who made time to pay their last respects seemed to resonate with the young American. He talked about understanding better what it means to be a role model in Montreal and trying to live up to the legacy of the men like Beliveau who wore the sweater before him.
Of course, lots of players say they get it, but in Pacioretty's case, it really seemed to be true. He walked a little taller, spoke a little more thoughtfully and made sure he was a bit more sharply dressed. In emulating Beliveau, he appeared to take on a bit of the dignity and graciousness with which the great captain carried himself. That's why it was really not much of a surprise when his teammates decided Pacioretty is the man they want to lead them in the room and on the ice.
Now the joy of putting on the "C" for the first time...which he said he couldn't look at too much for fear of becoming too emotional...is evaporating and the real work of being the captain begins. In Montreal, driven by a natural love of their team which is pumped up like a wrestler on steroids by the Habs' own marketing machine, fans want a piece of the Canadiens. And, often, as is the case this week, when that piece is a pound of flesh, they want to hear from the captain.
When newly-acquired Zach Kassian was involved in an early-morning truck crash that broke his foot and nose, and was then sent to Stage Two of the NHL's substance abuse program, every microphone in town hovered next to Pacioretty's locker, waiting to see how the new captain would handle his first Habs controversy. Reporters tried to bait him by referring to GM Marc Bergevin's comments about Kassian's lack of judgement. Pacioretty didn't shrink from it, or let Kassian off the hook. He shouldered his role as leader and said the team is glad the man isn't too badly hurt, and his fellow players are there for him. He also said Kassian made a big mistake and is extremely lucky. When asked whether the episode could be a cautionary tale for young players, Pacioretty (ironically, with Kassian's name plate visible on the next locker) said flatly, "No. There is nothing positive in this. We're all blessed to be here in the NHL, and there's nothing positive about this." He then shut the door on that line of questioning and turned the conversation to the upcoming season opener, explaining that was the team's most urgent priority.
That sounds an awfully lot like a captain to me. A buddy of mine says the most important quality a captain can have, aside from basic skill and experience, is the ability to give "The Look." That's how he describes the kind of fierce gravity the best players can summon when calling out an errant or underperforming teammate. The trick is, you not only have to have the ability to give it, you have to know when to do it as well. On Monday morning, in the midst of all those reporters, Pacioretty had "The Look."
When you think about five years ago, when the questions Pacioretty was answering were all about whether he could cut it in the NHL at all, it's testament to the work and determination he's put into developing into the person and player he is now. It hasn't been easy. From those early doubts about whether he could ever be a big-league scorer, to the series of unfortunate and bizarre injuries that have happened to him, he's had to overcome a lot in his young career.
Those trials have shaped him into the guy who not only gives honest commentary on the unfortunate case of Kassian, but also on his own performance and that of his team as a whole. They've also made him the type of man who stepped on the ice against the leafs and scored the two goals his team needed to secure victory. Not even Beliveau did that in his first game as captain.
There was a lot of talk about which of the several possible Canadiens candidates should wear the "C" this summer. Bergevin did the right thing by leaving it up to the players themselves to decide. So far, it looks like they made the right decision. Pacioretty is ready for the job, even when it means, as O'Driscoll said, he's never speaking for himself. He's speaking for the Montreal Canadiens, and the hockey world is listening.