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New Canaan's Pacioretty completes long journey to Olympics

Updated 9:30 pm, Wednesday, February 5, 2014

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  • MONTREAL, CANADA - JANUARY 19: Max Pacioretty #67 raises the torch before the NHL opening game between the Montreal Canadiens and the Toronto Maple Leafs on January 19, 2013 at the Bell Centre in Montreal, Quebec, Canada. (Photo by Francois Lacasse/NHLI via Getty Images) Photo: Francois Lacasse, NHLI Via Getty Images / 2013 NHLI
    MONTREAL, CANADA - JANUARY 19: Max Pacioretty #67 raises the torch before the NHL opening game between the Montreal Canadiens and the Toronto Maple Leafs on January 19, 2013 at the Bell Centre in Montreal, Quebec, Canada. (Photo by Francois Lacasse/NHLI via Getty Images) Photo: Francois Lacasse, NHLI Via Getty Images

 

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THE Max Pacioretty file
Experience: 6th season (Age 25)
Height/Weight: 6-foot-2, 217 pounds
Birthplace: New Canaan
Career Stats
Points: 186
Goals: 91
Assists: 95
Highlights: Picked 22nd overall in the first round of 2007 NHL entry draft … Signed 6-year deal at $4.5 million a year in 2012 … USHL All-Rookie Team (2007), USHL Rookie of the Year (2007), CCHA All-Rookie Team (2008), CCHA Rookie of the Year (2008), Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy (2012) … Played at New Canaan before moving onto Taft for two years… USHL Sioux City Musketeers (2006-07), University of Michigan (2007-08), U.S. World juniors (2007-08) … First NHL game, Jan. 2, 2009 vs New Jersey. Scored a goal.
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At the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, the United States and Canada staged an epic gold medal game with the Canadians winning on an overtime goal by Sidney Crosby.

Max Pacioretty was across the Great White North, 2,700 miles away in Hamilton, Ontario, but a million miles away from the game, watching on TV from his rented apartment.

Pacioretty cheered on the U.S. team and was content watching players he knew and had played with come so close to international hockey's greatest prize.

Being sent down to the minors, to play for the Hamilton Bulldogs, for the third time in three seasons since he was drafted, Pacioretty was filled with doubt about his hockey career and certainly was not imagining himself on that stage with the best players in the world.

Pacioretty just wanted to find a way to stick with the Montreal Canadiens.

"I had just been demoted to the minors and I was watching the game from my apartment in Hamilton," said Pacioretty, a New Canaan native. "I had so much pride watching that gold medal game. I never thought it would be a reality that I could be playing in the Olympics."

Four years later, it has become a reality as Pacioretty was named to the 2014 U.S. Men's Hockey team which will compete at the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia next week.

Pacioretty tried out for the team over the summer, but was also being evaluated during the current NHL season before being selected in January.

Every time he didn't play well, he was left wondering if he had blown his shot to represent the United States.

"I was worrying about it too much," Pacioretty said. "I tried to block it out but it would creep in after a bad game. It was such a relief to finally hear and go back to focusing on the Montreal Canadiens."

Darien

On the long journey from Hamilton to Sochi the first stop was at a small gym in Darien.

Pacioretty knew he needed to elevate his game if he was going to find a permanent home on the Canadiens roster and he knew a trainer with a unique way to condition hockey players may be just the guy to help him do that.

Ben Prentiss was that trainer.

Prentiss has run Prentiss Hockey Performance in Darien for 14 years and thought he could help Pacioretty take that leap.

PHP is a training system that emphasizes structural balance, speed and strength, power, agility and nutrition.

"I try to explain to people it is not as easy as getting these guys strong and fit," Prentiss said. "These guys are essentially in a car accident 82 times a year, so, first we have to deal with injuries and then we can gradually start building strength."

Pacioretty went from 200 to 218 pounds that summer, increasing his strength, speed and agility along the way.

Pacioretty did not go back to Hamilton, soon after signing a long-term deal with Montreal while becoming one of its top players.

Pacioretty leads the Canadiens this season with 23 goals.

It would be interesting enough if Pacioretty were the only player from PHP to make the Olympics, but he is not alone.

Among other pros, fellow National team members James van Riemsdyk of the Toronto Maple Leafs and Jonathan Quick of the L.A. Kings also train at PHP.

"It's crazy to think about Darien being the center of hockey it has become," Pacioretty said. "We are all on different paths and the workouts are specific for your game and different for each player."

Working out a room full of NHL players gets the competitive juices flowing.

"It can get pretty competitive. It's almost like a contest," Pacioretty said. "I can't rave about it enough. Once guys work out there confidence is the biggest thing they gain. You know you are conditioned well and that carries over onto the ice."

It was Pacioretty's work at PHP which also allowed him to return from nearly being paralyzed on a hit by Boston's Zdeno Chara in 2011.

Prentiss said Pacioretty first showed up still wearing a neck brace and could not do more than a few minutes before having to stop, but 17 grueling weeks of training later, Pacioretty was back on the ice.

"He would come in every day and see what he could do," Prentiss said. "I was super intense. Not always a lot but since we had to build him back up so much, everything was very intense. The guy was millimeters away from being paralyzed."

After his return, Pacioretty won the 2012 Bill Masterton trophy, awarded to the NHL player that best exemplifies qualities of perseverance, team spirit and dedication to the sport of hockey.

Family ties

Pacioretty and his wife had their first child in December, adding to the storybook year.

The trip to Russia has added significance for Pacioretty as his wife, former professional tennis player Katia Afinogenova, is Russian.

Katia's brother, Maxim Afinogenov, played for the Russian National team in the 2006 and 2010 Olympics, but is not on the team this go around, allowing Pacioretty's in-laws to cheer for him

"The whole family is going over," Pacioretty said. "(Katia's) dad said since his son his not playing he could pull for us this time. This has been a crazy year with my new family and the Olympics. I am trying to have the same mindset for my family that I do for hockey. To get better every year."

Scott.Ericson@scni.com; @EricsonSports

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