HIO exclusive: Pacioretty to Switzerland, sixth Hab to Europe

Max Pacioretty

Canadiens star forward Max Pacioretty has signed to play his locked-out hockey with Ambri-Piotta of the Swiss A League.
Len Redkoles, NHLI via Getty Images

Canadiens star forward Max Pacioretty is headed to Switzerland, having signed to play for coach Kevin Constantine’s Ambri-Piotta squad in the Swiss A League, that country’s elite circuit. The story below, appearing in Monday’s Montreal Gazette, was held until 6 am ET for online publication by agreement with Pacioretty. His new club made its announcement on their website in both Italian and German at the same time.

Pacioretty, 23, joins Habs defencemen Raphael Diaz, with EV Zug, and Yannick Weber, of Geneva-Servette, in that league. He becomes the sixth Canadien to head to Europe; also overseas are centre Tomas Plekanec and defenceman Tomas Kaberle, both with HC Kladno in the Czech Republic; and defenceman Alexei Emelin, who’s in Russia, signed with his old Kontinental Hockey League team, Ak-Bars Kazan.

Below, a few clips from my weekend phone conversation with Pacioretty, who was frantically preparing to leave for Europe while packing up his Connecticut home and closing its sale. He and his wife, Katia, soon are moving to  a home they’ve built themselves in the Montreal area.

Pacioretty on talks with coach Kevin Constantine: Clip 1 | Clip 2
On having hit the ground running for a full summer of healthy training

The Gazette

Canadiens star forward Max Pacioretty is headed to Switzerland, the sixth member of the Habs to thus far sign with a European club during the NHL lockout.

Pacioretty has agreed to terms with Ambri-Piotta in the Swiss A League, the country’s elite circuit.

With Ambri, the 23-year-old native of New Canaan, Conn., will be an opponent of two Swiss-native Habs defencemen – Raphael Diaz, playing for EV Zug, his organization from age 5 to 25 before he joined the Canadiens last season; and Yannick Weber, who is suiting up for Geneva-Servette and on Saturday scored a power-play goal in his team’s 2-1 win over the SCL Tigers.

On Friday, it was announced that Canadiens defenceman Tomas Kaberle would join Habs centreman Tomas Plekanec in the Czech Republic, skating with and for player/owner Jaromir Jagr’s HC Kladno. Kaberle played for Kladno during the 2004-05 NHL lockout, having begun his serious hockey in the organization from 1994-98.

Montreal defenceman Alexei Emelin, meanwhile, returns to the Kontinental Hockey League’s Ak-Bars Kazan, the club for which he played from 2007-11.

Pacioretty will be coached on Ambri-Piotta by Kevin Constantine, who led the San Jose Sharks, Pittsburgh Penguins and New Jersey Devils through 377 NHL games from 1993-2002.

Constantine, a former goaltender, has a Canadiens connection, having been selected by the Habs in the ninth round of the 1978 entry draft (154th overall). He never played an NHL game.

“(Constantine) called me to tell me their situation – that they haven’t made the playoffs in six or seven years and that they’re not looking for someone who wants to come over on vacation,” Pacioretty said. “I explained to him that I have intentions of helping them win and playing my heart out. I was happy to have that conversation with him.

“Maybe he was feeling me out, to see if I have what it takes to be a member of their team. I guess he liked what he heard. I told him the truth: that I want to go over there and play and work on my game and help them win.”

Pacioretty expects his wife, Katia, to join him in Switzerland shortly after he arrives. The couple were frantically closing the sale of their Connecticut house over the weekend – they’ve built themselves a home in Montreal – in the final hours before he’d fly out.

“We’ve been packing up the past few days and I’m absolutely gassed,” he said.

There were other issues to be considered, as well:

“My dad wondered whether I had to get an international driver’s license,” he said. “In Sweden, I don’t think they wear suits to games. I have no idea about Switzerland. Should I pack suits?”

(Diaz told Pacioretty he was 90-per-cent sure that a suit wouldn’t be necessary, so the latter fell on the side of the other 10 per cent and packed one anyway.)

Not that Pacioretty wears much off the rack these days, having worked ferociously during the offseason to build on the strength and conditioning that took him to a career-best year of 33 goals and 32 assists, his 65 points tops on the Canadiens.

Ben Prentiss, his longtime trainer in Connecticut, marvelled at the player’s work ethic in the gym and on the ice; this was a full summer of training and not the reconstruction of last summer, Pacioretty then recovering from a fractured vertebra and concussion he suffered in March 2011.

“We were able to build on Max’s current strength and increase his power (this summer),” Prentiss said.

Pacioretty emerged from the gym at 219 pounds and a lean-muscle 8.7 per cent body fat.

“Max is as strong as last summer but he’s faster on the ice with a stronger shot and better power because we were able to do more work and less rehab. So this summer, he’s basically more well-rounded and more complete.”

It’s all part of an evolution, Pacioretty says.

“I was able to skate a lot more given that I didn’t finish my season on an injury,” he said. “It’s the same thing every summer, talking about how good shape I’m in. But I think it’s a process. I build off the previous summer and get bigger and stronger because of that.”

Pacioretty won’t soon mistake his Swiss club’s arena for the Bell Centre. His new rink, called Valascia, is open-ended, meaning the venue is partially outdoors. At 1,000 metres above sea level, enough oxygen-thin altitude to sear the lungs, it seats 2,000 with room for 5,000 more in standing room.

“The coach told me the games are pretty wild and I’m excited to be a part of that,” Pacioretty said. “I know it’s a pretty big hockey town. It kind of reminds me of junior. I’m really looking forward to it.”

Alex Schall, Pacioretty’s agent, brokered the deal by working through another agent who largely focuses on Swiss hockey.

“They understand Max’s value to their club,” Schall said of Ambri-Piotta management. “Negotiations weren’t overly difficult … it was more that so many people are trying to go over there right now.

“It was figuring out the hefty insurance bill, how that would be paid, because obviously you have to insure the Canadiens deal Max signed (last month). And it was more sorting through the whole marketplace rather than a difficult specific negotiation.

“It was nothing like negotiation with the Canadiens, I’ll tell you that,” he added with a laugh of the six-year, $27-million extension he got his client from the Habs in mid-August, a deal that kicks in after the coming season.

Schall is aware of the delicate balance between finding a place in Europe for Pacioretty to hone his game shape during the lockout and the risk of injury.

“Of course, we gave that a lot of thought,” he said. “Max is just raring to go and he wants to be sharp when the season does start.

“The other consideration is that it’s very likely that when they do agree to a (CBA) deal, we’re going to have a very concentrated season. I envision them playing 70 games in five months, which means playing three or four games a week the entire NHL season. You want a guy to be well rested, but sitting around doesn’t mean that’s the way to do it.”

For Pacioretty, who’s never set foot in Switzerland, this will be more than a means of playing some quality hockey. It promises to be an unforgettable life experience.

Twitter: @Dave_Stubbs

Below: The home-ice jersey/billboard Max Pacioretty will wear in Switzerland, sported here by Ambri-Piotta’s Pascal Müller.
Courtesy HC Ambri-Piotta

Below: Pacioretty’s new team, which hasn’t made the Swiss A League playoffs the past six seasons, currently sits 10th in the 12-team circuit, one spot up on Raphael Diaz’s EV Zug and nine back of Yannick Weber’s undefeated, league-leading Geneva-Servette:

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