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Inside the NHL: Pacioretty humbled by Habs’ captaincy

Walk in the Montreal Canadiens’ dressing room, whether at the Bell Centre or their spacious practice facility in suburban Broussard, Quebec, and your eyes are drawn above the lockers. Pictures of the greats of seasons past are everywhere, as is a line from “In Flanders Fields,” a John McCrae poem. It reads simply, “To you from failing hands we throw the torch, be yours to hold it high.”

The Habs do pomp and circumstance better than just about any franchise in sports. A lit torch is a major symbol in any ceremony they’ve held in the old Forum and now at Bell Centre. The captain gets it handed to him when he gets selected. It’s his to carry through the seasons and the ages.

Past Canadiens captains are a who’s-who of NHL greats. George Hainsworth, Toe Blake, Rocket Richard, Doug Harvey, Jean Beliveau, Henri Richard, Serge Savard, Bob Gainey, Saku Koivu, just to name a few. The captaincy in hockey is unique in sports. But wearing the “C” in Montreal is as revered as any role in the game. And now it’s Max Pacioretty’s turn.

The Habs went without a captain last year after Brian Gionta departed for the Sabres. Coach Michel Therrien said it was a transition year to see how new leaders would be made. Players voted in September to bestow the honor on Pacioretty, a 26-year-old former University of Michigan standout.

Beliveau’s widow, Elise, publicly endorsed Pacioretty to become captain last year and said he had leadership qualities of her late husband, who died in December at 83.

“When he met me in the morning of the funeral, I told him ‘I hope you’ll be captain, it’s you who can take that spot,” Elise Beliveau said last month in the Journal de Montreal. “I think he was almost embarrassed.”

“You never know how special it is until it actually happens,” Pacioretty said Friday in First Niagara Center. “To see the support I got from Day One, from former players, from people around the organization, from the fans, it’s something you can’t really describe. It’s the best feeling of my life and really motivates me now to do whatever I can to get the two points every night.

“We can’t take a night off in our market. Especially myself. I know I have a big responsibility for the team’s success. It motivates me that much more to have a good game every night.”

Pacioretty was a first-round pick out of Michigan in 2007 and had his breakout season in 2011-12 with 33 goals and 32 assists. In the last two years, he had 39 and 37 goals, respectively. The Connecticut native joins Gionta and Chris Chelios as the Habs’ only American-born captains.

“It’s a great honor for the kid,” Gionta said. “He’s well deserving of it. He grew up in their system and it’s nice to see him rewarded for that. He’s a great person for the city and it’s great for the team.”

“Not having a captain last year, I think there was a lot of talk and debate how Montreal never goes without one,” added Sabres defenseman and former Hab Josh Gorges. “For him to be named is a great honor. ‘Gio’ came from New Jersey as an older player, whereas Max worked and developed himself into that player. What a great honor for him.”

Pacioretty said he was thankful to have played under Gionta’s reign as captain when he was a young player moving into a position of prominence in the Montreal organization.

“I learned a lot from him. When he did leave, that’s when I started to incorporate a lot of his personality traits into my own game and my own leadership role,” Pacioretty said. “I have nothing but great things to say about Brian. I’m honored to know he feels that way about me.”

The Habs’ fast start this year has prompted plenty of talk they can end their Stanley Cup drought that dates to 1993, making it the longest in franchise history.

“A lot of those guys are still around the city and around the team quite often,” Pacioretty said. “We hear stories about their great years, what went on in their room and the camaraderie they had. We feel like it’s a pretty similar team and hopefully we can do our best and have the same result they did.”

Jackets had no choice

The Columbus Blue Jackets had no choice but to fire Todd Richards after their 0-7 start. Those who subscribe heavily to analytics insist the Jackets were unlucky, that their numbers would turn around and that it was Sergei Bobrovsky’s sub-par goaltending that torpedoed the season. They clearly didn’t watch the Jackets pretty much act like passengers much of the game during their losses to the Sabres and Maple Leafs.

A team that finished 15-1-1 last year and was picked by every expert to go to the playoffs this year had to make a move. You fire the coach. Period. The players needed a shakeup and John Tortorella can definitely provide that. In his debut game Thursday in Minnesota, he scratched Ryan Johansen amid rumors the star isn’t in great shape. 

Look for Tortorella to use Brandon Dubinsky as his go-between in Columbus initially. Their relationship in New York didn’t end well but Dubinsky was the first player Tortorella sought out when he arrived in Nationwide Arena on Wednesday.

“I need to lean on him. He’s part of that heartbeat of that club there,” Tortorella said during his opening news conference. “He needs to be a conduit for the coaching staff and the players until I get to know the other guys. He’s an important man, as far as I’m concerned, because we spent a number of years together. I think he can explain how we go about it, how I’ve gone about it as a coach, and kind of make a smooth transition for the team.”

Cradle of coaches

Lindy Ruff has long been the pride of Warburg, Alberta (population 800) and now he has some company. The tiny Alberta town is also the hometown of new Philadelphia coach Dave Hakstol, who was hired this year after 11 years at North Dakota.

“Lindy’s a guy that since I was young everybody in our town looked up to,” Hakstol told Flyers beat reporters when the teams met last week. “As a kid, I remember when he was a first-round pick,” with the Sabres in 1979, “and when he played his first games in the league.”

Hakstol was friends with Ruff’s late younger brother, Brent, who died in 1986 at age 16 in a bus crash involving the Western League’s Swift Current Broncos. Brent Ruff was one of four players who died in the accident, which was also notable because future Hall of Famer Joe Sakic was a survivor. Hakstol said he first met Lindy Ruff when the Sabres played an exhibition game at North Dakota against Minnesota in 2007.

“He’s a little bit younger, but when you live in a town that small you know everybody,” Ruff said. “Dave was about the age of my younger brother … That’s a small town and for him to make it too I think is an incredible feat. And congratulations because he did a great job in North Dakota and now to get this opportunity, I’m happy for him.”

Said Hakstol of the Ruffs: “Their family is very, very important to our community – the entire family, including Brent.”

Ice chips

• How much longer can Bruce Boudreau last in Anaheim? Especially since GM Bob Murray stashed former Ottawa coach Paul MacLean on the staff as an assistant. The Ducks look lost so far, like they’re still in a post-Game-Seven-loss-to-Chicago funk.

• Calgary coach and long-time Tortorella adversary Bob Hartley on Columbus’ new hire: “I have a long relationship with Torts. Cornwall, Rochester, Atlanta, Tampa Bay, here and Vancouver. It seems we’re like spaghetti and meatballs. But now it’s going to be friendlier – he’s on the Eastern side and I’m on the Western side.”

• ”60 Minutes Sports” is filming an upcoming segment on Connor McDavid, who has started to break out of his shell after Edmonton’s season-opening three-game road trip. Cracked Oilers goaltender Cam Talbot: “The guy could stickhandle in a phone booth. I’m not surprised by any of the moves he makes.”

• Oilers coach Todd McLellan after a 7-4 loss to the Capitals: “We overwhelmed ourselves with stupidity in some areas.”•

• Among all the problems in Calgary are the struggles of new defenseman Dougie Hamilton, who is finding the transition from Boston to the heavier Western Conference a bit of an issue. But he’s not alone on his club. “We’re working hard, but it’s in our heads right now,” said Hamilton. “There’s not a lot of easy plays out there, not a lot of easy puck movement. It’s all hesitation and questioning things. Nobody really knows what’s going on.”

• Asked here Wednesday the biggest challenge of a new city, Leafs coach Mike Babcock had an interesting analysis: “Finding a good restaurant, finding a place to get your hair cut, figuring out how to get back and forth through traffic when you don’t really know the city, getting some furniture.

“If you go buy it on your own, your wife kicks you out of the house. If you don’t buy it on your own, she orders special stuff and it takes long and you don’t have furniture.”