FROM THE CREASE with BRUCE BERLET

bruce mug shot 1BY: Bruce Berlet

Great news that New Canaan native Max Pacioretty was back in a competitive environment Wednesday night more than four months after a severe concussion and fractured vertebrae ended last season for the Montreal Canadiens left wing.

Pacioretty said he felt “weird” as he skated with the Tampa Bay Lightning’s Martin St. Louis, who lives in Greenwich, and the New York IslandersMatt Moulson in the Big Assist III charity game at Terry Conners Rink in Stamford. The event benefits the Obie Harrington-Howes Foundation, which has handed out more than $2 million to help improve the quality of life for people with spinal cord injuries and diseases. It was founded after Harrington-Howes, a hockey and lacrosse coach in Darien, was paralyzed in a swimming accident 14 years ago. Among those he coached in youth hockey were Darien’s Ryan Shannon, who organized the event, and Stratford’s Jaime Sifers, who will play in Germany this season.

The 22-year-old Pacioretty had a goal and several assists, but more importantly, he enjoyed his first “competition” since he was hospitalized after being checked head-first into a stanchion by Boston Bruins defenseman Zdeno Chara with only 16 seconds left in a game at the Bell Centre in Montreal on March 8. The Bruins captain was not suspended, though some overzealous fans in Montreal demanded assault charges to be filed.

A 60-minute charity game is far from a 60-minute NHL game, but it was a start for Pacioretty.

“It felt … I don’t know, I guess it just felt weird,” Pacioretty, who has skated for a few months, said after the game. “It was weird at first, but as the game went on, I think I felt a little more comfortable, and I’m looking forward now to gaining some momentum off of that.

“I had a lot of time off since my injury, and now I’m just working on putting on muscle and trying to get as big and as fast as possible. I’ve done a pretty good job of that so far, and I hope to keep doing that through August.”

Pacioretty was having the best season of his career with 14 goals and 10 assists in 37 games before it came to abrupt end when he went crashing into the stanchion on a hit by Chara, the biggest player in the NHL at 6 feet 9, 255 pounds. Pacioretty’s previous best season was three goals and 11 assists in 54 games in 2009-10.

Despite his severe injuries, Pacioretty has been vocal about not wanting more discipline for Chara, who reached out with a text message that Pacioretty returned, leading to a nice talk between the two. Pacioretty thinks Chara feels sorry for what he did and just wants to move on, something he stressed again Wednesday night.

“The past is the past, and I can dwell on it as much as I want, but that will do me no good,” Pacioretty said. “So I’m going to do everything I can to work toward the future and get ready for next year.”

Pacioretty, who played one year at New Canaan High and then moved on to the Taft School in Watertown, said he feels as if he is back to his pre-injury strength level and might even be stronger because he has never had so much time in the summer to work out. He was a favorite of the fans, who roared when his name was called in pregame introductions and then dozens of kids waited behind his team’s bench after each period to get his autograph.

“It’s good to see so many people care about hockey in the area, and my experience in particular,” Pacioretty said. “It’s the one positive I can get out of my experience, that a lot of people have shown me great support and have stuck with me through the situation.”

Pacioretty’s most avid supporters include Shannon, who signed a one-year contract with Tampa Bay on July 7, hosted the Big Assist III and has been impressed with Pacioretty’s work ethic during his rehabilitation. Others who participated were Los Angeles Kings standout goalie Jonathan Quick of Hamden, Edmonton Oilers right wing Mark Arcobello of Hamden, a recent Yale grad and former Fairfield Prep player like Sifers, and former Hartford Whalers forward and captain Greg Moore, who also played with the Bridgeport Sound Tigers.

“Ryan Shannon and his family have done a terrific job organizing this event,” Sifers, a six-year pro, told Mike Fornabaio, the Sound Tigers’ excellent beat writer for the Connecticut Post.

“We all want to help out and be a part of this,” Moore told Fornabaio. “We have a good time with it for a good cause.”

It’s an especially good cause when Pacioretty is involved.

“I see him training at Body Tuning in Darien, and he’s an animal,” Shannon told Bob Birge of SheltonPatch.com before the game. “When you see him out here today, you’ll see the incredible comeback that he has been able to accomplish. He’s going to have a fantastic year.

“It’s a great story the way his season was taken away from him. He didn’t worry about it and worked really hard to come back. Tonight, you’ll probably see the beginning of the evolution of Max.”

The gritty Shannon proved correct, and the Canadiens must be delighted after recently resigning him to a two-year contract extension. In three pro seasons, Pacioretty, who signed a three-year entry-level deal with the Canadiens after one year at the University of Michigan, has 20 goals and 29 assists in 123 NHL games and 25 goals and 47 assists in 82 AHL games with the Hamilton Bulldogs.

“I hope the first game of the season I’m ready to go and there’s no hesitation out there,” Pacioretty said.

After his injury, Pacioretty received plenty of support from his family, friends and fans in his native New Canaan.

“A lot of good has actually come out of this injury,” Pacioretty said. “I’m not saying I would want something like that to happen again, but I have gotten great support from family, friends, the city of Montreal and also people back in Connecticut.

“It opened up my eyes to realize there are people out there who really care and how many great people there are out there. I hope I can make them proud by showing them what I have next year.”

Pacioretty said he doesn’t remember Chara’s hit because he was concussed, but he soon felt many emotions, including anger, that has eventually disappeared.

“When I watch the hit, it made things a lot worse,” Pacioretty said. “Now that I’ve had time to think about everything, I’m hoping something like this can make me a better person and I’m doing everything I can treat it that way. … This is just a bump in the road. I don’t see it playing any role in my development. (The Canadiens) know the injury it not a threat to my career, and they know I’m going to come back better than ever. I’m glad they have faith in me. They signed me for two years, and I’m looking forward to getting it started.”

Best of luck, Max. Here’s hoping for continued success in your recovery and hope to see you in training camp in September.

PRONGER COULD MISS TRAINING CAMP

Another on the road to recovery is Philadelphia Flyers defenseman Chris Pronger, the Hartford Whalers’ first-round pick (second overall) in 2003, who could miss training camp for the second straight season.

In an interview with TSN Radio 1050 AM in Toronto on Wednesday, the 36-year-old Pronger admitted being at least three weeks from being able to train at 100 percent.

“I’m still walking on the treadmill, light bike riding,” Pronger said. “The back doctor wanted 12 weeks for me not doing a whole lot to allow that back area to scar up and then fully heal up before I start torqueing and pushing on it hard.”

On May 12, Pronger had a discectomy, which involved the removal of herniated disc material that had been pressing on a nerve root or the spinal cord. The pressure was causing the back and leg issues that sidelined him the final three games of the Flyers’ second-round series against the eventual Stanley Cup champion Bruins.

It was the fourth surgery for Pronger in a year, following knee surgery in August, which kept him out of training camp and the first two games of last season, foot surgery in December and hand surgery in March.

“I would say I’m quite a bit behind where I would be training-wise and working out-wise,” Pronger said. “Whether I’m at camp or not, I don’t know that yet, it’s still early to tell. I would guess I would not be starting camp just from the mere fact that I haven’t been able to work out at all yet. I’m skinny to begin with, and now I’m looking really skinny.”

A 17-year veteran, Pronger had four goals and 21 assists in 50 games last season, his lowest game total since 2002-03 when knee and wrist injuries limited him to only five games with the St. Louis Blues. He played in only three of the Flyers’ 11 playoff games this spring because of the hand injury and back problems.

DUBINSKY AT YOUTH CAMP

Former Hartford Wolf Pack forward Brandon Dubinsky is one of three Rangers scheduled for salary arbitration in the next two weeks, but he reiterated his desire to continue to play Broadway by making a guest appearance at the Rangers Summer Youth Hockey Camp at the Madison Square Garden training center in Greenburgh, N.Y.

Dubinsky followed center Brian Boyle, another headed to salary arbitration, as a volunteer at the camp. Jim Cerny of BlueshirtsUnited.com reported Dubinsky seemed like a big kid himself on the ice as he joked with the youngsters, pretending to rough them up along the glass, and cheering on their goals as well as their near misses.

“I have been on both sides of the equation, so I still remember what it’s like to look up to –maybe not NHL players because we didn’t have a lot of them in Alaska growing up — but college or minor league players,” Dubinsky said. “So this is not at all lost on me, I mean I’m not that far away. I’m just 25 years old! Maybe 10 or 12 years ago I was doing what all these kids are doing. But it’s interesting for me being on this side now because I just think of myself as a normal every-day guy, not someone special or a celebrity. But to come out here and have the kids look up to you is eye-opening.”

Dubinsky also stressed that taking time to skate with the kids is “important to do.”

“I really believe it is important to give back,” he said.

Here’s a breakdown of some of Dubinsky’s thoughts on several important topics:

On the addition of free-agent center Brad Richards: “He has obviously been one of the top players in the league for some time now. It’s exciting to have that offensive guy we have been searching for really since I got here. He’s an elite playmaker, and a guy who can get the puck to Gaby (Marian Gaborik) in perfect spots a lot more often than guys like me were able to do. Plus he’s a winner. He’s won a Stanley Cup, won the Conn Smythe (with Tampa Bay in 2004). We’re excited to have him come in and share his experience and leadership and his winning pedigree, and hopefully help us go to the next level.”

On what Richards provides from a leadership standpoint: “You look at the leadership group on this team and we haven’t won anything yet. We haven’t been deep in the playoffs. I’m not going to take anything away from myself, Cally (Ryan Callahan), (Dan) Girardi, Staalsie (Marc Staal) and these other guys, but bringing Richie in will be a big help to us as far as showing us what type of leadership it takes to win. That’s what I am most excited about, and I know the other guys are, too, because I’ve talked to them about it.”

On how important wearing a letter is to him: “It would exciting, and it would be an honor if that was bestowed on me. But that being said I think everyone who is around me and knows me knows that I will be the same guy with or without (a letter). I will voice my opinions, I will be loud, I will be emotional, and I’m going to keep bringing that same effort I do every day.”

On the level of confidence within the Rangers’ organization now: “There is a new level of confidence here because the management and coaching staff has expressed its confidence in the team. They like what we have here already, then added some important pieces. First of all it makes you smile, makes you happy that they believe in the team that has been put together while at the same time their confidence in us shows that we need to seize the moment, if you will. We need to believe it, too, just as they do.”

On the addition of rugged left wing/center Mike Rupp: “I think I was smiling bigger when I heard we signed (Rupp) than when we signed (Richards)! He’s just such a tough guy to play against. He’s always working so hard, and it seemed like he always scored against us when we played them. I’m really excited that he’s here now.”

Dubinsky has 71 goals, 108 assists and 347 penalty minutes in 316 games with the Rangers, who picked him in the second round in 2004. He joined the Wolf Pack for the 2006 playoffs after finishing his junior career with Portland of the Western Hockey League and then played most of the 2006-07 season in Hartford, with a six-game stint with the Rangers. Last season he had career highs in goals (24), assists (30) and points (54) as he led the team in scoring for the first time. His salary arbitration hearing is set for July 21, followed by Boyle on the 25th and Callahan on the 28th.

GABORIK TO BENEFIT MOST FROM RICHARDS’ ARRIVAL

No Ranger can be happier to have Richards on Broadway more than Gaborik. An early separated shoulder, late-season concussion and constant revolving door at center conspired to help the right wing score only 22 goals in a paltry 14 games last season after starting his Rangers career with 42 in 2009-10 after signing as a free agent from the Minnesota Wild.

Dubinsky, fellow former Wolf Pack center Artem Anisimov, rookie Derek Stepan, Erik Christensen, Vinny Prospal and Trumbull native and former captain Chris Drury, bought out three weeks ago, took turns skating along the 31-year-old wing who earns $7.5 million. But now Richards, who signed a nine-year, $60 million contract on July 2, is in New York, giving the Rangers their first elite playmaking center since Hall of Famer Wayne Gretzky arrived on Broadway in the 1996-97 season.

“I respect all the players I’ve been with, but I am very excited to get the chance to play with Richie,” Gaborik told Larry Brooks of the New York Post. “I’ve watched him play throughout his career and always admired his game, the way he sees the ice, the way he moves the puck, the way he makes his teammates better.

“If I’m with Richie, it’s going to be very exciting. You can never say how much time it might take to develop chemistry, you need to spend time together away from the ice and develop trust in each other, but I’m really looking forward to getting out there with him. … I’ve been used to shuffling my whole (10-year NHL) career. Maybe the reason last year there were so many changes is that I didn’t play well enough, but hopefully Richie and I will be good together so there won’t be any reason to change.”

Rangers management and fans everywhere are hoping for just such an occurrence.

MCCAMBRIDGE NAMED ST. JOHN’S COACH

Keith McCambridge has been named coach of the new Winnipeg Jets’ affiliate in St. John’s, Newfoundland.

McCambridge, 37, is the first head coach since the former Manitoba Moose franchise relocated from Winnipeg to St. John’s. The native of Thompson, Man., was the Moose’s assistant coach the past two seasons, helping the team to a record of 83-63-6-8. Last season, working with Jets head coach Claude Noel, McCambridge helped guide the Moose to the North Division final, where they were eliminated in seven games by the Hamilton Bulldogs.

Before joining the Moose, McCambridge spent six seasons with the ECHL’s Alaska Aces, winning a Kelly Cup as a player/assistant coach in 2006 and returning to the finals as head coach in 2009. He had an 11-year playing pro career, including AHL stops with the Saint John Flames, Providence Bruins, Houston Aeros and Cleveland Barons.

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