MONTREAL – When I met Ben Chiarot on Friday, he had just returned from his daily walk with his wife Jacqueline, daughter Emmerson and dog Bailey.
“The highlight of my days,” said the 28-year-old Montreal Canadiens defenseman from his home in Waterloo, Ontario.
Chiarot’s nights were occupied by SportsnetRewind the shows.
One of them, in particular, had it on the edge of his seat.
“They were showing game 7, Toronto-Detroit, of the first round of the 1993 playoffs,” he said. “Nikolai Borschevsky marked the winner of extra time. I think it was (Nicklas) Lidstrom’s rookie season. This Toronto team had Wendel Clark, Doug Gilmour, and all those guys I grew up idolizing. “
One of these guys was Mike Foligno.
“He was my junior coach (with the OHL Sudbury Wolves), so it was fun to watch him,” said Chiarot. “I also lived with him a bit, and he had this old JOFA helmet in his home office.
“I played with (Foligno’s son and Minnesota Wild forward) Marcus. Marcus and I are very good friends. And I also knew Nick well (the eldest son and captain of the Columbus Blue Jackets). “
And this is where the conversation went from the little conversation to the real conversation.
I interrupted: “Nick has really had a great career. I think it has been better than anyone ever thought, especially in recent years. “
“After being traded from Ottawa to Columbus (for defender Marc Methot in July 2012), he really took off and found another level of his game,” said Chiarot of the 32-year-old who scored 31 goals and 73 points and was named a star in his third season with the Blue Jackets. “You see a lot of cases like this – guys who can do more and have more responsibility, and just take advantage of the opportunity.”
Chiarot did not arrive in Montreal via trade, but it is fair to say that when he signed a $ 10.5 million agreement over three years in July, after five full seasons spent primarily as a defender in depth with the Winnipeg Jets, hardly anyone – not even the Canadiens’ general manager Marc Bergevin – expected him to live up to the challenge as much as he did.
The opportunity was there for the Hamilton native in a way that had never been in Winnipeg, and he ran with it – scoring a career high of nine goals and 21 points in 69 games this season (or four goals more and one more point than him). had played 78 games with the Jets in 2018-2019) and won the best defensive pair in Montreal thanks to his unique skating ability and his complete game.
Much of our conversation focused on this. Much of this work has also focused on his Canadiens teammates and what he feels is the group’s promise to move forward.
So, this is part 1 of a two-part interview that will take place Wednesday and Thursday here on Sportnset.ca, exploring Chiarot’s revolutionary season and what he has learned about himself in the process:
Sportsnet: Do you realize that you have on average almost seven minutes more per game this season than your career average?
Ben Chiarot: I knew it was up there. During my first three years in Winnipeg, I was pretty much only on the third duo and we would play 12 to 15 minutes. And when I get a little older, I would be 16, 17, 18. And the year before coming to Montreal, I was about 18, 19 years old. So it was a gradual progression.
But this year has certainly been a big step forward from what I did in Winnipeg.
Much of this is special teams. Me and Shea (Weber) always came out first for the penalty spot, and 4 against 4 I was still there. Then overtime, even a numerical advantage – in the second half of the season, I would be here and there.
In Winnipeg, I was first, sometimes second for PK, and 4 against 4 was usually a stretch unless one of the Ds was in the area. So it’s more the special team stuff that really gives you extra ice time with a few 5-on-5 changes.
SN: How crucial was it to be part of such an advocacy group in Winnipeg in terms of progressive development?
BEFORE CHRIST: I think the competition created is what drives everyone to be better. In my case, in Winnipeg, the five guys we had – and six when Toby Enstrom was there, and he was a star caliber defender at his peak – if I didn’t improve or try to m ‘improve, I wasn’t going to play. So I had to improve every year, come back stronger, come back faster, work my game. The amount of good players we had created this culture that you had to improve or that you will fall behind. It was the big thing for me, and it was probably the most beneficial thing for me to play with so many good players because it forced me to take the next steps or I was going to be left behind.
SN: So you are brought to Montreal after all this. What do you think of when you think back to the first few weeks with the Canadiens?
BEFORE CHRIST: I know people used to say, “He’s having a hard time adjusting” or “He’s not integrating.” Maybe the first four games of the season I just adjusted, but I do it pretty much every year. The first three or four games, I’m just trying to find my rhythm and find my timing. And then you add a whole new team and a whole new environment, and it sort of made it worse with the start of a new season.
But I thought it was a bit premature when people said that I had trouble integrating when I had only played three or four games on the team. I thought that once I felt comfortable, I found my game and my rhythm, everything went a little smooth from there.
SN: You played in a hockey home in Winnipeg, but I guess it didn’t take you long to realize that Montreal was a different animal. Or that it was the same animal, but just on steroids in terms of pressure from the outside.
BEFORE CHRIST: One of the good things I learned in Winnipeg – and there is quite a bit of media in Winnipeg, but obviously not as far as Montreal – is that you can’t pay attention to it. Winnipeg was great to teach me that.
When times are good, you want to read everything and read all the good things that are said. But in bad times, nobody wants to see things written about them that are not so good. I think when I was young I learned that you can read it, but you cannot read it or pay too much attention to it. You try to keep a uniform keel, as everyone says, and just take care of your business. A valuable lesson in Winnipeg applied to coming to Montreal was simply trying to keep a uniform keel no matter what everyone said. Whether things go well or not, you keep doing what you do and everything will take care of itself.
SN: What have you learned about yourself this year? What have you learned about thriving by being pushed to such a threshold? At one point, you played almost half of each game.
BEFORE CHRIST: I really think I have found new levels in my game – certainly offensively, but defensively as well. I’ve always been proud on the defensive side, but even this year, being more present on the field and counting defensively to play against the best teams every night, I feel like I have improved.
Offensively, with the style we play in Montreal, it promotes… they want us to join the rush, they want us to get involved. So I think offensively I grew up as a player. In Winnipeg, I would never think of getting out of the power play, then I come to Montreal and I can show that I can create some offense, then I have a chance to play a bit on the power play. And it was huge for my confidence and just knowing how far I got as a player.
The new levels that I reached as a player were therefore very rewarding. The biggest thing I have learned about myself is that I have more to offer than being solid on the defense.
SN: Each player finally hits the wall. How did these high minutes affect this reality? How did you manage it when it happened?
BEFORE CHRIST: I think it’s quite common. You’re asking any player – to say you’re going to feel your best for 82 games is a stretch. Certainly, in the second half, there are times when you are exhausted. And I had my bumps and my bruises and my energy drops at certain times of the season. There are times when you won’t feel better and I think I have done a good job always finding a way to be effective.
Perhaps you are not as aggressive in joining the race, or your legs are not quite there some nights to quickly join or close on the defensive.
I think that’s another thing I’ve learned this year is that when you are not feeling your best, you really need to focus on positioning. Because you play against dangerous players every night and if your legs are not there, you can expose yourself fairly quickly. What I learned is to use positioning and to be in the right place those nights, you can still be effective.
SN: How do you manage the mental side of the game? Are there particular techniques that you practice?
BEFORE CHRIST: I do a lot of visualization. Usually the day before the game, I start to visualize what I am doing and remember the things that are important to me to be effective there. It has been part of my game for a long time.
SN: Who do you talk to about your games?
BEFORE CHRIST: I wouldn’t say I talk to anyone on a game-to-game basis. I know when I’m at my best and when I do the things I need to do to be successful, and that just happened to be around for a while and know what my best looks like and what it looks like.
It’s something I’ve learned this year too, it’s that I have another level in my game and now I expect that from me every night.
SN: So how do you get back to basics when she walks away from you? Assuming it happens faster now with experience under your belt.
BEFORE CHRIST: The biggest thing I trust – and I’ve found that this year more than ever I’m focusing on – is having my gap defensively. So whether I push aside in the neutral zone or push in the defensive zone, when I’m right over the guy I’m supposed to be over, I find that everything else in my game falls into place – either offensively because I can turn the puck over and make games, or defensively because I can put a stick on the puck or make a hit. So it was the most important thing that I found that helped me be the most effective this year. When my gap was tight, everything in my game followed.
SN: We have talked a few times about your pride in being a Montreal Canadian as a factor in your success. Now that you’ve experienced it for a season, can you describe what it means to you?
BEFORE CHRIST: I was thinking about it. I thought you would ask for that. Even for our last game of the year, we played at Nashville at home, and it was game 70 of the season, and always putting on the Canadiens’ red jersey gave me chills. I’m always excited to put it on, you know what I mean? I have been doing it for five, six months and I always put it on and I am always happy to put it on and go out to play at the Bell Center. So I think those are the two things that excite me the most about playing for the Habs, it’s this jersey, and playing in Montreal on a Saturday night is a pretty special feeling.
Leafs TV are playing classic games right now too, and they were showing the 1967 Toronto-Montreal final the other day. And my wife is sitting there and I turned to her and said, “These jerseys they wear are exactly the same as the ones we wear now, and they play on a Saturday night, and it’s the same configuration that we have. “
I don’t even know how to explain it, but it’s like religion in hockey – the Toronto-Montreal rivalry on a Saturday night. Being part of it is just unlike anything in hockey.