Interview With Paul Byron

Paul Byron is currently a left winger for the Montreal Canadiens. Byron was originally drafted in the 6th round of the 2007 draft by the Buffalo Sabres. After a challenging start to his career Byron seems to have found a home in Montreal where he has been at least a  20 goal scorer in each of his past two seasons.

Rapid Fire Questions

Childhood Team:

Anaheim Mighty Ducks

Go to pregame meal:

Chicken parmesan or grilled chicken with pasta and rosé sauce

Dream linemates (non teammates):

Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux

Favourite video game:

Call of Duty Black Ops

Favorite player/athlete growing up:

Paul Kariya

Pregame superstitions:

I have a pre game routine but no superstitions where if I don’t do something I think I’ll have a bad game

Beginning: Byron is from Ottawa and played his junior hockey for the Gatineau Olympiques. He began his pro hockey career with the AHL Portland Pirates.

Do you have a fondest memory from Junior hockey that stands out to you?

Winning the QMJHL championship my second year. We weren’t the favourites, we weren’t expected to win but we had a really good team and players who just wanted to win more than every other team. We had a great group of guys and we had a lot of fun together. Memories I will never forget.

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You played your Junior career with Hull Olympics. What was it like playing in the same geographic area as your hometown?  How was having Claude Giroux as your line mate?

It was amazing. I got to live at home and finish my high school with all my friends. It would have been very challenging for me to finish my high school education had I been anywhere else in Quebec since they don’t have grade 12 in the province. School was always important to me so I was happy to get my degree. The fans and atmosphere in Hull were the best in the league. People always compared it to the old Montreal Forum. Playoffs were always crazy in there and I loved every second of it. Playing with Claude was a bit surreal sometimes. It was clear to everyone he was just on a different level than almost everyone else. He single handedly controlled games and did what he wanted most games. But he was also our hardest working player and wanted to win more than anyone on the ice so he always pushed you to challenge yourself. He made me a [better] player and it was easy playing with him. I’m not surprised to see him have the success he’s had at the NHL level. He worked for it and earned it.

Was there a defining moment where afterwards you knew you could be a full time NHLer?

My second year in the AHL is really when I believed I would be an NHLer. I had an excellent season that year, played a lot of minutes in every situation, 1st line centre, power play, penalty kill, shootouts and overtime. I earned my first call up and and scored my first goal in my second game. Having that success against really good competition is when I started truly thinking about the NHL more than being just a good AHLer. Seeing yourself against other NHL competition and using it as a measuring stick and seeing how close you really are just hit hard that year.

How did you stay motivated to make the NHL through  those early years in the AHL?

Self belief. I always knew I was good enough to be a full timer, I just needed an opportunity and for someone to overlook the fact that I’m 5’9, 170 pounds. I knew I had the speed, but I also played a hard nosed game that separated me from other small players. I love hitting and don’t shy away from getting hit. I love the physical part of the game and engage in battles against anyone. I could play anywhere in a lineup and any position. I always knew that versatility would eventually help me and it did. Proving doubters wrong was always a nice side bonus.

Who would you consider your most influential coach before the NHL?

I have two for two completely different reasons. My Junior coach Benoit Groulx and my AHL coach Troy Ward. Benoit taught me how to play pro hockey. He didn’t care how much I scored or how many points I got. He cared about how I played the game and always making sure I was doing things the right way. He was extremely tough on me but he knew how to push me and keep me accountable. I still remember some of our one on one meetings and still remember his teachings. Troy was such a different coach than anyone I had before. I always had the old school yellers and screamers, but he wasn’t. He kept me from signing a deal in Switzerland and really made me believe in the opportunity I had. He showed me a different perspective of thinking and it really stuck with me. I used to let losses or bad games ruin my nights or following days. I found a way to channel my passion and desire in different ways and remove some of the pressure and frustrating I put on myself. It helped my game a lot.

Middle: After 2 years in the AHL and 8 games in the NHL with Buffalo, Byron was traded to the Calgary Flames in the summer of 2011. Byron’s time in Calgary was tumultuous to say the least, however it was crucial to turning him into the everyday NHLer he is today.

Could you give some insight into how close you came to pursuing a hockey career overseas? How would something like this have changed your career path?

Extremely close twice. One year Calgary management pretty much told me they didn’t even really care about me, that they didn’t know why they had sent me a qualifying offer and to pursue a career overseas so they could sign someone else. At that point I had an amazing offer in Switzerland on the table for 5 times the AHL salary I was being offered. Troy Ward convinced me to stay and play for him. He also said that playing in the AHL, 29 other teams would get  to see me play almost every other night. I just needed 1 more season played with less than 80 total NHL before age 25 to be an Unrestricted free agent and be free to sign with anyone. I followed his guidance, and got off to a great AHL start, got called up after 22 games and never played an AHL game since. Brian Burke was hired that summer and the GM who didn’t want me got relieved of his duties a few games into my call up. I finished the year with 81 career NHL games before 25 so I was still Calgary’s property but they still didn’t qualify me since I had good stats and they were afraid I would get more money in salary arbitration than they wanted to pay me. Once they didn’t qualify me I had an Offer in the KHL for CSKA Moscow. It was a 2 year deal for more than double the current offer made by Calgary, who still wanted me but at a cheaper rate. I had similar offers from other NHL teams and spent the whole day giving myself an anxiety attack about living in Russia. I even talked with the goalie for the Russian team at the time, who I knew and was from Ottawa as well. Ultimately I took the 1 year prove me deal in Calgary because I knew Bob Hartley liked me and I would get a fair chance there. I had 2 young children and wasn’t ready to live in a different continent. I haven’t regretted my decisions once.

You are regarded as one of the greatest waiver wire pickups in NHL history. How stressful was being placed on waivers and subsequently being claimed?  

It was one of the worst feelings I’ve ever had in hockey the day I was told I was on waivers but one of the best feelings the next day after I found out I was claimed by Montreal. I knew in the summer something had to give since there was 15 one way forward contracts but I felt like I had earned my full time spot. I had just got to Calgary, was settled in a house for the first time before a season started, instead of the hotel. After continually proving to the team what I was as a player year after year, it was pretty crushing. I was told it was because of my injuries suffered the season before. Then the next day hearing the news couldn’t have been any better. Finding out your gonna play for the Montreal Canadiens was a dream come true. The excitement I felt was worth the feeling from the day before. I so happy to be able to play so close to home again. I was essentially  forced into playing at the end of training camp well before I was ready to, just to give myself a chance at earning my spot again, coming off the 2 major surgeries. In Montreal I was able to sit out the first 9 games of the season and actually adapt to my new team and really get comfortable on the ice again with practice time. It was the best thing to happen to me. I remember checking the calendar and seeing we’d play the Flames right away in October. It was my second game for the Habs. It felt really good to beat them and score my first goal as a Hab vs them. It felt like Karma.

Your first NHL goal was here in Ottawa, what was it like to do that in front of your family and friends?

It was amazing. To score your first NHL goal in your home town, in front of your family and friends who have been supporting you and rooting for you your whole hockey career was truly special. It felt like something from a movie. Of all the times to be called up, and of all the places to play, scoring in Ottawa in my second NHL game was truly a special moment for me.

On a bit of a lighter note, we know you’re not a player who looks for fights too often so what was it like getting into a fight with more of an enforcer like Zac Rinaldo? If possible can you say what caused this fight?

I remember we were playing the Flyers AHL team, the Phantoms. One of their players bumped our goalie, and I was the low centre and the closest player to him. So I gave a him a pretty good crosscheck, and he did nothing. So I cross checked him again and he fell. It was one of their top players so he didn’t do anything back. I was getting a penalty but as we all know in hockey you need to protect your goalie. The guy went to the bench to make a change during the delayed penalty call. I remember Ronaldo coming off the bench and came right at me. He asked me if i wanted to go, and I said sure. We dropped our gloves and the fight lasted a few seconds. I wasn’t an experienced fighter at all, so I just tried to grab on and throw as hard and as fast as I could and I lost my balance. Rinaldo was a rookie at the time, so I had no idea who he was or how tough he was. He didn’t seem much bigger than me so it definitely wasn’t a confrontation I was gonna back down from. After the fight all my teammates were laughing and giving me a hard time. They were calling me crazy and asking if I knew how tough Rinaldo was. I just laughed and said nope! I guess I got lucky the fight was a quick one.

Present: Byron has built a reputation around the league as a hard nosed gritty player who can contribute on the score sheet. Byron can be deployed in practically any situation and has cemented his spot in the NHL.

The NHL has been trying to speed up the game for years, how have these new rules helped your game and other players of smaller stature?

It’s allowed smaller, faster and more skilled players to have success at the NHL level. The game I was brought up on is certainly a different game than it is today. When I was young it was always about size and toughness. You needed size to survive against the big strong players. The hooking, holding and overall pace of the game made it very difficult for the smaller players to have space and use their skill sets. The game now is all about pace, and possessing the puck more than the other team. Being able to skate like I can allows me to find open space to generate scoring chances, retrieve pucks on for checks, create a ton of back pressure on back checks and force turnovers all over the ice. Being able to close time and space is essential now. Everyone is so good at this level that you need to limit opportunity by eliminating time and space.

Do you feel a sense of pride after becoming a full time player in the league and overcoming your uphill climb into the league?

Absolutely. The idea of actually playing in the NHL when I was 16-17 years old wasn’t even a thought. I was cut from my major bantam AA team at 14 for being too small. I played Jr B hockey at 16. I was never drafted to the OHL. I made it onto the Gatineau Olympiques as a walk on. I was drafted late in the NHL, where most players never end up making it. I’ve been told so many times in my life I was never going to be an NHLer or I wasn’t big enough or good enough, that it didn’t even register anymore when someone would say it. Every single level of hockey I ever played someone was there telling me I shouldn’t be there or I couldn’t succeed there. I climbed the hockey ladder one step at a time and earned every single opportunity I ever received. I’m extremely proud of that. I’ve had a ton of help and been given many opportunities from my family, past coaches, scouts and general managers. I’ve had the right people believe in me and I wouldn’t be where I am today without them. I’m very thankful for that.

Another amazing accomplishment, last year was your first experience with NHL playoff hockey, what was the atmosphere like playing at the Bell Center during the playoffs?

It gives me goosebumps thinking about it. The atmosphere at the Bell Centre is always amazing, but during the playoffs the level just increased. You could feel the pounding and noise from the dressing room. You play your whole life for that moment and it was really fun. The Canadiens franchise has a history and tradition of winning so the fan base expects to win. It’s a lot of fun playing under that pressure because I want to win even more. I hope one day I can be part of a Stanley Cup winning Canadiens team.

With the outstanding achievement of being an everyday NHLer and playing playoff hockey it must be challenging to spend time with your family on occasion, what is it like balancing being a father while also being a professional athlete?

I think every family has their challenges in that regard. I think we’re incredibly lucky to be able to share the experience and time in the NHL with our families. My kids truly love being at the rink. Everyone there treats them so well. From all the security guards at the rink, to my other teammates, to the coaches and the team staff, to Youppi, it truly is a special environment for them. We do travel a lot and sometimes the trips get pretty difficult, especially the long western trips on a different time zone. On game days your pretty much non existent because your pretty much at the rink all day. But we are very lucky to have FaceTime now and be able to see each other every day no matter where we are. It’s a long season but luckily on non game days we get home from the rink earlier than most people get home from work. In seasons where you miss the playoffs you have a full 5 months away from playing so you get to spend even more time with your family in those months. I have an amazing wife and amazing kids so we make it work. There’s definitely many families with tougher challenges, so we’re very fortunate for the life we are able to live.

Paul Byron’s story is an inspiration to many hockey players. For all the players who were ever told they were too small to make it or were told they simply couldn’t and didn’t have what it takes. Byron’s story displays that if you work hard at what you’re passionate about you can achieve great feats. He embodies tremendous persistence and we greatly appreciate him taking the time to answer some questions for us!

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Categories: NHL

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