Forward Francis Pare yearns to get a taste of the NHL.
Story and photo by Mark Newman
Francis Pare is determined to be a hungrier hockey player this season.
His hankering began this summer when he changed physical trainers and moved back home. He wanted to concentrate on getting his career back on a track that he hopes will bring an opportunity to play in the National Hockey League.
“I had a great summer to be honest with you,” he said. “It’s always good to be home, so I went back to Montreal and stayed with my family. I kept a diet and my mom cooked all the meals. No more McDonald’s. No more beer. I was eating a lot more vegetables and lost some fat.”
The result is that Pare is now leaner and, if not meaner, at least more determined than ever to succeed. He knows his contract expires after this season and that his performance in 2010-11 will likely decide whether the Red Wings show even a nibble of interest.
“I worked out seriously this summer,” he said, noting that he abstained from skating while working out in the gym twice a day. “Obviously I want to sign a new contract with the Wings, so I have to play my best.”
Watching what he ate was only one part of his off-season regimen, but his belt-tightening diet was a critical component in his efforts to buckle down. He even showed the willpower to avoid poutine, which are French fries topped with fresh cheese curds and covered in gravy.
“My favorite dish is poutine, but it’s way too fat, so I ate a lot of chicken and Caesar salad,” he said. “But there is no poutine in the States, so I had to get at least some in my body to hold me through the winter.”
In pure hockey terms, Pare would be the first to admit that last season was hard to stomach. He went the first 21 games of the year without a goal.
“I had never been through anything like that before,” he said. “It was unbelievable. Fortunately I learned a lot out of it and I’m ready to go this year.”
Pare knew he wasn’t the first hockey player to squeeze the stick a little too tightly in hopes of putting the biscuit in the basket, but that knowledge provides little comfort. As a natural goal scorer – he tallied 54 goals in his final junior season before turning pro in 2008 – he struggled mightily to understand what was wrong.
“I was talking to my dad every single day. He told me to keep shooting, keep it simple and stay positive – just keep good thoughts in my head,” Pare said.
“When you start thinking negative stuff, that’s when you’re done. Unfortunately, the negative stuff went through my head for a long time and I got away from the things that I had done the year before. I wasn’t playing my game – I was just looking for a goal.”
Griffins head coach Curt Fraser provided some necessary encouragement.
“I think what happened to him was a fluke because there’s no way you can keep a player of his ability off the board for that long,” Fraser said. “I told him, ‘Just keep going. We’re not changing our mind about you. We know you can do it.’ It was just reinforcing the positive things because we know how good a player he is.”
Hearing that kind of verbal support was important, Pare said.
“When coach talked to me that helped, but we’re pros and you’ve got to get through it by yourself,” Pare said. “Nobody’s going to take you by the hand and put the puck into the net for you. But it was good to know that my family, friends and teammates were there for me.”
In fact, Pare’s Secret Santa had planned to present him with a puck for a free goal, but he spoiled the surprise when he finally scored on a penalty shot the night before the Griffins’ gift exchange. “The joke was over, but I was happy,” he said.
Pare may have been feeling pressure or at least some sense of responsibility to outperform. In April 2009, Red Wings general manager Ken Holland signed Pare to a two-year entry level contract that would allow him to hone his skills in Grand Rapids.
“Ever since I was three years old, my dream has been to play in the NHL,” he said. “When I signed the contract with the Wings, I was very proud because it was a great achievement for my family. They had made a lot of sacrifices and spent a lot of energy on me, so it was very moving.”
Up until last year’s disastrous start, Pare had done everything in his power to prove to Detroit that he deserved an opportunity. His rookie season in 2008-09 had seen him record 24 goals and 24 assists in 63 AHL games.
In addition, his plus-minus rating, which demonstrates a player’s ability to be defensively responsible on the ice, was a team-best plus-23 during his rookie year. He led the Griffins with a plus-19 rating last season, becoming the first player to ever pace Grand Rapids in consecutive seasons.
“I’m not the best player on defense, but I try to work hard every time that I touch the ice,” Pare said. “I just try to play both sides of the zone.”
While it is his offensive talents that may ultimately give Pare a shot at the NHL, he is far from being a defensive liability, according to his coach.
“He’s just a plus player all the time,” Fraser said. “He’s more than capable of putting up huge numbers. I think he’s going to have a great year. He’s a special player.”
Pare would like nothing more than to show that his coach’s faith is not misplaced. He is not going to get hung up on numbers, whether this year’s or last season’s.
“My attitude coming into this season is to forget about last year,” Pare said. “I’m just going to take it one practice, one game and one day at a time.”
And that, he hopes, is a recipe for success.