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Another injury that shook the league Add to ...

It happened during a hard-fought game between the Montreal Canadiens and an Original Six rival - the capacity crowd hushed as a home team player lay on the ice after breaking his neck.

The date was March 9, 1963, and the player was Leapin' Louie Fontinato, who suffered a catastrophic neck injury at the Montreal Forum after going into the corner with the Rangers' Vic Hadfield.

History works in cycles, but it's still an improbable instance of serendipity that another Hab, Max Pacioretty, 22, would find himself in an identical position - flat out on the ice, fans holding their breath in horror - almost 48 years to the day later, in the same city, amid similar circumstances (this time the rival would be Boston).

"I saw it on the news, I've been saying a few Hail Marys for him," Fontinato told The Globe and Mail from his cattle farm near Guelph, Ont. "Maybe he'll be as lucky as I've been . . . it sounds that way, anyway."

Fontinato was rushed to the Montreal General Hospital - where Pacioretty would also be treated almost five decades later - but unlike the current Hab, spent nearly four months there recovering from paralysis in his limbs.

"I was in a body cast for two months, the legs came back first, but it was a long while before the arms did, a long while," said Fontinato, 79, who never played hockey again but has been hale and hearty enough to farm for nearly 50 years. "You tell that young man to have faith and he'll be okay."

The Fontinato hit was among the first "uh-oh" moments in the NHL's modern era - an injury that shook the league.

"And that was before instant replay," said University of Michigan hockey coach Red Berenson, who was also playing for the Canadiens that night. "But everybody who was there knew it was a bad one."

Berenson, of course, has a direct connection to Pacioretty, having recruited him to play for the Wolverines ("You could tell right away he had the makings of an NHL power forward," he said).

He also said that Zdeno Chara's hit on Pacioretty has had a profound effect on the latter's former teammates.

"He would have been a senior this year," Berenson said, adding "they were definitely alarmed . . . it shows the fine line between having an NHL career, which everybody wants, and not having one."

If Fontinato was able to make a miracle recovery, Pacioretty seems to be on the same path.

The native of New Canaan, Conn., suffered a severe concussion and a cervical fracture, but he was discharged with a neck brace rather than the bulkier "halo" - which holds the neck in place - and could start rehabilitation within two or three weeks if all goes well.

As he recuperates, Pacioretty and his family have asked for privacy, but that hasn't stopped him from doing what most other 22-year-olds do: go online to social media sites.

According to his Twitter feed, Pacioretty is eager to start rehab, "want to thank my teammates for being so great and supporting me. Can't wait to join them again on the ice."

He's also well enough to share a thought on the Japanese earthquake, "my heart goes out to the people who have been affected."

He also received messages of support from friends like Cincinnati Reds prospect Ryan LaMarre and former world junior championships Team USA teammate James van Riemsdyk of the Philadelphia Flyers.

He is a middle child - he has two sisters, the younger of whom goes to Michigan. Pacioretty's father Ray owns his own business and his mother, Anette, is an executive at IBM.

Pacioretty, a 2007 first-round draft pick who played a season for the USHL's Sioux City Musketeers before heading to Michigan, is engaged to pro tennis player Katia Afinogenova, the younger sister of former NHL player Maxim Afinogenov.

If there is a moment when those who have known Pacioretty since adolescence realized he had what it takes to play at the NHL, it was when he was half-way through Grade 10.

In a game between his prep academy and rival Kent School, the young Pacioretty - who remains a reserved, quiet figure, at least in public - took things into his own hands.

"He just took the game over," said Dan Murphy, who was Pacioretty's coach at The Taft School in Watertown, Conn. "And from then on, he just put the team on his back and took us all the way to the New England championships - we lost in the final."

It was evident from an early age that Pacioretty, who doesn't come from a hockey playing family and was hooked on the sport after going to a public skating session at four, had only one goal in mind.

"Other guys in the locker room said they wanted to play at Vermont or some other college, but Max always said, 'I'm going to play in the NHL,'" said Dan Murphy, who was Pacioretty's coach at The Taft School in Watertown, Conn. Murphy has stayed in close contact with his former star player and plans to visit him in Montreal next week.

"He's a very determined kid. I know one thing, he will do absolutely anything he can in order to get back," he said.

Follow on Twitter: @MrSeanGordon

 

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