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LEWISTON, Maine — Michael Chaput had a head start.
Chaput, drafted into the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League by the Lewiston Maineiacs in the first round (ninth overall) in 2008, arrived at the team's training camp that August with intimate knowledge of the team, the facilities, the coaching staff and his future teammates, courtesy of his older brother, Stefan.
"I knew a couple of the guys already, they'd come to my house in the summer time, and when I came here, my brother introduced me to everyone," Michael Chaput said. "It was easier to adapt, that's for sure."
Stefan Chaput was one of the Maineiacs' leading scorers in 2007-08, and was a key piece of the team's run to the Memorial Cup tournament in 2007. In 2008-09, he left the team as a 20-year-old to turn professional in the Carolina Hurricanes' organization. But he came to the Maineiacs' training camp, along with a few other alumni, to get some extra skating in. His presence helped the team, but it helped brother Michael, too.
"Obviously, the hockey was harder, that's for sure. It took me a few weeks to adjust, bit overall, it was good," Michael said.
What big brother couldn't do anything about was Michael's freak injury during his rookie season. Having played less than 30 games, he suffered a shoulder injury and was shelved for the season after a promising start.
He didn't miss much in the way of winning and success. The Maineiacs struggled through a tough season on the ice, finishing 16th out of 18 teams, and Drummondville swept them out of the playoffs.
Renewed hope greeted Chaput to begin the following season.
"It sort of was like another rookie season," Chaput said. "I had gotten surgery and there was a lot of rehabilitation. I didn't know what to expect from my shoulder right away. I'd only played 29 games, so I had to start everything all over again, but I think it went pretty well."
Statistically, he was right. Despite another year of struggles from the team on the ice, Chaput collected 28 goals and 27 assists for 55 points. Sixteen of those goals and 20 of the assists came in the season's second half.
His efforts landed him a shot at his dream. The Philadelphia Flyers selected Chaput in the third round of the 2010 NHL Entry Draft, with their first pick of the session.
"I don't have to worry about playing to get drafted anymore," Chaput said. "I have to worry about now playing for the team here, and for Philadelphia to hopefully have them sign me to a contract in the next year or two. I get good feedback from the Flyers, and it helps to get feedback from guys like that."
The 2009-10 season was also a year for a big reunion. Growing up, Chaput played for the talent-rich Lac St. Louis Lions program. The Maineiacs began assembling pieces from that team, Chaput's former teammates.
"When they got Stef (Fournier) in the summer time, we spoke about it, after he knew he was traded here," Chaput said. "We were both really happy. We'd played together and we had good chemistry. Then at Christmas time we got Matt Bissonnette, and that was even better because now it was our whole line from when we played back home. They put us back together for this year in some games, and that's great."
What wasn't great was another finish for the team near the bottom of the league's standings, and another drubbing in the first round at the hands of Drummondville.
But, Chaput said, from losing develops character.
"We finished almost at the bottom of the league for two seasons," Chaput said. "It does build character because you never want to go through it again. I only had to live through half of it my first year, but the second year was a total disaster. This year, we have a great group of guys, and we know we can do so much better, and we are. We're playing with sort of a chip on our shoulders to prove how much better we can be."
Chaput is helping lead the way, and he again has risen to the occasion in the second half of the season. An assistant captain with the squad, Chaput currently has 22 goals and 30 assists for 52 points in 51 games. Twelve of those 22 goals and 11 of the 30 assists have come since Christmas.
"You can tell, he seems to move his feet quicker, he has an extra burst of speed," Maineiacs' coach J.F. Houle said. "He's using his speed more, and that gives him an advantage."
But, Chaput said, individual numbers are one thing. The fact that the Maineiacs have arisen from the ashes and are among the top six teams in the league standings is even better. That, he said, comes from great team chemistry, something of which he is proud to be a part.
"This team has great chemistry," Chaput said. "I'm surprised, you know, all the guys love each other and we all have so much fun. There aren't many cliques here, guys that hang around only with each other. Every guy here plays for each other and we'll fight for each other if we need to. It's one of the greatest team chemistries I've ever seen. I feel we can compete with every team. The only team we haven't beaten is Montreal, and we know we can beat them. We have a great team when we play hard and play together, and hopefully we go all the way."
PHOTO CREDIT - Ron Morin
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