OTTAWA – It’s often said, expect the unexpected. But not even Raphael Diaz could have anticipated what has become a surreal start to his career on this side of the pond.
A recently-turned 26-year-old rookie, Diaz was thought to be Hamilton Bulldogs-bound to start the season. A few months later, he’s taking in the sights and sounds of the 2012 NHL All-Star Game as a last-minute replacement among the league’s first year players.
“It’s amazing. I didn’t expect that,” Diaz said at the NHL All-Star Media Day. “I’ve played 45 games or so and now I’m at the All-Star Game. It’s like a dream.”
One that began in mid-September at Canadiens training camp. His AHL ticket appeared to be booked, with Montreal having eight defencemen pencilled in on its blue line before the puck even dropped on the regular season. He appeared to be a victim of the numbers game.
Then suddenly, the numbers fell in his favour.
Andrei Markov wasn’t near ready and Chris Campoli got injured in the season opener. Then Jaroslav Spacek went down. He had also impressed his coaching staff enough that countryman and fellow defenceman Yannick Weber started the year as a fourth-line winger.
“My goal was all the time to play for the Canadiens. I heard such good things about Montreal and about all the fans, the crowd and everything,” said Diaz, an undrafted free agent. “But I didn’t expect that I’d play from the beginning and still be on the team.”
It’s made for a whirlwind of changes for the native of Baar, Switzerland. He spent his entire career – both junior and pro – with EV Zug and had never left his home country.
And although Diaz may still be new in town, he’s no unknown in Montreal – and he’s perfectly happy with that.
“If somebody asks for an autograph or a picture, it’s no problem,” he said. “That’s the nice thing in Montreal – the whole city is living the sport and it’s the best city to play for.”
He has enjoyed the All-Star experience so far, an opportunity that has allowed him to rub elbows with some of the NHL’s biggest names.
“There were a lot of players I was looking forward to seeing and it’s nice to be able to see and talk to them,” he said. “Everybody says hello and talks a little bit. It’s really nice.”
On Saturday, he’ll do his part in the SuperSkills competition. He’s been assigned to the Challenge Relay, where he’ll compete in the puck control portion – a role he’s perfect for, in the eyes of Habs and All-Star teammate Carey Price.
“He’s a pretty agile guy so he’s very good with the puck,” he noted.
Price, meanwhile, will be the Team Chara goaltender in the Breakaway Challenge and will also get a go in the Elimination Shootout.
Appearing at the mid-season showcase for the third time in his career, he knows it’s not about the goaltending. But that won’t stop him from enjoying the skills portion of the weekend.
“It’s fun to be able to go out there and just ham it up a little bit and be a part of it,” Price said. “At the end of the day, we’re just trying to go out there and put on a show. So we go out there and goof around, show some personality – that’s what people want to see.
“I think it’s just gravy being able to watch all the guys do their thing out there,” he added. “To go out there and get scored on a few times isn’t too bad.”
Even if it’s in the shootout, a notable problem area for the Canadiens all season long. After all, this time, he won’t be getting grilled about it when the night’s over.
“Yeah, it will be nice,” he laughed, when asked if he’s looking forward to a question-free shootout appearance. “Yeah, it’ll be great.”