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March 04, 2011

Frank Patrick: Hockey's Greatest Innovator

Hockey lore has remembered Lester Patrick largely for his NHL coaching success, his charisma and, of course, his famous Stanley Cup goaltending debut as a 44 year old.

More importantly, he should be recognized as one of the most important builders in the game's history. But he had an partner equal in every way, except in notoriety - his quieter, more introspective, and ultimately troubled brother Frank Patrick.

Frank, like Lester, excelled at the game as a defenseman. He would rush the puck much like a later day Bobby Orr or Paul Coffey. He would win the Stanley Cup in 1915 with the Vancouver Millionaires. But he slowly left the ice to run the team behind the bench and an entire league in the front offices.

The Patricks were born and raised in hockey crazed Montreal in the 1880s. The game was slower to head to the western provinces, but that quickly accelerated when the Patricks' family business moved to British Columbia. Lester and Frank were the son of a lumber baron. They managed to convince their father to invest much of the money into the boys dream of a western hockey league. Rinks were built in Vancouver and Victoria, and the Pacific Coast Hockey Association was created.

The PCHA would prove to be the equal of the NHA/NHL. The two leagues battled bitterly for player services, spiking salaries to an unsustainable level. Ultimately the NHL won out, and the remains of the Patricks league were assimilated.

But the importance of the PCHA can not be overstated. And that is directly a result of Lester and especially Frank. Frank's most important contributions to the game are the more than 20 rule changes which are still in effect today. These include:

  • the creation of the blue line
  • forward passing
  • the penalty shot
  • the playoff format (used by many sports worldwide now)
  • allowing goalies to leave their feet
  • numbers on sweaters
His coaching and playing strategies innovated the game into what it is today. He even tried to form professional women's leagues.

It is very safe to say hockey as we know it is thanks very much to Frank Patrick.

Why didn't he get the notoriety his brother got? Part of was personality, but much of it was circumstance. When the Patricks western empire crumbled, Lester jumped to New York and became an instant legend. Frank turned down offers from Chicago and Detroit to remain in Vancouver, managing the family's arena and business interests, and clinging to his lost hockey dreams. He eventually did head to the NHL, joining Boston for two seasons starting in 1934. After a 1st and 2nd place finish but no Stanley Cup success, Frank Patrick exited the coaching scene in 1936.

Sadly, Frank had self-esteem issues. He turned to alcohol because, for all his revolutionary contributions to the game, he considered himself to be a failure. He disappeared into obscurity as he battled his demons until his death from a heart attack in 1960. He was 74.

Frank Patrick was rightfully inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1958.

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