October 11, 2017

Legends of Team Canada: James Patrick

This is James Patrick. "Jeep" played in nearly 1300 NHL games, 4 world championships, 2 world juniors, 1 Canada Cup and 1 Olympics, but somehow is one of the most underrated defensemen in the history of the game.

Patrick, who suffered from the digestive disease colitis, was an exceptional talent. He was an excellent skater in every way - speed, agility and power. His skating was amplified by his superior puck handling ability, often rushing the puck. He had a great point shot, always kept low for tips and rebounds.

That is how Patrick picked up most of his points, because he was not an elite passer. He was never great at the perfect breakout pass from his own zone. His instinct was always to skate with the puck. Once he reached the neutral zone he would either dump the puck into the offensive zone, or just drive all the way to the net, whether the defenseman should be or not. He was unlikely to utilize the players ahead of him when rushing the puck.

Though his skating and hockey smarts always placed him in strong defensive positioning, he was often criticized for his defensive play. Despite his good size, he was never a physical presence by any stretch of the imagination. It was not in his demeanor, or in his upper body strength. Still, his skating and balance should have allowed him to be a smart take-out defenseman, but too often players would drive through his checks.

James came from a great Canadian athletic family, but not the family you may expect. He is no relation to Frank and Lester Patrick, hockey's most influential family. He is the son of Steve Patrick, a former CFL star quarterback turned Manitoba politician. James' brother Steve Jr. also played in the NHL, including a short time with James on the Rangers. Nephew Nolan Patrick was a top draft pick in 2017.

James was the Rangers 9th overall draft pick in 1981, selected ahead of the likes of Al MacInnis and Chris Chelios. Patrick was named as the Canadian Tier II junior player of the year that year, leading Prince Albert to the Centennial Cup. But the Rangers would have to be patient with Patrick, who was heading to the University of North Dakota to hone his game and study business administration.

Patrick immediately established himself as one of the best players in the NCAA, winning WCHA Rookie of the Year in 1982. That year North Dakota won the NCAA championships, with Patrick being named as the team's MVP. Patrick would be named as a finalist for the Hobey Baker award as the best college player in the country in 1983.

Patrick would leave North Dakota early. In his magical 1982 season he also discovered international hockey, helping Canada earn it's first World Junior gold medal. He enjoyed that experience so much that he jumped at the opportunity to return. He spent the 1983-84 season playing with Dave King's Canadian national team, earning a spot on the Canadian Olympic team. The Canadians finished just out of the medals in 4th place, but Patrick would credit the experience with readying him for the NHL.

 "The coaches at Notre Dame are Barry McKenzie and Terry O'Malley, who played on Father David Bauer's national teams," Patrick said. "They brought out the Olympic idea to us. I was 16 then, and it's all I've wanted since. Passing up the Rangers just now is no sacrifice, believe me." 

Canada would finish out of the medals, but for Patrick there was no regrets. 

''Sure, there's money in the NHL, but I feel my life is more fulfilled by the Olympic experience,'' he also said. ''I'd rather take $10 a day to play for my country than one year of my NHL salary.'' 

Patrick would finish the season with the Rangers, immediately taking a spot on the power play. He would be a regular on the point for the next decade.

Although he had better offensive years, his best year was in 1987-88. He began the year playing with Canada at the Canada Cup, and finished the year being named as the Rangers best defenseman and team MVP.

In late 1993 the Rangers traded Patrick in a complex three way trade to land Steve Larmer. Patrick would play most of the season with Hartford before being traded again to Calgary where the Flames were knocked out in the first round of the playoffs. The Rangers, meanwhile, won the Stanley Cup, a reward that would prove to be elusive for Patrick.

Patrick would play in Calgary for six years, battling serious knee, neck and concussion injuries. For a time Patrick was reunited with former Olympic coach Dave King, giving him a great vantage point to compare the younger and more experienced versions of the coach.

"He's a little more patient now than he was back then, Patrick said of King, who became coach of the Flames in 1992. "You have to adjust to the NHL when you're dealing with stars and egos and salaries. He still stresses defensive play and likes to teach the players.
"His personality has maybe mellowed a little, (but) not his competitiveness, said Patrick. "When I was with the Olympic team, you didn't know if Dave liked you or not.
"He still likes to teach. I've always felt he was one of the best practice coaches with drills simulated to game conditions.

The Flames would not renew his contract in 1998, and some speculated Patrick's career was done.

The Buffalo Sabres were looking for a veteran presence on their blueline, and signed Patrick up. Neither party probably expected Patrick to play in Buffalo for six seasons, although injuries limited his playing time. Patrick's career highlight came in 1999 when he helped the Sabres reach the Stanley Cup finals. The Sabres would fall to the Dallas Stars in six games.

In 21 NHL seasons Patrick played in 1280 games, scored 149 goals and 639 points. Patrick finally retired in 2004 and took a spot behind the Sabres bench, coaching the defensemen.

At one time he also held the record for most games played by a Canadian at the World Championships.

Not surprisingly, Patrick felt players should never say no when asked to play for their country.

this game has given them so much. It's given them so much security -- they'll probably be secure for life," he said. "I don't know if they realize that they grew up playing in Canadian minor-hockey leagues, from atom to midget, to Canadian junior leagues. ... I believe they have an obligation to their country, for everything that they've been given. 

For a player with such a great mind for the game, there was never such an obvious transition.

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