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Straight shooter: Patrick sticks to his guns, takes aim on making Flyers

Ken Campbell
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Straight shooter: Patrick sticks to his guns, takes aim on cracking Flyers' lineup

Nolan Patrick was selected second overall by the Philadelphia Flyers at the 2017 NHL draft. Source: Getty Images

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Straight shooter: Patrick sticks to his guns, takes aim on making Flyers

Ken Campbell
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Nolan Patrick, the No. 2 pick in the NHL draft last June, is not your typical young hockey player. The Flyers' top prospect has the confidence to speak his mind and the poise to stand his ground.

If the whole playing-in-the-NHL thing doesn’t work out – and it looks increasingly as though it will – Nolan Patrick would be perfectly content spending his life in the backwoods of Manitoba as a hunting guide. It’s good, honest work in the outdoors, and in Canada it pays an average of $70,576 a year, or 36 bucks an hour, which is a pretty good payday. But if he plays this coming season with the Philadelphia Flyers, he’ll make more than 13 times that amount in U.S. funds and he won’t have to deal with blackflies the size of your head.

There are two places where Patrick feels most at home. One is on the ice, which is good, since he’s setting himself up to spend the next two decades there. The other is in the wild. Anywhere will do, but he’s particularly fond of his cabin on Falcon Lake and in the woods outside a tiny town called Minnedosa just north of Brandon. Whether he’s toting a rifle, bow or spear – yeah, you read that right, a spear – Patrick is definitely in his happy place when he’s chasing down prey on land or water, preferably with his father, Stephen, a first-round NHL pick himself who played 250 games in the big leagues. When Patrick was rehabbing during the early part of the most trying season of his life, he would find solace in his almost daily hunting outings. Even got himself a good-sized buck. Then he got a turkey a couple of weeks before the draft. “It’s one of my favorite things to do and I love eating the animals I get,” Patrick said. “For me, when an animal is so close to you and doesn’t know you’re there, it’s probably the biggest adrenaline rush you can get before you pull the trigger. I like to see the way they act, and then obviously you know what happens next…”

Yup, we do. Almost always, the animal gets a bullet between the eyes, and Patrick and his family eat it. He took down his first deer when he was 12, and when he was a kid he often took shots on his net in the garage with a buck hanging behind him. Now before you get all worked up and preachy, know that Patrick is not some trophy hunter who gets his kicks posing beside a dead savannah elephant in Africa. He eats what he kills, including the fish he spears at his cabin. That might not sit well with some people, but the way he sees it, there’s no difference between what he does and ordering a hamburger at McDonald’s. “I can go to the store and buy a turkey,” he said, “or I can go out and shoot one myself.”

If you’re getting the sense right about now that Patrick is his own man, well, you’re pretty warm. He’s an 18-year-old who comes across as refreshing because everything is not “surreal.” When it comes to Patrick, it’s very real. He doesn’t start his sentences with “obviously,” and he doesn’t speak in sound bytes that give you the impression he’s been coached to be bland and vanilla. There’s a certain authenticity about him that is not only refreshing, but that belies his age. Not old enough yet to drink in the state where he hopes to be working and still sporting rosy cheeks, Patrick is not about to be confined by convention. He already has four tattoos on his left arm, two of which he needed permission from his parents to have done because he was too young to give consent. The first is on his wrist and reads ‘SCP 63,’ a tribute to his grandfather, Stephen Clifford Patrick, who wore No. 63 in his 13 years with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers and won four Grey Cups before becoming a member of the provincial legislature in Manitoba. Moving up the arm, there is a simple ‘C’ on Patrick’s forearm because his grandfather called him Charlie. Then there’s a replica of a schooner that is in a picture in his home in Winnipeg, and the fourth on the inside of his bicep is three flowers, one each for his mother, Carrie, and his hockey-playing sisters Madison and Aimee.

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Nolan Patrick talks to the media ahead of the 2017 NHL draft in Chicago.

When asked before the draft whether people are still concerned about his injuries, he said, “You’re asking me right now, so I guess I’m still getting questions about it.” And after being taken second overall by the Philadelphia Flyers despite being the consensus projected No. 1 choice much of the season, he was asked whether he was disappointed that the New Jersey Devils passed him over in favor of Nico Hischier. “If you don’t want to draft me,” he said, “then don’t draft me.” Most players vying for No. 1 say they don’t really care where they’re drafted and deep down, they do. It’s the same way players talk about not even thinking about their contract. What they say for public consumption and what they really feel are different. But Patrick, armed with an enormous amount of perspective, knows that draft position really means nothing. He and his father would watch the Detroit Red Wings play, then look up the players by draft year on the Internet and click on the games played icon, which would list them in descending order. “Then you’d say, “Cripes, (Henrik) Zetterberg went in the seventh round,” recalled Stephen. “We did that a lot.”

If you haven’t spent much time around 18-year-old hockey players, or ones a lot older, it might be difficult to fathom how remarkable this is. It borders on too-cool-for-school territory, but what it actually turns out to be is a young man who is uncannily well grounded. No doubt, it’s in large part due to the fact he has been surrounded by high-profile athletes all his life. In addition to his father and grandfather, his mother was on the Canadian national volleyball team. His uncle, James, was a defenseman who played more than 1,200 games in the NHL and served as an assistant coach with the Buffalo Sabres and Dallas Stars before taking over the WHL’s Kootenay Ice this summer. His mother’s brother is Rich Chernomaz, who played 51 NHL games and was the AHL’s most valuable player in 1993-94. So this is not his Patrick’s first rodeo. But still. When asked where he gets his poise, both on and off the ice, Patrick is at a loss. “I don’t know,” he said. “I ask myself that sometimes.”

It takes a village to raise an NHL player. And Nolan Patrick is no exception. Stephen was always there for advice and input, not to mention the fact he was the one who built the family’s backyard rink, but you know how kids and their dads get on at a certain age. And that’s where James, a wealth of knowledge with the playing and coaching career to back it up, came in. James was instrumental in Nolan’s development as a player, breaking down video of his games in the WHL with the Brandon Wheat Kings. But it started even before that. Nolan began skating with his uncle in the summer when he was 12, and James noticed that his nephew had better hands than a lot of players he was working with in Buffalo. James remembers Nolan sitting rapt in front of the television in his pajamas watching Hockey Night in Canada, but he wasn’t just watching. He was breaking down the game. He recalls a time when he was home during a break when he was playing in Germany and they were watching a game on television. Seven-year-old Nolan asked his uncle and his father why a player made a certain play when he had another option, and the brothers looked at each other in awe. James said it was the kind of thing he’d hear in a coach’s office.

James also remembers Nolan’s first game as a 16-year-old with the Wheat Kings, a season in which Nolan would score 30 goals and be named the WHL’s rookie of the year after debuting with three games as a 15-year-old the season prior. James watched the game online from Dallas and began taking notes, starting with his nephew’s first shift. Then he called his brother to tell him that Nolan made three mistakes on his first shift. By the end of the night, he had 20 points he wanted to discuss with Nolan. “I texted him after the game and called him the next day saying, ‘You should do this and this and this,’ ” James recalled. “Then I realized, ‘He’s got his coach talking to him, he’s got me talking to him, and he’s got his dad talking to him.’ After about five or six games, we said, ‘This is crazy. We’re going to drive him nuts.’ So much overkill. Now it’s just one or two things.”

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Nolan Patrick works out at the 2017 NHL draft combine in Buffalo.

That served Nolan well through his rookie season and even better in his second year in the league when he scored 102 points, then added 30 more in the playoffs to take playoff MVP honors and lead the Wheat Kings to the Memorial Cup tournament. It was during that playoff run that Patrick noticed something was wrong with the right side of his groin, and what followed were months of frustration, with Patrick undergoing surgery and being misdiagnosed for a sports hernia. It was only during his second stint on the injury list that Patrick discovered that he originally had a sports injury on his left side that had gone undiagnosed. “He basically felt like he was skating on one leg this year,” Stephen said.

That did not stop the questions. Patrick must have declared himself 100 percent a couple hundred times during the draft weekend. Stephen says his son is now stronger than he was before the injuries and his stride is better. You can bet the Flyers did their due diligence and did not allow the fact Patrick has played in only 75 percent of his regular season games in three years of junior hockey to deter them from taking a guy who might be the most complete player in the draft. Because of the injury, last summer was pretty much a write-off as far as training was concerned. A second abdominal surgery June 13 sidelined him another four to six weeks, but after that he should be cleared to go all-out this summer in an effort to get bigger and stronger, Patrick is setting his sights on landing a spot in the Flyers lineup in the fall and staying there throughout the season.

Which brings us to Patrick’s attributes as a player. His performance in 2015-16 and the body of work in its totality proves he is an elite-level NHL prospect. Patrick idolized fellow Winnipegger Jonathan Toews when he was growing up, which seems kind of strange when you think about it. Toews can barely grow a decent playoff beard, and already players who are coming up the ranks are talking about how they admired him when they were playing minor hockey. There are some similarities there, as there are to Ryan Getzlaf. Patrick has proven to be more playmaker than scorer, with his ability to play a 200-foot game the most valuable commodity he has. Uncle James says sometimes Nolan’s poise is a blessing and a curse because people watch him play and don’t recognize he’s thinking the game on a higher level than other players and they want to see him be more aggressive and move his feet more.
Wayne Gretzky always used to say that the bigger the game, the better he slept the night before. Patrick thinks much the same way. He wants the puck, and he wants the responsibility of shutting down the other team’s best player. He’s always conscious of getting under sticks and establishing body positioning, something he learned from his uncle and from watching so much hockey. He knows you can’t be cheating if there’s a good possibility you’ll get burned. “For me, playoff hockey is when I play my best,” said Patrick, who was pulled from the Wheat Kings’ last game of the season and sat out their four-game sweep at the hands of the Medicine Hat Tigers. “I played my best hockey in the playoffs (in 2016). I hate games that are blowouts. I don’t enjoy playing in them. I love big games and I love getting excited for them.”

As Patrick prepares for this season, he does so with his eyes wide open. He has wanted to be a hockey player for as long as he can remember. When he was five years old, he got a chance to hang up the Sabres’ sweaters in the dressing room before a pre-season game in Grand Forks, N.D. (One of the perks of having a relative in the NHL.) He knew then that there was a good chance it would be his destiny to play in the best league in the world. If he were to go back for another year of junior, it would not be the worst thing, since he’d be a mainstay on Canada’s world junior team, but he doesn’t really see how a fourth season of major junior hockey would help him.

Being a Patrick and being constantly immersed in a hockey culture has its advantages. When you consider everyone who plays, the Patricks can give the Sutters a run for their money. Madison is a stay-at-home defenseman for the University of British Columbia varsity team, and Aimee plays high school hockey in Winnipeg for St. Mary’s Academy. Earlier this past season, the ninth-grader received a three-game suspension for hitting an opponent from behind, then returned and was suspended again for catching an opponent with a high stick. “The first suspension, the girl was pushing her all game and getting up in her face, so I think (Aimee) just took a run at her,” Nolan said. “The second one was an accident. She’s got to avoid that, but she’s smart and she sees the ice and she can skate, so I think she might be the best in the family.”

She’d have to be pretty good to pull that one off. There are no guarantees for Nolan Patrick, but anyone who can average 1.3 points per game in the world’s best junior league clearly has potential. One scout compared the Hischier-Nolan selection order to the 1988 draft when Mike Modano was selected first overall, followed by Trevor Linden. Both great players, but the Vancouver Canucks knew exactly what they were getting in Linden and he delivered with 19 years of impeccable leadership and solid play, while Modano was more of a wild card with more upside offensive potential that was realized.

The funny thing is that through the draft process, Nolan and Hischier became pretty good friends. When Nolan said it was not, nor was ever, a competition between them to see who would go first overall, he meant it. And contrary to what Alexander Daigle said when he was drafted ahead of Chris Pronger in 1993, people do remember who went No. 2 if they forge a memorable career. (“Who’s eating the s--- sandwich on that one now?” Pronger would say later in one of the greatest lines in hockey history.) There’s no reason both players will not be able to carve out their paths in the NHL. As Nolan pointed out ad nauseam in Chicago, the draft really doesn’t mean that much in the grand scheme of things. “After the draft, people talk about it for two weeks, and then they start talking about the prospects for the next year,” he said. “For me, the pressure is just beginning.”

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Straight shooter: Patrick sticks to his guns, takes aim on making Flyers