A solitary figure stood behind the seats filled with cheering fans as the Columbus Blue Jackets began their 2013 training camp. As more fans filed past to get a seat, most didn’t pay attention to the quiet, unassuming man standing there.
All the while, his eyes followed the action on the ice as the players worked their way through drills. A few people would stop and say hello, getting a smile and warm greeting from him, before grabbing their seat. For the most part, he was left alone to soak in the beginning of another season in a storied career that has spanned over four decades as a player, coach and in management.
Long before joining Columbus in December, 2011 as Special Advisor (Hockey Operations), Craig Patrick has had hockey wound throughout the fabric of his DNA. Five members of his family, including him, have had their name enshrined on the Stanley Cup. He’s the third generation of his family, behind his father and great-uncle, to be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame. He’s won numerous awards and accolades, including the Lester Patrick Trophy (named for his grandfather), for outstanding service to hockey in the United States.
He joined the Blue Jackets at a time when the club was in flux, searching for an identity and a way to move forward. There was the stated goal of making the playoffs, but how to go beyond that was the question. “We were moving along on a good path” he said, “but, there was a clear, defined task, definitely.”
In October, 2012, the organization hired John Davidson, in what is really the watershed moment for the franchise. “We were on our way”, Patrick said. “But, John (Davidson) coming in with his reputation, his knowledge of the game and the respect that he had, I think it made a huge difference on everybody.”
He is part of a front office staff that has to be the envy of many teams within the NHL. “I don’t look at it like that”, he said, “but it’s certainly a very good group of people.” This group includes not only himself and Davidson, but Jarmo Kekalainen (GM), Chris MacFarland (AGM) and Bill Zito (AGM). “This group is very knowledgeable, very high energy. I believe that it’s a really good organizational structure.”
“When I first came to Pittsburgh (as GM), the first thing I did was hire Bob Johnson and Scotty Bowman. So, I can see how hiring people of that caliber can make a huge difference, like bringing John (Davidson) and Jarmo (Kekalainen) in. It makes a huge difference and kick-started our organization.”
With this group in place, the players have stepped up their drive to be successful, too. “They’ve developed a real strong commitment and a belief in themselves”, said Patrick. “You can tell just by being around them, more and more, that they’re a really confident group right now.”
With Ryan Murray and Boone Jenner making the club out of training camp, Patrick sees this as a progression in skill among the youth that has been steadily increasing. “Definitely”, he said. “It has been for several decades. It’s to continue (to increase) just because, not only in the United States, but in Canada, too, their programs are still growing. Our kids are getting better and better, constantly. And, that will continue.”
He related how his father, Joseph Lynn Patrick (player, coach and General Manager of the New York Rangers, 1934-1950), observed the same strides in the development of each generation of players. “He said to me, ‘you players are so much better than we were. You are bigger, faster and stronger. You guys are way better.’ He said this to me when I was a kid playing hockey and I see it still, to this day.’
With players developing a higher skill set at an earlier age, this translates into the average age of players on teams getting younger. The Blue Jackets have a young club, yet still has veteran voices within the room that have playoff and Stanley Cup winning experience. “I think we have a very good blend of players. We’re quite young, but I see Ryan Johansen (for example) has taken another step forward.’
“The young guys are getting better and better. We also have a good core of veteran guys that realize our success is based on our system and our hard work. That will never be forgotten.”
Gone are the days when the stated goal was trying to make the playoffs. Each of the players, as well as the entire organization, voice that the Stanley Cup is the goal, and acknowledge that it is a process that is built upon a solid foundation. “All we have to do is look at our last 29 games last year (19-5-5). If we can build on that, we’re going to be competing for a Stanley Cup pretty soon.”
He doesn’t seem surprised with the speed at which the club has changed the culture and become focused on what they need to do. “I can’t speak for a lot of people. I can only speak for me. I’ve only been here just under two years, but I’ve seen the turnaround that the organization has made in that short period of time. In my eyes, we can compete with anybody right now.”
With the Winter Olympics fast approaching, I asked him for his thoughts on Team USA, given his history as an assistant coach (under Herb Brooks) on the gold medal winning 1980 team and as General Manager of the silver medal winning 2002 team (also coached by Herb Brooks). Does he think that Team USA is now on an equal footing with powerhouse national teams, such as Canada?
“Absolutely, there’s no question in my mind. I go way back with USA Hockey. I’ve competed on teams in World Championships (’70, ’71, ‘79) and Canada Cups (’76). The caliber of player, from the time that I played until today, has been growing and growing. Now, we have so many great young players playing all over the United States in all these nice programs that USA Hockey set up. We’re developing players a lot faster than anybody else right now.”
The Columbus Blue Jackets return to action Thursday, October 10, as they travel to Buffalo to take on the Sabres.