James Patrick has spent a long time in the National Hockey League.
Since first suiting up for the New York Rangers as a highly-touted draft pick in 1983, he’s only spent two of the past 34 years away from the NHL.
With 21 seasons of experience as a defenceman and 11 more as an assistant coach, the 53-year old is a stalwart member of the world’s top hockey league.
Now, he’s ready to help groom the next generation of players as the new head coach of the Kootenay Ice.
“It’s been a bit of a whirlwind this last week, but I’m really excited about working with (owners) Matt [Cockell] and Greg [Fettes], and the group of players that we’re going to have moving forward,” Patrick told the Townsman. “I think it’s going to be a great opportunity [and] a great experience.”
On Tuesday morning, the Ice announced that Patrick had signed a three-year contract to lead the organization from behind the bench starting with the 2017-18 season.
He is replacing Luke Pierce, who was released by the team last Friday, and will become the eighth bench boss in the organization’s 19 year history.
Patrick knows leaving the NHL for junior hockey will be a challenge, but he’s eager to get the journey started.
“The biggest [reason I took the job] was that I thought it would be fun to teach and try to develop younger players when they’re more at that forming stage, where maybe you can have a bit of a bigger influence on them,” Patrick said. “Developing personal relationships with young players is something I’m really excited about.”
The switch to the WHL, according to Patrick, is largely thanks to the influence of his nephew Nolan.
Nolan Patrick has played for the Brandon Wheat Kings for the past three seasons and after racking up 205 points in 163 games, is expected to be top two selection in the 2017 NHL Entry Draft.
“I ended up watching a lot of [WHL games over] the last three years with [Nolan] being in Brandon,” Patrick said. “I tried to watch the majority of his games when I could, and I really got familiar with the league.
“I started seeing what a high level of play it was. So many teams [also] play really similar to NHL teams with their structure and systems.”
After being let go by the Dallas Stars, where he was working as an assistant under Lindy Ruff, Patrick turned to Kelly McCrimmon, his nephew’s former coach with the Wheat Kings.
McCrimmon was named the Assistant General Manager to George McPhee for the upcoming NHL expansion Vegas Golden Knights in 2016.
“I had developed a relationship with Kelly and ended up talking to him about what they were going to do coaching-wise, as far as assistants, [in Vegas],” Patrick said. “Kelly put me in touch with Matt [Cockell].”
Cockell had spent several years as a goaltending coach with the Wheat Kings under McCrimmon, and after discussions with both Fettes and Cockell, Patrick chose to join the Ice.
“I think that the prospect pool [and] how committed Greg and Matt are to making [Kootenay] a winning organization [were why] I made the decision to come here,” Patrick said. “[They are] building something big here in Cranbrook.”
Although Patrick insists that being a head coach is never something that he had a “burning desire” to do in the NHL, the chance to be at the helm of a junior team was tantalizing.
“I liked being an assistant coach, but in the back of the my mind I always thought about being the head coach [and] being the first voice,” he said. “The more I thought about working with younger players, when they’re at the greener stage and they’re ready to absorb as much as possible, [the more I wanted to take on the job].
“I’ve been thinking about that for a number of years now [and] felt like the time was right.”
To get a sense of the kind of figure Patrick will be behind the bench, it would be wise to look at Lindy Ruff.
Patrick has spent his entire NHL coaching career working with Ruff, a 19-year veteran running the bench for the Buffalo Sabres and, most recently, the Dallas Stars.
“I think I learned all aspects of coaching, from communicating to running meetings, [from Lindy],” Patrick said. “I had a long, long relationship with Lindy which will always continue.”
Patrick and Ruff first met as teammates with the New York Rangers in 1988 and played together for three seasons. They were reacquainted when Patrick joined the Sabres coaching staff in 2006, the year after Ruff captured the Jack Adams Award as NHL Coach of the Year.
“I still believe [Ruff] is one of the best coaches in the NHL,” Patrick said. “He’s incredibly bright, really quick to see the big picture of what’s happening during the game to make adjustments.
“I think he’s a great communicator. He has a lot of presence — when push come to shove he is the boss — but he’s been able to adapt and change the way he’s coached, change the way he communicates, because the players are different now. I’d like to say that I’ve learned that from him as well.”
In the Ice’s press release announcing Patrick’s signing, Matt Cockell stated what he thought Patrick would bring to the organization.
“James Patrick is the perfect fit to lead our team into a new Ice Age” he said. “He has a tremendous amount of experience, understands what it takes to be a pro, develop as a pro and create a world class player experience”.
The upcoming ‘player experience’ for a member of the Ice, according to Patrick, will be multifaceted.
“I think every player has a story, whether it’s your top prospect, your best player, your blue chip prospect, or the 23rd man on the roster,” he said. “When you think about the player experience, first of all it’s to do as much as you can to help them try and achieve their goals.
“It’s the experience of being on a team and everyone pulling on the same rope and building something together. [It’s] learning the right way, the proper way of playing the game [and] the proper way of coming to the rink to prepare every day, coming to try and getting better than you were the day before.”
“It’s the experience in the dressing room, and on the bus, and [trying to] build a culture of winning and behave the proper way. From treating your teammates and the staff and everyone around the rink with respect, to eating properly, sleeping properly [and] bonding with your teammates and having fun pulling that chain right next to the same guy.
“There’s so much to the player experience.”
For Patrick, the work is just beginning and there’s a lot of it.
“It’s just come together here in the last two days, so it’s important for me to start reaching out to the players on the team [right away],” he said. “We’re going to put a staff together and we’ll finalize our coaching staff hopefully in the next day or two.
“Working with the staff and Matt on getting to know the players in our organization and how we envision them and us going forward, that’s the first step.”
Patrick said that throughout the offseason, he’ll look at everything from assigning roles, to creating practice schedules, setting up new video systems, and figuring out how they will use statistical analysis.
“It’s going to be a big challenge [but] it’s one that I’m really looking forward to and am excited about.”
Although coming to Cranbrook and the WHL is a new path for Patrick, it is also a homecoming of sorts.
During his time as a player with the Calgary Flames between 1994 and 1998, he bought a condo in nearby Fernie, BC and has a deep appreciation for the East Kootenay region.
“I [spent] as much time as I could [in Fernie], depending on my schedule as an NHL player and then as a coach,” he said. “I fell in love with the area. The nature and the surrounding area and even the mountains and the lakes [are] just so beautiful.
“I definitely have a bit of a vibe for the area.”
Patrick will be introduced to Cranbrook by team owner Greg Fettes on Thursday at ‘the #ICEcountry Drive to 25 Corporate Kick Off event presented by The Prestige Rocky Mountain Resort’ when the business community will join together for from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m.