Through his uncle's eyes: A glimpse behind Nolan Patrick's story


In the basement of his Buffalo home, James Patrick was watching a hockey game with his brother and young nephew.

Between James and his brother Steve Patrick were 1,530 games of NHL experience. Both were first-round draft picks and James was now an assistant coach with the Sabres.

As they watched, the two were taken aback — by the 8-year-old sitting next to them. It was Nolan Patrick, reading a play and reacting as if he was a coach holding a clipboard.

"I was so shocked that an 8-year-old said that," James remembered vividly last week in a phone interview with "I will never forget that about him."

Nolan was dead-on.

"'Why did that player do that?'" James recalled his nephew saying. "'He shouldn't have done that, he should have done this.' And what he said, I was shocked because I saw the exact same thing. It was something that players do where in the coaching office, they're saying, 'What's he doing there? That's not the play to make.'"

Maybe it was innate hockey smarts. Maybe it was the product of growing up around two NHLers. For Nolan's uncle, James, it was a moment he realized the cerebral game.

"I know that has followed him, I know probably his strength as a hockey player is he has pretty good vision and hockey sense," James said. "I saw that early in him."

It's one of the traits that has transformed Nolan Patrick into one of two candidates for the No. 1 pick of the 2017 NHL entry draft come Friday in Chicago. Among the hockey world, the consensus is Patrick or Swiss-born Nico Hischier will go first overall to the Devils.

The Flyers will be waiting at No. 2. If Patrick, a native of Winnipeg, Manitoba, slips to second, what he could bring to Philadelphia his uncle knows well.

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James Patrick, who less than two weeks ago was named the head coach of the WHL's Kootenay ICE, became an influence on Nolan's hockey upbringing. He played parts of 21 seasons in the NHL and has coached for the Sabres and Stars, but the relationship with his nephew pushed Nolan just as much.

"I saw him play a bit when he was 7, 8 years old," James said. "I remember seeing him around 10, 11 years old, scoring a real big goal. By that time, you could definitely tell he was one of the best players on his team as a young kid growing up."

Later on, James would watch Nolan's games whenever he had a chance. As an assistant coach in Buffalo from 2006-2013, a road swing near Winnipeg allowed James to sneak in time to watch Nolan from ages 12 to 15.

"One of those trips every year it seemed like he had a game the night before so I could go and watch his game," James said. "Go home and see my mom and dad, and then go with my brother and watch Nolan play."

And when he couldn't watch firsthand?

"I would see some a little bit on video that my brother would show me," James said. "I'm real close with my brother, so from the time [Nolan] was 10, 12, we would always talk about him and how he was doing hockey-wise."

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Both James and his brother Steve had summer cabins by the lake. That's where James began working out Nolan in his early development.

"Him and his buddy starting coming over and doing like a little workout I put them through," James said. "When they were 12, it was like three days a week doing all different body weights — chin-ups, pushups, dips, just body-weight squats, lunges, jumps and some runs, running hills. From about 12, 13, 14, I was able to train him and his best friend at the lake. And when he was 14, there was a gym that we would go to. I certainly got to be somewhat involved with him and it was a lot fun."

Hockey became more than just a hobby — it started looking like a future, which has now arrived. Patrick is a well-groomed 18-year-old on the cusp of hockey's greatest stage. He's 6-foot-3, 198 pounds, a center that climbed prospect rankings and draft boards while playing three seasons for the WHL's Brandon Wheat Kings. His ability to create with the puck and comprehend a play is what makes him different.

"He's almost above the ice in his thinking aspect," Brandon GM Grant Armstrong said last month.

James said that's always been there with Nolan. So has the work ethic, going back to summers by the lake.

"He's never had an issue with working out," James said. "I think like any young kid, he needs guidance, too, he needs some advice for what's best for him. I know when I used to train with him when he was 14, him and his buddy, they worked their tails off. We would run hills, and I'd run with them, and they were killer. He could always do that. Nolan is always willing to do extra, but I think the workout programs now are so complex, I think guys need direction in that area and he's no different. But he's always been a real hard worker."

Along with his brother, James is like a second coach to Nolan. 

"They have been huge for me since I was really young," Nolan said earlier this month at the NHL Scouting Combine.

In fact, the brothers are probably, in part, a reason why Nolan is so grounded and coachable.

"Even with his team and the games and the ups and downs playing in Brandon, I just said, 'Hey, when all else fails, all you can do is work your tail off,'" James said. "When he was struggling, I said, 'You've got to skate. It's all about skating. Middle-lane drive, middle-lane drive — skate, spread.' There's times where he would backcheck so hard, and I'd say, 'OK, I want you skating that hard when you're going on the offense.' Because if you can backcheck like that, you can skate the same way offensively. So, yeah, they need coaches, but then I've definitely seen him do that — he's always taken advice well and he's done it."

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Every now and then, Nolan needs a kick in the butt — not to work hard or care, but to be assertive at first in new challenges. Once he does, it's game on, James said.

It's not necessarily a bad characteristic. James considers it a weakness and a strength.

"He almost always wants to be comfortable and then he really starts to exert himself," James said. "I felt like every playoff round in three years that he played with Brandon, the first game it was always like, 'Come on, let's get going.' He had to feel out who's good on their team, who he might be intimidated by, whatever, and then by Game 4, he was the best player on the ice. 

"I think that can also be a strength because I do know he is very competitive. He's competitive with guys that he's compared with, he will go head to head with them and he will be competitive, like he will try and be physical. But it's almost like, 'OK, I have to feel it out first,' but then, 'OK, now I know what this guy is about, now I'm going to run him, I'm going to play hard, I'm going to be hard on him.' He will play that way."

But …

"Still, I wish he did it right off the bat," James said with a laugh. "He's just always been when he feels comfortable, then he starts to really excel."

James is careful to compare Nolan to players from past or present.

"I know there is so much more focus and pressure on the kids now," he said.

But he knows what type of player Nolan can be and possibly become. James is familiar with players today and likened Nolan to San Jose's Joe Thornton, Nashville's Ryan Johansen and Anaheim's Ryan Getzlaf, in terms of style — big, facilitating centers with skilled hands.

"That would be my hope for him, but I will say this, he's a 6-foot-3 center who can make passes," James said. "And he works hard and he's competitive. He might take two years to get to that level or who knows when he'll be ready, but that's my belief, what I see in him.

"I do know that the one thing he does is he does make plays, he can make passes. I watched a lot of games in Brandon, games where not much is going on but at the end of the night, he still made probably two or three high-end, point-blank plays where he set someone up. I've always felt he can be a big body who can make plays offensively, who can protect pucks."

Nolan is regarded as a true two-way player, one that can play in all situations and is focused on defensive responsibilities as much as his scoring production. That has led some to believe his offensive ceiling may not be as high.

"I don't think he's nowhere near as dynamic as a lot of the top players the last few years, but in saying that, if he's playing with some skilled guys, he will get them the puck, he will make plays," James said. "He's shown that he can do that. Certainly the last three years in the Western Hockey League, put the best players on the ice with him and they will get chances, and chances all night. I think that's what his offensive upside is."

In 2015-16 with the Wheat Kings, Patrick recorded 102 points on 41 goals and 61 assists for a plus-51 rating before putting up 30 more points (13 goals, 17 assists) during the playoffs en route to a WHL title.

This past season, he was never 100 percent healthy. He had sports hernia surgery the offseason prior, hampering his summer training, and was limited to 33 games and no postseason because of two separate injuries. Despite that, Patrick was still capable of producing 46 points (20 goals, 26 assists).

"Even playing injured for most of the year, he could still dominate some games and was still one of the top players out there," James said. "That's where he was in February of this year, I have no doubt and expect him to be stronger and healthier and even better in October of this year."

Now fully healthy, is Nolan NHL-ready?

"I don't know. I cannot even tell you that," James said. "I do think it hurt him playing only 33 games this year. I just think no matter what, for any 18-year-old, instead of playing 80 games including playoffs, you play 33. I think he's very close, put it that way.

"I do think for him, because of where he's at in junior and Brandon, I do think it's best for him to be in the NHL, but he's got to go out and earn that.

"I won't say he's as ready as other top draft picks, (Auston) Matthews or those guys the past few years, but I think he is very close."

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The draft process is almost over for Nolan.

James said it's nothing like what it used to be.

"I know he's been home working out since the season ended, then they were at the combine for a week, then they went to Nashville for a day and a half, then he visited New Jersey for a day and Philly for a day," James said. "It was like, 'Man, he was gone for like 10 days just before the draft.' Stuff like that would have never happened way back then."

Because of that, James wants to be there for support.

"In frustrating times, I just say, hey, try to enjoy this, just try to enjoy the moment," he said. "Have fun getting to know the other players that you're hanging out with. Time will pass and before you know it, you'll be drafted.

"I just try to talk to him about having fun, have fun and enjoy it. I said be pleasant — be pleasant to everyone you talk to."

Looking back on the earlier days, to that time in Buffalo or the summers by the lake, James said he never envisioned Nolan's becoming a potential No. 1 pick. He just wanted to help with his nephew's passion for hockey while letting the future play out.

It's all come to Nolan on the verge of being a top-two selection.

James, a ninth overall pick in 1981, knows Nolan will be just fine with the pressure that accompanies such a feat.

His advice is simple.

"I haven't said much, but I know once or twice I've just said, 'Listen, it's not going to make you any different of a player whether you get drafted first, second, third or fifth,'" James said. "'What's going to make you a better player is what you do moving forward, how hard you're willing to work, and getting bigger, faster, stronger.' That's what it comes down to."

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