Game over for Patrick

PAUL FRIESEN -- Winnipeg Sun

, Last Updated: 8:56 AM ET

James Patrick knew this day was coming, but that didn't make it any easier for the Winnipegger.

So the 21-year NHL veteran asked the Buffalo Sabres to make his retirement announcement as low-key as possible.

No opening statement, no big video presentation, just a little Q & A session -- the bare minimum for a player who always gave the maximum.

"I know if I would have reflected on the memories and the teammates and the coaches and the ups and downs, you could get a little emotional," Patrick told The Sun from his Buffalo home. "But I just tried not to do that."

So we got him to do it over the phone, instead.

Because the kind of career Patrick had deserves some reflection.

Simply put, the 42-year-old -- who moved straight into a job as a Sabres assistant coach -- is one of this city's greatest hockey success stories, and maybe one of its best-kept secrets, too.

I mean, how many of you knew he was still playing when we last saw the NHL, let alone logging 19 minutes of ice time per game?

Or that he's not only played 1,280 regular-season games, more than any Winnipegger we can think of, but also suited up for Canada in one Olympics, a world junior championship, two Canada Cups and five world championships?

RANK THOSE AS HIGH

"I take as much pride, and rank those as high, as anything," Patrick said of his international ventures.

His NHL career was spent mainly with the New York Rangers, Calgary and Buffalo, with one partial year in Hartford.

"The biggest thrill for me was the '99 Stanley Cup finals," Patrick said, referring to his first season in Buffalo. "Also the biggest disappointment to lose."

That was as close as Patrick would come to touching the Cup, which you think would leave a hole the size of St. James in his career.

"I'll be the first to admit it was something I dreamt of as long as I dreamt of playing in the NHL," Patrick said. "For whatever reason, it never happened for me. I know I worked as hard as I could on the teams I played on to try to grab that ultimate prize. And I can certainly live with that. Life's too short to carry that much baggage or weight."

That's one of the few times you'll hear Patrick turn down a workout.

The guy's conditioning was almost legendary, which is why he lasted so long and kept his wheels, even into his 40s.

SMART, HIGH-TEMPO DEFENCE

Perhaps the most telling comment comes from Sabres assistant coach Scott Arniel, Patrick's teammate at the '82 world juniors.

"The way he played then is no different than the way he played the last year of his NHL career," Arniel said. "When you look down the end of the bench, you're getting the same thing from James Patrick, night-in, night-out."

That was smart, high-tempo defence, with 149 regular-season goals and 490 assists thrown in for good measure.

Of those 149, guess which one stands out?

"Scoring my first goal and having it assisted by Anders Hedberg, one of my idols," Patrick said. "If you ask any kid who grew up in Winnipeg, who was born in the 1960s ... they could relate."

It was the perfect start to a nearly perfect career. One in which Patrick earned as much respect off the ice as on it.

"He always took guys under his wing, made sure he helped them become pros," Arniel said. "When you walk away from talking to James Patrick, you know he's had true interest and he's concerned about you as an individual. He really hits a lot of people that way."

Sounds like the ideal coach.

"His desk is right beside mine," Arniel said. "And the passion he has already ... you could tell."

Makes you wonder if there could be a shiny Stanley Cup in James Patrick's future after all.

That would be a reflection he could handle just fine.


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