He’s 67 years old with a lifetime in hockey behind him. He won two Stanley Cups as a general manager with the Penguins. In 2001, he was inducted into the Hall of Fame. Kids know him as Herb Brooks’ assistant coach, the good cop in the movie “Miracle” about the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team.
Craig Patrick accomplished more than most would dare imagine and could retire today after a full career. He has lived a good life and will someday die a happy man. Yet there he stood Thursday, behind a pillar in the First Niagara Center atrium, his eyes bloodshot and welled with tears, a man who had seen it all, done it all, weeping.
Because 30 years ago he crossed paths in USA Hockey with an 18-year-old phenomenon who promised he would never forget him and never did. All these years later, after building his own life and his own Hall of Fame career, Pat LaFontaine stayed true to his word. It was enough to make a grown man cry.
Patrick attempted to explain it all after he was introduced as a special assistant and adviser to the Sabres’ hockey department. He barely spoke above a whisper. It was all he could muster through the lump in his throat as he talked about how much respect he had for LaFontaine.
“I’m … just … excited,” said Patrick, his voice cracking. “I’ve known Pat for a long time. I like the way he thinks. He’s a bright young man. It’s a thrill to be able to work with him. I’m glad he’s embraced me. He’s told friends of mine in the past that if he ever got a job, he’s bringing me with him. He can trust me till the end of time.”
When he took over as president of hockey operations, LaFontaine insisted he would surround himself with good people. Two months later, you can see the Sabres’ front office taking shape. His decision to hire Patrick was surprising Thursday but only because Patrick already had a similar job in Columbus.
Take a closer look, and it makes perfect sense.
Tim Murray has an eye for young talent and a strong handle on the league. He’s not hiding from the Sabres’ record. The new general manager embraced Ted Nolan and made it clear that nobody on a last-place team should feel comfortable. He described himself as aggressive and unafraid to make mistakes, the polar opposite of his predecessor.
Patrick is a classy man with a quiet demeanor, a true gentleman who knows talent and has no ego. He wasn’t hired because LaFontaine was trying to help him. It was the other way around. LaFontaine needed his help. Patrick deserved partial credit for several major trades that helped the Blue Jackets to a winning record last year.
LaFontaine, forever in the middle on the top line, now has two dependable wingers in the front office who can help turn around the Sabres. Patrick was coming to Buffalo no matter who was named GM, a decision made last week and kept quiet. LaFontaine connected them for the first time Thursday morning.
“I see talent, I see teamwork, I see principles of respect and trust,” LaFontaine said. “I see people who are hungry and want to do something special. Tim Murray has worked his way up from making nothing as a scout up to an assistant GM. Craig Patrick can help take it from here to up here.”
Unlike the man running the show before him, LaFontaine appreciates the importance of chemistry. He understands intangibles, qualities that cannot be measured with stat packages and spreadsheets. Nobody can predict how the three men will work together, but they have a singular goal. In hockey, it’s immeasurable.
His work Thursday could be a stroke of genius.
Murray will have the largest say in player evaluation, but he’s approaching the job with an open mind and open ears.
He’ll be given the time and authority to put his stamp on this team. There are major decisions awaiting him, but they will be made with input from the team around him.
Patrick, three times named the NHL’s Executive of the Year, brings patience and savvy that comes with experience and success. He managed the Penguins for 17 years, winning two Cups and leading them through bankruptcy, before he was unceremoniously ousted in 2006. His dismissal, and the five years he spent out of the NHL, was a gross injustice.
Pens GM Ray Shero still goes out of his way to praise Patrick for helping to build the Penguins into the winner you see today. Anybody can take Sidney Crosby after winning a draft lottery, of course, but Patrick was putting the pieces into place before Shero climbed aboard and finished the job.
For all that he’s accomplished, Patrick still isn’t complete.
“I’ve always been a big fan of Craig Patrick’s,” LaFontaine said. “I see something in Craig. He’s not done. When a man of his stature and his class tells me, ‘I’m not done. I have two more Cups in me,’ that’s what I’m all about. He’s a high-character guy and a good man. He deserves this, and he’s excited.”
Two Cups? It starts with one.