By Kristina Rutherford in Brandon, Man.
By Kristina Rutherford in Brandon, Man.
Plagued by injury, Nolan Patrick’s draft year has been unconventional at best. But that won’t stop the Brandon Wheat Kings star from going first overall in June’s NHL Draft.

Nolan Patrick figures it’s time for a momentum shift. Yes, his Brandon Wheat Kings are at the moment tied with the top team in the Western Hockey League, the visiting Regina Pats, here in the second period. But they’re also spending way too much time in their own end, and in the first period alone, they gave up 21 shots — though only one made it past goalie Logan Thompson. So, seconds after Pats forward Austin Wagner lays a hit on Patrick in Brandon’s end, the Wheat Kings captain reacts.

“Wanna go?” Patrick asks. Four gloves instantly drop. Patrick and Wagner don’t bother squaring up, trading punches immediately, to the delight of 3,851 fans here at Westman Communications Group Place. Patrick gets in a few consecutive right-handers before Wagner answers back with a couple of his own, and then the two decide this one is over.

Patrick arrives at the penalty box to serve his five minutes, and gets a fist-bump from linemate Tyler Coulter, who’s already serving time for high-sticking. It’s Coulter, 20, who coaches have asked a couple times to “look after Nolan.” It makes Coulter laugh. In their nearly three seasons together, the left-winger has seen plenty to prove his young centreman — the kid many expect to go No. 1 in the NHL draft in a couple months’ time — can take care of himself just fine.

It’s not often you see top prospects drop the gloves these days. But Patrick, the 18-year-old from Winnipeg, isn’t your usual projected No. 1, and he’s not having your usual draft year for a player expected to go first overall, either. Not even close. It’s more like a nightmare, really. Patrick is currently day-to-day with a lower body injury that’s so far kept him out of the playoffs. And he began the regular season by sitting out 34 games over a three-month period due to an undisclosed injury. Through his team’s first 39 games, the kid many scouts have had pegged as 2017’s top prospect for two years now had just six points. He’d spent more time walking in a pool than skating on ice.

But as frustrating as it is to sit out, Patrick has in many ways been groomed for the challenge his injuries present — and for the life ahead of him. Not only is he from a family with enough pro and elite athletes to crowd a dinner table, he’s also struggled through a major injury before, something that prepared him to endure this season. And despite the fact scouts haven’t seen much of him lately, Patrick hasn’t slipped in the rankings. Should he go No. 1 in June, he’d be the first Wheat King in the team’s 50-year history to do so, and the first kid from Manitoba, ever. NHL Central Scouting director Dan Marr says the top spot is still “his to lose.” Patrick’s reaction to that is simple: “Don’t lose it,” he says.

A man for all situations
“It’s almost intimidating toward the other team, to know they have to match up against a guy like that,” says Wheat Kings head coach, Dave Anning.

It never really occurred to the kid teammates call “Paddy” that he might do anything but play hockey. He claims to come from “a normal hockey family,” but there’s nothing normal about one that has produced — so far — a pair of first-round NHL picks, in his dad, Steve, who played 250 career games, and uncle James, now an assistant coach with the Dallas Stars after a more than 20-year career in the league. A second uncle, Rich Chernomaz, played 51 games in the NHL. Patrick’s older sister, Madison, 21, just won a national collegiate bronze medal with her UBC Thunderbirds, and younger sister, Amy, 14, plays Bantam AA for the Titans in Winnipeg. And then there’s the contingent outside of hockey: Patrick’s mom, Carrie, played volleyball for Team Canada, and Grandpa Stephen played in the CFL. So, you get what Patrick means when he says, “I didn’t know anything different.”

It’s a day after his team’s 4-2 loss to Regina in early March, and he’s sitting in the top row of the stands at the now-empty rink. Patrick’s dirty blonde hair is tucked behind his ears, and he’s dressed sharply, in a long, black winter jacket, a grey sweater, dark pants and all-black Converse sneakers. There are scrapes on two of his knuckles from the fight, which was followed shortly after by goals from both teams (turns out the momentum shifted both ways), and then the game-winner from the Pats later in the second period, followed by an empty-netter. “I don’t think we were great last night,” Patrick says, but after a recent six-game winless streak and having squeaked into the playoffs with the first wildcard in the East, the captain points out, “we’re getting better.”

Patrick’s hockey career began a very flat two-and-a-half-hour drive from Brandon, first on the backyard rink Steve made every winter for his three kids, and then on his first team, the Heritage Victoria Hawks, where he played alongside Madison and other eight-year-olds when he was only six. “Even then you could tell he could keep up with everyone,” says Madison, a defenceman for the Thunderbirds. “And he knew where to be.”

That’s saying something for a six-year-old. The year before that, at his first NHL game — to see the Buffalo Sabres, because Uncle James was on the coaching staff — Patrick remembers being curious about plays and players, a first hint of the cerebral quality and playmaking ability that define his game today. “I always watched more closely than the other kids,” Patrick says. And he had sounding boards for all his questions in his dad and uncle, who, when it comes to hockey, taught him “just about everything I know,” he says. That includes how to train. Patrick’s dad turned the family garage into a heated indoor shooting area (there was no space for cars; in the winter, those stayed outside in the snow). It’s now a gym for the whole family, and there’s a shooting pad in the backyard. Patrick also worked out with his uncle every off-season starting at age 13.

He speaks to his dad every day or so — sometimes about hockey, sometimes about hunting, which he started doing at age eight, per Patrick family tradition. Steve keeps things pretty simple with his son and has told James, who also makes regular contact, to limit the advice he gives Patrick to two or three items per conversation. Uncle James can really get going.

Patrick follows the Stars to support his uncle, but growing up he never cheered for a specific team or wore a favourite player’s sweater. The only NHL jersey he’s ever owned is his dad’s Sabres sweater, which is framed and hanging above his bed at home. And so, the first he’ll wear will be his own. “If that happens,” he says. Humility is Patrick’s thing.

Unless, of course, you’re talking about his hair. “He claims he has the best hair in the Western Hockey League,” says teammate Tanner Kaspick. “He’s not afraid to say that.” When this is relayed back to him, Patrick — who’s pretty stoic and relatively monotone, and who does, admittedly, have nice hair — grins. “I was hoping that wouldn’t get out,” he says.

He and Kaspick are best friends. They were around nine or 10 when they first played against one another. Back when they were kids, Kaspick — who actually cuts Patrick’s hair in his family basement for free (“he’s very talented,” Patrick promises) — noticed the elements that still define his buddy’s game. “He’d slow the game down even back then, expose his opponents all the time,” says Kaspick, a Brandon-born fourth-round pick of the St. Louis Blues last year. “I think a lot of his skill is from his intelligence, and knowing the right play.”

“He claims he has the best hair in the Western Hockey League. He’s not afraid to say that.”

Kaspick also couldn’t help but notice Patrick’s size, even back then. Patrick was 11 or 12 when he sprouted from five-foot-three to five-foot-11, and the kid who now walks around at six-foot-three and 203 pounds thinks a couple of injuries followed as a result of that spurt — on account of his body not catching up to itself.

He was 13 the first time he broke his collarbone. Then, at 14, in his WHL draft year, Patrick slid into the boards before the season began and broke it again. He was crushed: Doctors had told him after the first break that it wouldn’t happen again. “I thought it was the end of the world,” he says, from his nose-bleed seat in the empty arena. “I remember thinking all the pieces were falling apart.” His dad told him to relax, that he’d be okay, that this was all part of hockey. It helped, but only a bit.

Patrick had surgery and sat out the first three months of that season. When he returned to the lineup in early December, the Hawks won 11-2 and Patrick had eight points. Then Hawks coach Neil Chow remembers people coming up to him after the game and saying things like, “Geez, he’s okay, but we expected Nolan to be better than that.” Chow pointed out Patrick’s eight points, and that it was a blowout, so he’d spent the game setting up teammates. “That’s the thing about Nolan,” Chow says, “he has an eight-point night and people don’t notice him.” Patrick will be the first to tell you his game isn’t flashy, a thought echoed by many who’ve seen him play. Says Chow: “You have to look closely. Then you’d see he could do anything he wanted.”

By the end of the season, Patrick had played just 19 regular-season games, but he still won the scoring race with 75 points. Not bad for a player Chow says is “not really a points guy.” Patrick was selected fourth overall in the 2013 Bantam draft by the Wheat Kings — the same team his dad played for. At 15, he got into the lineup for three regular-season games. “He came in and actually kicked me off the lineup — I had to sit in the stands for the 15-year-old!” says Coulter, who’s two years older, laughing. “I was a little mad.”

Patrick remained in the lineup for the post-season and in the second round, Brandon took on the Edmonton Oil Kings, who’d go on to win the Memorial Cup. “I had a two-on-one my first shift in the game — I don’t think I touched the puck for the rest of the series after that,” Patrick says.

Those 12 games introduced him to the league, and when his 16-year-old season came around, Patrick hit the ground running. Coulter got back on the ice, too, and the pair became linemates. “After a couple nice passes, I forgave him,” Coulter says, with a grin.

“That’s the thing about Nolan: He has an eight-point night and people don’t notice him. You have to look closely.”

His rookie season, Patrick scored 30 goals and added 26 assists — better than a point-per-game clip. The Wheat Kings made it to the WHL final, but were swept by the Kelowna Rockets. During the series they slotted Patrick against future playoffs and Memorial Cup MVP, Leon Draisaitl. “We were comfortable with him on the ice, regardless of the matchup,” says Wheat Kings head coach, Dave Anning. It was a learning experience for Patrick, to be sure. “I think [Draisaitl] beat me on 30 faceoffs in a row,” Patrick says. He started working hard on his draws that summer.

Despite missing 12 games that season with an upper-body injury, Patrick was named WHL Rookie of the Year. Central Scouting’s Marr remembers having a discussion with other scouts that year along the lines of: “I can’t believe we have to wait two years until this kid is draft-eligible.”

Last season, Patrick took it up a notch. His 102 points — fifth most in the WHL— led the Wheat Kings to the playoffs, and an eventual league title and Memorial Cup berth. To hear Anning tell it, Patrick “put the team on his shoulders” in the post-season. “Those big stages, those big nights, are when he’s at his best.” His 30 points (13 goals, 17 assists) led all players in the league playoffs, and at 17, he was named WHL playoff MVP. The Memorial Cup didn’t go well for the Wheat Kings, though. Patrick didn’t play his best, in part because he had a hernia that was causing him quite a bit of pain.

This season, Patrick expected to continue his progression, but he missed a full off-season of training because the hernia required surgery, and the recovery time hampered his start. And then, five games in, Patrick shut it down, again due to pain, though this time from an undisclosed injury. He says after a discussion with the coaching staff, taking care of the injury was an easy decision. “I was sick and tired of playing through pain, and not being at the top of my game,” he says. “I was almost happy it was time for me to figure out what was going on.”

Patrick came at that injury with an it’s-not-the-end-of-the-world approach, impressive for an 18-year-old. “I wasn’t pouting about it,” he says. “I turned my focus to my rehab, and controlling things I could. I don’t know if it was easier this time compared to when I was 14, but I handled it mentally better than I would have at a younger age.

“It did suck,” he continues. “And the thing about [that] injury is there was no timeline on it, so it’s a lot of wondering how long you’ll be out. You’re answering questions, ‘When are you back?’ I didn’t even have the answer.”

Patrick spent more hours of his draft year than he cares to tally in a pool, working up mobility and strength in his hips and abs. He tried to return to the ice after a month of rehab, but it was too soon. He watched the World Junior Championship he should have been playing in on TV, and tuned in for every Canadian game. Instead of skating, he went hunting.

So yeah, the draft year hasn’t been quite what the projected No. 1 overall expected.

“It’s not that fun going to the pool by yourself every day with a bunch of grandmas doing their aerobics,” Patrick admits, eyebrows up.

You don’t say.

King of Kings
If Patrick goes first overall in June, he'll be the first Wheat King and Manitoba native to do so

Brandon may be the second-largest city in Manitoba, but it doesn’t feel that way, this home to some 46,000. It’s a quiet place with a sign that spells out “DOWN TOWN” with an arrow so you don’t miss it. Drive in and you’ll see Patrick on a billboard (“That’s still up, eh?” he asks) and a declaration on an old brick building to let you know this is home to the Wheat Kings.

It’s here Patrick lives, and it’s here that when he’s not playing hockey, he watches a lot of movies (players get into theatres for free), plays a lot of ping pong and shoots a lot of pool. It’s here he eats a lot of sushi, but never pizza and never chocolate — he doesn’t like the taste of either. Yes, you read that right. And no, he’s not too happy about it, either. “I wish I liked it — it’s tough after games when the whole team’s getting pizza,” he says. But he’d rather eat Brussels sprouts. He does crush ketchup and all dressed chips, though, so he’s partly human.

Patrick describes himself as “just a normal kid,” but it rings about as true as his being from a “normal hockey family.” When it comes to the attention his son’s getting, Steve says the Patricks “try to keep it on the down low,” and that they “ignore” all draft talk. But it’s unavoidable.

Patrick’s grandmother June is so sick of all the hype that she doesn’t want to read another word about her grandson in the local paper, and she doesn’t want to see him interviewed on TV either, especially with that moustache. “The last time I got advice from her, it was to shave,” Patrick says. He did, but it’s since grown back. Sort of.

“It’s not that fun going to the pool by yourself every day with a bunch of grandmas doing their aerobics.”

Patrick is well-prepared for the spotlight, though, even if he and his family are tired of it. He’s been doing interviews since he was 13, which is plenty evident in the packaged answer he’s obviously given a million times now to questions about, say, his strengths. (“My vision…” it begins.) He was 16 the first time he saw someone tweet that he’d go first overall in 2017.

In warm ups on the ice before a game, he’ll stop and chat with little kids at the glass, all pro-like. Then he’ll handle the puck like it’s stuck to his tape, race through an obstacle course in the neutral zone, and score a through-the-legs goal on his team’s starter.

Before this most recent injury — he went down in front of Regina’s net during the second-last game of the regular season and had to be helped off the ice — Patrick had just started to feel like himself again. He did have two goals and two assists in his return to the lineup on Jan. 13, an 8-5 win over Kootenay, but that was mostly adrenaline. “I was like, ‘Okay, I’m feeling good,’ after that game,” he says. “My second night? I realized I’ve got a long way to go — I’m not feeling that good at all.” He’d only started practicing with the team two weeks before, and getting into game shape doesn’t happen that quickly. “I think missing three months is a lot harder than a lot of people think,” Patrick says. “I couldn’t do any cardio, I couldn’t bag skate or anything.”

Family affair
Patrick comes from a long line of professional athletes: his dad and two uncles were NHLers while his grandfather played in the CFL

In the 33 games Patrick suited up for in the 72-game regular season, he put up 46 points (20 goals and 26 assists). That 1.39 points-per-game clip is slightly lower than his 1.42 pace last season, but you won’t hear him complain that he couldn’t prepare properly for this season. What you will hear, says Steve, are things like: “I can’t believe I missed that” and “I can’t believe I turned that puck over.”

Joining the season in its second half, when the whole league had picked up pace, it took some games for Patrick to adjust his timing. Anning noted his progression from January to March. “He has an ability to be a positive-impact player on the game even when he’s not at the top of his,” the coach says. Kasperick adds that having Patrick in the lineup has a psychological impact. “It’s almost intimidating toward the other team, to know they have to match up against a guy like that,” he says.

That’s due to Patrick’s skill, sure, but also to his size and the fact he finishes his checks. “He hunts and he fishes, he’s a little bit of a farm boy from Winnipeg,” says Coulter. “He’s a tough guy, and he has to be, because other guys try to get in there as much as they can to try to slow him down.”

“The poise, the presence, the attention to detail, the way he processes and executes plays — everything has been far more precise, far more accurate, and a lot quicker this season.”

What Marr has noticed in watching Patrick over the past couple seasons are improvements in his leg strength and a maturing hockey sense. “It was already at a good level,” Marr says, “but the poise, the presence, the attention to detail, the way he processes and executes plays — everything has been far more precise, far more accurate, and a lot quicker.”

Patrick isn’t expected to be one of those rare generational players the NHL has seen go first overall the past two years — and he’s not a highlight-reel star, either. “For me, it’s about being responsible at both ends of the ice,” he says. When the Wheat Kings need a goal or to hold onto a lead, he’s going to be on the ice creating chances or taking them away from his opponents. For Brandon, he plays the power play and penalty kill. His long reach means he can take the puck off guys and turn the other way in a hurry. And his saucer passes through traffic are on point. “He’s always able to find you,” says Coulter, who’s having a career year, half of it spent on Patrick’s left wing. “You never know when the puck’s coming, but you know it’s gonna find you somehow.” When the two get back to the bench, you’ll see them chatting. “I’m 20, he’s 18, and we never stop learning from each other,” says Coulter.

What Patrick is trying to improve on is his consistency, which isn’t easy when you spend more than half your season on the shelf. But it’s by now well known that he elevates his game during the playoffs. “Sometimes when it’s not a big game, it’s tough to get into it,” he says. Now that the Wheat Kings have opened their first round against the Central Division-champion Medicine Hat Tigers down 2-0 in the series after a 7-2 loss Friday and a 5-3 defeat Saturday, this should be where Patrick shines. If only he could.

It’s yet to be seen whether Patrick will get back in the lineup to extend his shortened season, whether his Wheat Kings can stay alive long enough for their captain to get healthy, and whether NHL scouts will get to see him in game action again before the draft.

The playoff run is the focus for No. 19 right now, even if he isn’t playing. Teammates say Patrick never brings up the draft in the dressing room, though it doesn’t stop them. “We like to pump up the guys ranked behind him,” says Kaspick, grinning. “We’ll talk about all the nice plays we’ve seen him make. ‘Oh, did you see that nice pass?” He laughs.

“Oh yeah,” Patrick says, smiling. “I hear that stuff all the time.” Apparently, he has some pretty good responses, but none, he says, are fit for print.

Patrick calls the draft “just another day,” but he does want to go first overall because he wants to be the best player available. “There’s been talk about me in that spot for a while now,” he says, blue eyes fixed on that empty sheet of ice.

He knows the hardest work is ahead of him, that more than what number he’s taken June 23 in Chicago, what he’s really finding out is which team he’s trying out for next. He’s well-versed in that message because he’s been preparing for this — whether he was consciously aware of it or not — for his whole life. So he’s ready, even if this season has diverted way off script.

And, as his dad points out, being a Patrick has its plusses. “The advantage, if there is an advantage, is that my brother’s been around the league so long and he’s seen everything. I was in the league many years ago, saw a little bit.” His conclusion: “It’s all part of hockey. You get through what you need to get through.”

For Patrick right now, in the most important season of his young career, that means watching the playoffs from the press box.

Photo Credits

Simeon Rusnak (3); Marissa Baecker/Getty Images; Infographic by Drew Lesiuczok