Whether at work or play, it’s probably fair to call Joe Pavelski a creature of habit. And if it’s a summer Wednesday in Wisconsin, you’ll find him on the golf course with his playing partner, Tom Gilbert, likely enduring smack talk from their opponents, Adam Burish and Luke Stauffacher. While all four played NCAA hockey, Pavelski and Gilbert have the placid temperament of people who know their abilities and always feel in control. Burish and Stauffacher, on the other hand, embrace their underdog roll and use any means necessary to even the odds, targeting Pavelski in particular. “Some days we’ll try to get him drinking, but that doesn’t flap him,” says Burish.
With handicaps factored in, things often come down to the wire, meaning Pavelski is frequently teeing off on the 18th hole with six days’ worth of bragging rights hanging in the balance. So maybe it’s not Sunday at The Masters, but anybody who has a longtime friend like Burish knows he’s not the type of guy you want to lose to. With the stakes understood, Pavelski will reach for his driver and let fly. “He’s not nervous about going left or right; he doesn’t see the water it seems like,” Burish says. “He just hits it straight. He’s cool and that’s just him. He’s not a nervous guy.”
Right now, Pavelski needs all the steeliness he can summon as he and the San Jose Sharks go back and forth with Connor McDavid and the Edmonton Oilers in a series now knotted 2-2. Composure is certainly one trait that has helped Pavelski exceed all reasonable expectations for a seventh-round draft pick, but despite the calm exterior it’s hard to imagine the San Jose Sharks captain becoming one of the league’s most effective goal-scorers without incitement from some highly skeptical outside forces. Already firmly established as one of the best in the world at what he does, Pavelski continues to operate as though he has yet to prove his worth, demonstrating the mentality that prompted one former coach to dub him a “self-made superstar.” One huge challenge remains, though, and the 32-year-old won’t rest until his Sharks finally find the championship formula.
Should San Jose bow out to the on-the-rise Oilers, many will consider it final proof that the long-standing core will never get it done. Of course, 10 months ago, Pavelski and the Sharks came painfully close to balling up that well-worn narrative and tossing it into the Pacific Ocean. In his first season wearing the ‘C,’ Pavelski led the 2016 playoffs with 14 goals and San Jose advanced to the Cup final for the first time in franchise history, falling in six games to the Pittsburgh Penguins. “We were right there,” Pavelski said on the eve of this year’s post-season. “We still believe we have a team that’s right there [and] has the foundation to give us that opportunity.”
Those building blocks, somewhat infamously, have yet to form the basis of a title-winning team. While there are a few to pick from, the most crushing loss certainly had to come in the blown 3-0 series lead in the first round of the 2014 post-season versus their state rivals, the Los Angeles Kings. Drew Remenda, a former Sharks assistant coach who was providing colour commentary for the team at the time, still carries a clear image of what he saw in San Jose more than an hour after the final siren in Game 7. “Joe Thornton [and] Joe Pavelski were sitting at the table in the players lounge still in their underwear,” Remenda says. “They weren’t saying anything; they just sat there.”
That level of emotional investment is why Thornton was San Jose’s captain at the time. And on Pavelski’s part, it speaks to why — when the Sharks triggered severe action by missing the playoffs completely the following season — he was the guy who replaced “Jumbo” as the designated leader of the team. In the moment, some assumed the assurances coming out of northern California that it was a “seamless transition” were merely platitudes designed to gloss over a gory situation. The reality, though, is that if Thornton felt any animosity about the decision, it wasn’t directed at his close friend Pavelski. And if anyone was well positioned to accept a potentially awkward handoff, it was the man who’d long ago established his place in the Sharks’ hierarchy. “Everybody in the locker room knew he was the guy,” says Burish, who spent three years with San Jose beginning in 2012. “It wasn’t offensive to anybody. Thornton would tell you, deep down, he knew this is Pavelski’s team.”
That ownership stems from a couple of things, not the least of which is what Pavelski has done on the ice. Since the start of the 2011–12 season, the only players with more goals than the 192 put up by No. 8 are Steven Stamkos (202) and Alex Ovechkin (257). Both of those guys were No. 1 picks. Pavelski was taken 205th overall and the list of skaters in NHL history selected later than that who have more career tallies than Pavelski’s 295 is limited to Dave Taylor (431), Henrik Zetterberg (326) and Pavol Demitra (304).
As for his contemporaries, the ones who produce at or near Pavelski’s level tend to have conspicuous gifts that can be spotted by someone making their maiden voyage to a rink. But if you took the top 25 goal-scorers in the league, divided them into two teams and dropped the puck, it’s hard to imagine many eyes being immediately drawn to Pavelski. Even his accurate, hard shot isn’t likely to jump off the page the way an Ovie zinger or a Shea Weber bomb does. The brilliant nuance in Pavelski’s approach — industry people marvel at his mind for the game and how he finds quiet spots in the offensive zone like few others — can be lost on observers, especially playing on the west coast, which can leave players under exposed.
To really appreciate Pavelski, it also helps to know what’s gone into scoring all those goals. He was the first member of “Jay’s Shooting Club,” named for former San Jose assistant Jay Woodcroft. It was Woodcroft who spent hours and hours of post-practice time with Pavelski working on the latter’s technique, thus inspiring the “self-made superstar” label. In college at Wisconsin, Pavelski would have teammates, including Burish, drop their sticks and gloves, stand behind the goal line and throw pucks he would attempt to knock out of the air. He looked like someone trying to complicate batting practice by doing it in hockey gear. “Joe’s one of the top two or three practice players I’ve been around,” says Todd McLellan, former Sharks bench boss and now the coach of the Oilers. “He knows something’s going to happen in a game and once we’re done all the [regular drills], instead of just flipping pucks in the stands or shooting them off posts, he sets up situations, he gets people to come help and he’s improved tremendously because of that.”
It’s fair to assume the omnipresent whispers that Pavelski could only go so far in the game were another driver of his growth. From his earliest days, critics mused about his average size, ordinary skating and the fact he first started gaining attention while playing high school hockey in Wisconsin, which — especially 15 years ago — was viewed as inferior to other brands of the sport. The Minnesota-based scout who found Pavelski, Pat Funk, never wavered in his faith, however, and fumed for six rounds at the 2003 draft when the Sharks called names other than Joe Pavelski. “I think it gives you a pretty quick understanding that nothing is going to be given to you,” Pavelski says of being selected so late.
That’s just a hint of it, according to Burish. Even back in the Wisconsin days, Burish remembers quietly talking to his buddy about how the school didn’t initially want to give Pavelski a full ride and how the latter, in his own subtle way, was irked by that. Burish believes the real source of the burr under Pavelski’s saddle has less to do with draft position and more to do with the chatter about limitations. “He still hears that; he’s still not fast enough and he still can’t do it,” says Burish. “[It’s] no different than a Patrick Kane, who’s still being told he’s too small and, ‘Gosh you’re skinny. What if you were big?’”
It’s impossible to know to what degree Pavelski has been powered by a shoulder chip. But whatever the case, he’s played the long game to perfection, banging away at the smallest details to figure out how he can squeeze out one more goal here and another there. Some people strike it rich with one brilliant stroke; others build a fortune by constantly trying to turn one dollar into two. “Without the curiosity, without the ability to constantly reinvent himself and improve, I think you [would have seen] a guy who’s probably out of the league in three years,” says San Jose scouting director Tim Burke, who’s well into his third decade with the organization.
There’s some irony in the fact that while Pavelski has faced more questions about his profession than is justified, in other aspects of life, he’s the guy people begrudge because everything comes naturally. Burish calls Pavelski the best amateur golfer he’s ever seen and McLellan makes specific note of his putting. On the course, the boys call him, “The Truth.” When all the former Badgers and Wisconsin natives are doing their off-season workouts, Pavelski often hammers more reps than seems reasonable or beats everyone up the football stadium stairs despite his unassuming stature — which Burish mocks as a “milk bag body.” An outdoorsman, Pavelski spends the summers with his wife and son in Madison on Lake Waubesa. Later in the season, he and his friends start going after muskie, referred to as a “10,000-cast fish” because they’re so hard to land. “He catches 30 to 50 a summer,” grouses Burish. “He’s a freak.”
While he’s yet to land the big one on the ice, Pavelski’s demeanour is such that you’re unlikely to get a glimpse of how much that affects him. It’s a different story with his close friends, though. “I know it bothers him 100 times more than he lets on,” Burish says. “It offends him; it upsets him that he hasn’t been able to get over that hump and win a Stanley Cup. I don’t think he would express it that way, but I know from being around him and talking with him about it that he takes it very personally.”
It’s hard to imagine a better reason to keep the faith in San Jose.
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