How Canadiens’ Petry is defying aging curve with Norris-worthy effort

Brendan Gallagher and Jeff Petry explain why it’s important for the Canadiens to stick up for themselves when it comes to physical play.

BROSSARD, Que. — April 30, 1986. Edmonton. Second round of the playoffs, with the Oilers in pursuit of their third consecutive Stanley Cup. The score is 2-2 in the third period of Game 7 versus the Calgary Flames when Steve Smith makes a mistake that will haunt him forever.

“If you mention my name, that goal is certainly going to come up,” Smith said when I spoke with him Monday. He has accepted that it will follow him to his grave and beyond. Fair or not, it’s a blight on his otherwise untarnished legacy—an eye-capturing mole on an otherwise unblemished face.

Smith made the faux pas on his 23rd birthday, in the 63rd game of his rookie season, and it literally leveled him. Watch the video, see him collapse to the ice after the puck slips behind a helpless Grant Fuhr, and it’s as if he instantly realizes he will forever take the blame for interrupting one of the greatest dynasties in NHL history, like nothing can change this—not even an offence driven by Hockey Gods Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier, Jari Kurri, Glenn Anderson and Paul Coffey having a little more than 14 minutes to tie the game and perhaps even win it in regulation.

It was enough to destroy a promising career, but it didn’t. Smith played 875 games after the one featuring his most-remembered moment. He scored 79 more goals, added 323 more assists, and saw his name etched onto the Stanley Cup three times.

“What’s amazing about it was it was a great learning experience for me as a player,” Smith told me. “It taught me humility, it taught me about commitment, and it taught me about failure and dealing with it.”

If Smith never learns that lesson, he can’t pass it on to a young, struggling Jeff Petry, and the space-time continuum is perhaps irreversibly altered.

It was Smith, in his role as defence coach with the Oilers from 2010-14, that helped Petry start to realize he needed to process his mistakes differently. He was the right voice given his experience, and he was speaking at the right time.

“I think if you asked anybody close to me, or coaches that I’ve played for, they would tell you that I was always the person that was the most hard on myself and I was the guy that couldn’t let go of the mistake, and it would translate into two or three more mistakes until I finally snapped out of it,” Petry said on Monday.

“We’d watch video after a game I thought I played horrible, and (Smith would be) like, ‘You’re never as good as you thought you were, and you’re never as bad as you thought you were,’” he added. “You go back and re-watch a game that you thought you were terrible, and you find that you did a lot of really good things, as well. So, just to have that mindset of mistakes are going to happen, it’s a fast-paced game and, for me, I think that’s something that I learned over the years is to try and park things right away so they don’t snowball.”

Key words there: “Over the years.”

Wine doesn’t become fine over night. The road the 33-year-old has traveled to become an anomaly—a pro hockey player who somehow gets better in his 30s whereas most players peak in their 20s—has been both lengthy and bumpy.

From his days as a young pup in an unforgiving Edmonton market, as part of an atrocious Oilers team for which he had to be better than he was capable of being at the time, to his most recent days as an older, wiser dog leading a crew of young, talented NHL defenceman and emerging as an early candidate for this year’s Norris Trophy, there have been many ups and downs. Even in each of the past three seasons, over which Petry scored at least 40 points.

But each valley for Petry has become shallower, and that’s the result of many things, but particularly the work that started with Smith. The work that’s continued with Petry’s wife and confidant, Julie—and a couple of major-league pitchers.

Start with Roger Clemens, who learned some valuable lessons over an MLB career that started when “Terms of Endearment” was released and ended when “Pirates of the Caribbean” debuted as a box-office smash. Clemens, who spent three of the last four of his 24 professional seasons pitching in Houston, became close family friends with Julie Petry’s parents because Julie’s father was coaching both Clemens’s son and his own in little league football. And Julie Petry later leaned on Clemens’s experience to help her husband expand on the work that began with Smith.

“My wife is good friends with a major league baseball player that gave her advice to pass along to me,” Petry said. “I started to do it a few years ago: If you have one of those tough games, write (your mistakes) down if you have a notebook or in your phone... you kind of replay it in your head and you write down what actually happened, and you rewrite it down a couple of times after of how you would’ve done it different so if that situation comes up again it’s in your mind... That was something I had heard before, but something I put into place (over the past few seasons).”

Petry had heard it before from Clemens’s former teammate with the Boston Red Sox, his father, Dan Petry.

“You throw and you know you missed your pitch, (and) a guy hits a home run off you, and you’re going to learn from that and know you can’t make that mistake again against that player,” Petry said, sharing his father’s advice. “It’s kind of that same mindset, I guess.”

Smith wanted to shape it in Petry. He leaned on his own experience and shared it with a player he knew had great promise.

“He was too hard on himself, which made it harder to learn from the mistakes,” said Smith, the 57-year-old who’s now an assistant coach with the Buffalo Sabres. “He had a little bit of a confidence issue, and it grew with time. He clearly had world-class skills; he was a great puck-handler, he had an incredible shot, he could be physical when he wanted, he could make great outlet passes, and he had a good IQ for the game. You could see it back then, it was always just a matter of when the full package would come together.”

It took a trade from Edmonton to Montreal in 2015, an exceptionally positive experience in the playoffs with the Canadiens that spring, a confidence-inspiring six-year, $33-million reward for his play, and the opportunity to play a much bigger role for it to start happening for Petry.

“I think if you look at his career, he had a tough go in Edmonton and they didn’t really quite realize what they had,” said Brendan Gallagher, who’s been the six-foot-three defenceman’s teammate since he landed in Montreal. “Then he comes here and it’s just a fresh start for him. His confidence has always been a big thing about his game; when he’s feeling good about himself, he’s really an elite defenceman in the NHL. There’s not a lot of defencemen that can do what he does, and he’s getting those opportunities to learn from those experiences and to grow as a player.”

The biggest growth opportunity for the Michigan native came in 2017 and carried through 2020—a period of time that saw him replace oft-injured Shea Weber on Montreal’s top defence pairing.

Julie Petry told me in the fall of 2019, during a visit with her and Jeff, that this was a crystalizing experience for her husband.

“Every elite athlete is what they think they are,” said Julie, a former standout on Michigan State’s NCAA Division-I field hockey team. “The thoughts you put in your head is what you put out there on the field or the ice.

“Jeff would overthink things and beat himself up, but the reason he played so well when Shea was out was he didn’t have time to think. I think he plays better hockey when more is asked of him. I think when he’s playing the most minutes, it’s all he thinks about, so he doesn’t have time to sit there and dissect something he did badly.

“And this also goes into my theory of now having three boys (the couple has three sons: Boyd, Barrett and Bowen). In Edmonton, we only had a dog, and he would come home and just list off everything he did wrong and there was nothing positive. But here, knowing how busy we are, he doesn’t really have a minute to think about one bad play. Even after a game, he might have a second to spit something out to me, but two seconds later we have three little boys arguing over what movie they want to watch on the way home. I think that has been the biggest blessing. He doesn’t have time to replay the negative thoughts in his mind; he just has to go out and do what he knows how to do, what he does well.”

It’s an unburdened, clear-minded Petry who’s playing the best hockey of his career in his 34th year and 12th NHL season. He may be behind Weber and Ben Chiarot in ice-time, but by so little that Canadiens coach Claude Julien said Monday he couldn’t even state with certainty that the Weber-Chiarot pairing is higher up in the pecking order than Petry’s with Joel Edmundson. Petry leads NHL defencemen with six goals, ranks second in points (14) and is tied with Edmundson for the league lead in plus-minus (plus-14).

And it’s impossible to miss the connection between improving his mental approach and finding an unprecedented consistency at a stage of his career that should have him declining. Petry has collected a point in all but three of his 12 games, and he’s been a plus in all but two of them. He had an off-game in a loss to the Ottawa Senators last Thursday, but he rebounded quickly in a win over them Saturday. That’s not a matter of coincidence; it’s a function of years of training.

Smith has watched the improvement from afar, and closely: Cheering Petry the player, and Petry the person, whom he refers to as “world class.”

“We’re all going to go through ups and downs over a game, or a week, or a month or a career, but the importance is sticking to the basic principles of what you’re trying to accomplish every day,” Smith said. “That was something I learned as a player, and as a coach I try to instill that in guys on a daily basis.”

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