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PATRICK ENTERS SOPHOMORE SEASON

Tuesday, 10.09.2007 / 3:20 PM / Features
By Erin Pollina  - Sabres.com
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PATRICK ENTERS SOPHOMORE SEASON
James Patrick
In the 2006-07 season, James Patrick experienced something he had not faced in more than 20 years- his rookie debut.

While it may have been a familiar team he was working with, it was quite a different role for Patrick as he went from being a seasoned NHL defenseman to a first-year assistant coach for the Buffalo Sabres.

“I always thought about what I would do after I was a player,” Patrick said. “I had always thought about different things. But I think when I came to Buffalo and the role I had on he team and the relationship I had with Lindy [Ruff]…I think it evolved a bit while I was here playing and certainly made me start wondering if [coaching] would be something that I would want to do.”

Patrick had plenty of time to think during the 2004-05 NHL lockout.

Those thoughts turned to actions when his daughter’s peewee hockey travel team needed a coach. At the time, Patrick believed he would only be helping to fill the position temporarily until play resumed that season.

“But as we got into November, more guys started going to Europe and there was a lot of opportunity,” Patrick said. “There was a bit of tug-of-war trying to figure out what to do but I was just having fun coaching the girls… I said, ‘You know what? I feel I might be missing out on something and letting the girls down if I left.’”

So he stayed.

But taking a year off at that stage of his career, at 42 years old, prompted Patrick to retire following the lockout in 2005 after 21 seasons in the NHL

He immediately accepted a skill development position with the Sabres, although the attempt was short-lived. Patrick wrestled with the thought that he could still play competitive hockey.

He received an offer from the German Hockey League, specifically with the Frankfurt Lions, that was difficult for him to turn down.

“I remember discussing it with Lindy and basically his encouragement was ‘go play because you’ll never play again but you can always coach,’” Patrick said.

So he played.

Throughout the year that he lived in Germany with his family, Patrick said dialog between he and Ruff continued.

When former assistant coach Scott Arniel received a job with the Manitoba Moose in the AHL in 2006, the timing and the opportunity were finally right for Patrick.

“I think when you play the game for that long, and it's maybe in your blood and its on your mind a lot of the time, I don’t think you can fake it or change whether you're passionate about it and maybe {Ruff] recognized that,” Patrick said.

Ruff certainly had more than one opportunity to see that.

In 1989, after 10 seasons of playing for the Sabres, Ruff was traded to the New York Rangers, where Patrick was a veteran defenseman. When Patrick signed with Buffalo as a free agent in 1998, he was met with a familiar face as Ruff went from teammate to boss, entering his sophomore year as head coach for the organization.

Even with all of the experience Patrick had with the team and the game itself, he admitted there was still a learning curve in his transition to coaching.

“I think for me… It was really frustrating, really tough biting your tongue on the bench when you didn’t agree with something the referee did. That would drive me crazy sometimes,” Patrick said. “Lindy would all year long have to say, ‘Settle down and quit yelling at the refs.’

"I know they have the toughest job in the world, and they are good at what they do, but in the heat of the battle you sometimes forget that.”

Patrick said he did remember what it was like to be a player, adding that it helped him understand his athletes

“To know what it’s like to be down and make a mistake and try and fight your way out of those situations, go through adversity. I think that is helpful as a coach,” he said.

“One thing I know being on this side now is the coaches are there for the players, they care about them and want the best for the players.  Everything you’re doing and even when you’re working a player after practice and you’re pushing him and you’re correcting and driving him, it’s because you care about him and you want to help him. I didn’t understand that certainly in my early career.”

As a defenseman, Patrick said his first year coaching taught him something else he did not understand.

“Maybe the biggest thing that surprised me is how different forwards are from defense,” he said. “Always being on the bench with the defensemen, you have a different relationship. The six guys that play defense, you’re really tight and really support each other. I think with forwards it’s a little more competitive for ice time.”

It may be surprising that Patrick did not understand this nature, as he had quite a competitive family growing up. His brother Steve was a forward for the Buffalo Sabres in the early 1980s, and his father, Steven Sr., played for the CFL’s Winnipeg Blue Bombers for more than a decade.

Patrick said his experience, and his family, has allowed him to develop his coaching philosophy over the years.

“I think you, as a former player, develop your philosophy, your style, from the coaches you respected and what you thought was best in that coach-player relationship,” Patrick said. “For me I think it is to communicate as much as possible, the good and the bad, and try to do it in a positive way. I never thought screaming yelling and breaking sticks was the way to go. But I think you can just talk to the players and show them you are there for them and care for them and you want to try to teach them and help them improve their game.”

Not bad for his rookie debut. 

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