Less than two years ago, Blake Geoffrion was on top of his world. He'd just graduated from the University of Wisconsin with a degree in consumer affairs, and the Badgers hockey team he captained had made it all the way to the national college championship game. To top it all off, he'd wrapped up his university career as team captain and winner of the Hobey Baker award as the top college player in the United States. Life was good, and about to get better.
"After I won the Hobey Baker, I was so excited to take that next step in my life," he recalls of his anticipation of a pro hockey career. "I knew there would be a lot of adjustments, first being a whole lot more games than in college, but I was excited. I did a lot of things early on in my career that were really cool, and I was definitely confident."
For a boy who became a man in Tennessee, where the cotton blooms and blows and Sam McGee probably never heard of hockey, Geoffrion was a pioneer. The first kid from the state to win the Hobey Baker and the first to be drafted to the NHL, by his hometown Predators, no less, he blazed a trail for others to follow. His life was a hometown-hero-makes-good script all neatly packaged for the biographers. Then, suddenly, conflict entered his charming story.
"I wasn't having a good year personally," he admits now. "I came into camp full of confidence. I was playing really well, and then got hurt. Then I came back and was a healthy scratch. When I got to play again, I got hurt again. Then sent down to the minors, called back up. I just wasn't playing well."
Still, when his boss called last Friday to break the news that the hometown boy, the Tennessee trailblazer, was done in Nashville, Geoffrion wasn't prepared.
"When I got traded, I'll be honest, I couldn't believe they were trading me away from my hometown. I know they've got to win now and make sacrifices, and that's the business side of things, but I felt really shocked and really disappointed," he reflects after a pause to collect his thoughts on the matter. "I felt they gave up on me, just because they traded me. Maybe they thought, well he's an older guy, and we have other guys in the system who can do the same thing. Maybe Montreal wouldn't do the trade unless I was included. But I thought they gave up on me."
As the shock eased, Geoffrion began to think of the trade as a chance to do for another team what he hadn't been able to do for the Predators. On the way to Hamilton to join the AHL Bulldogs, he says his spirits lifted and his outlook on the trade became more positive.
"I was excited at that point. The season wasn't going well, so coming here, it's like a new season for me. A re-do, a restart. To come here to Hamilton, my goal now is to play for the Canadiens at the Bell Centre, and play on a team that three generations of my family have played for. If that's not motivation, I don't know what is."
Ah, yes, the family legacy. Geoffrion might have grown up in Tennessee, but he was weaned on stories of Montreal. In his childhood home the puck his grandfather, Boom Boom, fired to become the second man in history to score 50 goals in a season was on display. So were the rings he won for winning five consecutive Stanley Cups and for his induction to the Hockey Hall of Fame. If that's not enough, Blake's great-grandfather, Howie Morenz is a legend; one of the four icons enshrined in bronze in the Bell Centre's Centennial Plaza. His dad, Danny, played for the Habs too; the first one in the family to face the pressure of living up to the Geoffrion name. It was he who helped Blake understand his hockey heritage, and put it into perspective at the same time.
"I think it was a little tougher on my dad. He grew up in Montreal and had the pressure of living up to the name," Blake reflects. "I was disguised in the South and nobody knew who I was. I was able to do my own thing down there and become my own player and not have that pressure my whole life. Now that I'm traded to Montreal and have a chance to play there one day, I'm just going to be my own self. I'm not going to try to do what they did. I'd like one day to win a Stanley Cup, but I probably won't win five Cups in a row or a Calder or an Art Ross and all these things my grandfather won. I promise I'll work my butt off every night, give my all and try my hardest to have half the grit my grandfather did."
It's a noble goal, and a sensible one. Still, Danny Geoffrion knows something about the questions Blake will be asked at least a thousand times, and he gave his son the simplest and best advice he could.
"Don't worry about the pressure and have fun," Blake laughs, when asked what his dad told him after news of the trade. Then he continues, "Having fun is the biggest thing. If you're not having fun, you should probably find something else to do."
Geoffrion is having a blast in Hamilton so far, with a goal and four assists in his first two games as a Bulldog. Even so, he's hoping this is just a pit stop. At 24, he knows he's got to make it to the NHL for good soon, or risk seeing the precious window of hockey youth close for him. Four years at college was good for his personal development, but it's left him playing catch-up when it comes to the game. Now finally injury-free this season, he's looking for a strong finish, then toward a summer of hard work and a real chance to play for the Canadiens.
"I wouldn't say I'm phenomenal at anything," he begins, when asked what part of his game is strongest. "I'm pretty good at a lot of things, but I don't really like talking about myself. The biggest things I need to get better are size and speed. Everyone can skate, everyone can stick handle. You have to work on getting bigger, stronger, faster every year."
That's the investment part of Geoffrion's new dream. There are many hours of sweat and labour to be logged before it comes true, but he can't help thinking ahead to the night when he sits in the Canadiens dressing room, wearing the sweater immortalized by the men whose hockey blood pumps through his own heart. He imagines looking up and seeing his grandfather and great-grandfather's pictures looking down from high up on the wall.
"I probably won't stop smiling the whole time. I'll say a little prayer before I go out and I know they'll be with me that night for sure," he says.
A lot has changed for the trailblazer from Tennessee in the last year. The path he was forging in hockey's suburbs has taken a sharp turn north, and he finds himself following a trail laid by his own family in the game's glory days. Less than two seasons after that memorable Hobey Baker-winning night he knows it's a special thing to be on top of your world, and he knows now it doesn't always come easy. As he says himself, though, he doesn't have to look far to find the inspiration he needs. It's already part of him.