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Big-league success

by Staff Writer / Montréal Canadiens

MONTREAL – “Every 24 hours the world turns over on someone who was sitting on top of it.”

That quote still resonates with Jeff Petry’s father – former major-league pitcher Dan Petry – today, long after his retirement from professional baseball back in 1991. Those words were featured on a sign in Hall-of-Fame manager Sparky Anderson’s office in Detroit where Dan spent the majority of his 13-year playing career that included helping the Tigers claim their last World Series title 32 years ago.

According to the Elias Sports Bureau, Jeff Petry is the only NHL player whose father played Major League Baseball.

The message of modesty within that saying is something the 57-year-old tried to share with both Jeff and his eldest son, Matt, as they entered the world of competitive sports while growing up in Michigan. It’s one of many virtues the one-time All-Star wanted his boys to internalize early on in their lives and apply both on and off the playing field – or the ice rink, for that matter.

“I wanted them to understand the importance of always being humble. In any kind of sports, but especially professional sports at the highest level, games are very humbling. When you get there, everybody is good, everybody has skill and talent. That means that you have to outwork the next guy. If he runs a mile, you have to run two. That was the biggest thing I tried to get them to understand,” said Mr. Petry, who also sported the colors of the California Angels, Atlanta Braves and Boston Red Sox while posting a 125-104 record, pitching 2,080.1 innings and striking out 1,063 batters along the way.

“Ultimately, it all comes down to what you have upstairs. I remember when I was coming up through the minors, I used to look at other guys and say – ‘How am I ever going to make it? They have way better stuff than me.’ But, it’s about self-confidence. How do you think? What’s in your heart? What’s in your gut? When you take that punch, can you get back up? On top of being humble, those things matter most,” added Mr. Petry, a California native who still calls the Great Lakes State home.

With those lessons in mind, Jeff went on to make his NHL dreams a reality. He chose hockey over baseball in the latter stages of high school, electing to leave Orchard Lake Saint Mary’s and forego his senior year to join the USHL’s Des Moines Buccaneers and work with head coach Regg Simon in late 2005. Dan still recalls a conversation with Simon confirming that big things were on the horizon for Jeff in the not so distant future.

Jeff had a strong cheering section when the Canadiens visited Joe Louis Arena to play the Red Wings last December.

“Regg and I had some long talks when it came to Jeff leaving high school and making the jump to the USHL [after beginning the year playing Little Caesars AAA hockey locally in Detroit]. Jeff wanted to do this and we agreed. That season, Jeff was named an All-Star and Regg called to ask if we’d already picked a family advisor. We hadn’t, and he told us to get one because there were a lot of scouts who were calling and showing interest in Jeff. Then, he was drafted by Edmonton that summer [in June 2006],” said Mr. Petry, a firm believer that Simon played a significant role in helping Jeff eventually get to where he is today.

“I knew that it was all because of Regg showing faith in Jeff and getting him on the team that this was happening for him. That’s where Jeff got a really good chance to make it, playing with guys like Trevor Lewis, Kyle Okposo and Matt Read. That was a very, very special time, travelling around the heartland of America and improving his game,” added Mr. Petry, who saw Jeff win a Clark Cup title in his first year under Simon’s tutelage, before securing multiple honors in his second season, including a second All-Star nod, being named Defenseman of the Year, and capturing the Dave Tyler Junior Player of the Year Award, too.

Fast forward to March 2, 2015 when Jeff was acquired by the Canadiens at the trade deadline after spending four-plus seasons in Edmonton. He instantaneously went from an Oilers squad that was among the league’s poorest teams to one of the top contingents in the NHL. Dan hadn’t been to Montreal before Jeff was dealt, so making the trip to Quebec to see him play over the last two seasons has been quite an eye-opening experience.

“When Jeff scored a goal in the playoffs [in the second round against Tampa Bay] and the Canadiens’ goal song came on, it was just chills from head to toe. I’d never heard the song ‘Le but (Allez Montreal)’ before, so I really had to listen to the lyrics to try and understand them. Seeing Ginette Reno sing the anthem was special also. That really hit me last spring,” said Mr. Petry, who also took in the Canadiens’ home opener last October at the Bell Centre against the New York Rangers. “The passing of the torch was beautiful. I was standing there with tears coming down my face. I used to watch the games on CBC and I saw the pre-game festivities with the ice lighting on fire and the kids skating around with Canadiens flags. To see it in person – and being in a city I’d heard so much about with the Expos, the Olympics, the different language and the culture – was all a little overwhelming.”

Jeff, Julie and Boyd took in an exhibition game between the Toronto Blue Jays and Boston Red Sox at Olympic Stadium in early April.

Overwhelming in a good way, that is. Dan was ecstatic when Jeff elected to remain in Montreal for the foreseeable future by signing a six-year contract with the Canadiens through the 2020-21 campaign last summer. At the time, Jeff and his wife, Julie, were expecting their first child, Boyd Jackson, who was born a little over a month after the long-term deal was done. After spending some time in Montreal during the Habs’ last playoff run, Dan believed the city was a good fit for the young couple and his grandson.

“I remember telling Jeff that one of the things he does have to factor in is that whether they were having a boy or a girl, that by the time that contract was over their child was going to be on the road to being bilingual. Think about what a wonderful start to their life that was going to be, the ability to speak a different language and live in a city with so much history. In all honesty, his time in Montreal was so special, I don’t think he had to think too hard [about signing],” said Mr. Petry, who wouldn’t be at all surprised to see Jeff and Julie one day spend their time in Montreal year-round. “I told my wife, Christine, that down the road if they do come back, it may just be for little visits and short periods of time because I think they’re fully entrenched there. We may have to make some more trips to Montreal in the summers to see them, which is fine by me. It’s so intriguing there.”

While Jeff’s hockey-related accomplishments are well-documented, away from the rink the Canadiens’ No. 26 has also managed to catch his father’s eye time and again in recent years, especially when he graduated from Michigan State University with a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice in June 2014, seven years after first enrolling at the school to patrol the blue line for the Spartans.

“The thing I’m most proud of is Jeff getting that degree. I didn’t go to school before playing baseball, so when my playing career was done, I was like – ‘Now what?’ You’re still a young person and your options are pretty limited. You have to do something. Yes, you can stay involved in the game, but it would be nice to have something different to fall back on. I admire him for finishing. I know it took him a lot to do that. It’s something I didn’t achieve, so it makes it even more special,” said Mr. Petry, who admits Jeff’s growth into fatherhood has also been fun to watch since it also brought back a lot of good memories of the talented rearguard as a youngster.

“From Day 1 right after Boyd was born, Jeff embraced being a dad. He jumped right in with all of the diaper changing and bathing. You see that and it reminds me that Jeff is still my little boy. That never leaves. They’ll always be your son or daughter. I’ve had to do a lot of changing where it’s – ‘Oh my gosh, this is real life here. First, there’s the marriage part, but then there’s Jeff being a father now, too.’ I’ve loved all of it,” added Mr. Petry, who is thoroughly enjoying being Boyd’s grandpa.

Dan has also switched NHL allegiances since Jeff joined the Canadiens , and he’s got the gear to prove it. Jeff and Julie made sure of that last Christmas when they gave him all the requisite clothing items from Tricolore Sports to be a Canadiens supporter through and through. He’s even added several Habs items to a piece of personal sports memorabilia in his home that is particularly near and dear to his heart.

Dan spending quality time with Boyd back home in Michigan.

“Years back, when they demolished Tiger Stadium, I bought my locker. I have some baseball stuff down there, but now Jeff got me a white Canadiens jersey and then Mr. Molson gave us home jerseys on the Father’s Trip last November. Those are hanging in my locker, along with a scarf that we got on opening weekend. So, it isn’t only a Tigers locker anymore, it’s a Montreal Canadiens one, too,” said Mr. Petry, who would love to add one more coveted souvenir to his collection at some point down the road.

“Every summer, before Jeff starts any season, we all head out for a nice dinner and we say – ‘Have a good year and stay healthy,’ but we also say ‘Hey, go win the Stanley Cup.’ There’s a lot that goes along with that, obviously. I would love to have a picture taken of him with his Canadiens jersey on and me with my Tigers jersey on with the Stanley Cup and the World Series trophy together. There's never been a father-son combination of baseball and hockey before, let alone World Champions, so we’d both absolutely love that,” added Mr. Petry, an assistant coach at Orchard Lake where Matt – a former pitcher at the University of Michigan –  heads up the varsity baseball program. “Here in Michigan, people always ask you about winning the World Series. They never forget. It’s just a special thing that happens when you’re a champion.”

Matt Cudzinowski is a writer for canadiens.com.

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