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Road to the NHL: Jeff Petry

by Staff Writer / Montréal Canadiens

MONTREAL – Jeff Petry’s high school hockey career didn’t necessarily get off to a roaring start, but it ultimately paved the way for him to showcase his remarkable talent on the back end.

Defenseman Jeff Petry in his high school days at Orchard Lake St. Mary's Preparatory in Michigan.

When Petry first donned the colors of the Orchard Lake St. Mary’s Eaglets in 2002-03, it wasn’t as a defenseman – and it wasn’t as a member of the Varsity squad, either. The Ann Arbor, MI native was plying his trade up front for the Junior Varsity contingent for the better part of the year, as members of the Eaglets’ coaching staff tried to acclimate their new charge to unfamiliar surroundings and a new level of competitive hockey. Failing to make Varsity as a freshman wasn’t easy for Petry to swallow, but it didn’t take long for veteran Orchard Lake bench boss Brian Klanow to see that there was a lot more to the youngster’s game than some might have initially thought.

“When Jeff got to Orchard Lake, he was obviously a young kid. He was very shy. He didn’t talk a lot, so comfort was our top priority at first. My JV coach at the time was Paul Woods, who played in the NHL for the Red Wings back in the day. Paul just seemed to think that Jeff was best used as a forward,” offered Klanow. “When I watched Jeff, though, I immediately noticed his ability to handle the puck and play with his head up. You could see that he was going to be a big kid. You could see it in his stature at the time that he was going to be tall. I remember Paul and I going around and around about that. He kept telling me that Jeff was a forward. I kept telling him that Jeff was a defenseman.”

Klanow’s assessment of Petry’s playing potential was reinforced that offseason as the Orchard Lake youngster accompanied the Varsity squad to a tournament in Alpena, MI. It was there that Klanow saw Petry’s defensive capabilities against the likes of more seasoned opponents first-hand.

“That summer going into Jeff’s sophomore year, we wanted to get him away from everything and have a look at him in a setting against bigger and stronger players. He ended up doing a really nice job. I had a conversation with his parents after that. I decided that the best thing for him was to keep him in a defensive position. He was going to be our seventh guy and we were going to look to him on the Varsity team as a project player,” mentioned Klanow. “That’s the way things played out. In his sophomore year, he might’ve played like 15 games out of 30, but it was all about the experience and the practice time. He was just one of those kids, everything you taught him or talked about, he was a sponge. He took it all in. He went out and tried to execute, and he continued to grow. Everything was really starting to come together for him out there.”

That doesn’t mean that it was all smooth sailing for Petry from there on out. While he progressively climbed the proverbial defensive ladder on the Eaglets’ roster, Petry also battled a medical condition that could have easily compromised his ability to move up the hockey ranks. It was something Klanow felt compelled to address with his pupil midway through the 2003-04 campaign with Petry’s stock beginning to rise.

“One day at practice, Jeff and I had a conversation. He suffered from asthma. Sometimes, he’d go off to the bench because he’d get winded if we were doing wind sprints. I skated over to him at one point and said – “You know, you’ve got to figure this out. Either you’re going to grab this and become the player that you can become, or you’re not and you’re just going to be a very good high school player.” I’ll never forget what happened after that,” recalled Klanow. “He watched his team get ready to do another set and he jumped on the ice right away. I never saw him leave the ice again and throw the asthma card out. I think that was a turning point in his head. I think with that little talk we had, he realized there was something there with his hockey. I think he took his love for the game to another level after that.”

Fast forward to Petry’s Junior season, which according to Klanow, solidified his standing as one of the elite rearguards in high school hockey.

“I’ll never forget that tournament in Waukesha, WI. It was Christmas. My assistant coach at the time was Ray Markham, who played in the NHL for the New York Rangers. It was the championship game. Jeff was playing really well. Maybe the second period of that game, Ray and I looked at each other on the bench and we just started laughing. I literally watched Jeff probably jump three or four levels right in front of my face. He just took over that game from the back end and started leading the team,” shared Klanow. “He was pinpointing passes to guys, moving the puck off the wall and putting it in safe spots. We ended up winning 6-1 or 7-1, and Jeff was probably in on five or six of those goals. He just continued to get better and better and better.”

Petry played an integral part in helping the Eaglets secure the school's first state championship in hockey in 2005.

Then, come playoff time, Petry played an instrumental role in helping Orchard Lake secure its first-ever state championship in hockey in 2005, claiming the MHSAA Division III crown.

“He turned into one our main guys on defense that year. We had a couple of seniors, too. Coming into the season, he was probably fifth or sixth on the depth chart, and he probably ended up being our number two guy in the end. It was so fun to watch. I just think he was completely encompassed in what we were doing at the time as a team. He wanted to take on that leadership role from the back end. That’s what he did. He became that guy. Everybody on the team looked to him,” confided Klanow, whose squad bested Flint Powers Catholic 3-1 in the championship game that year. “I think that was a big part of the growth for Jeff as a hockey player. You can be a great player, but when you become the guy and the focus is on you, the growth you get from that is exponential. That played in his favor also.”

With his hockey career on the upswing, Petry had to make an important decision that summer. In addition to starring for the Eaglets in hockey, the son of former major leaguer, Dan Petry, had also been a standout on the baseball field at Orchard Lake for years. He knew, however, that hockey was his future and that he needed to commit to the game on a full-time basis in order to make his NHL dreams come true. Klanow was the first person Petry consulted for advice and guidance.

“Jeff was a very good baseball player. He even won a state title with us in 2003. But, he knew a decision had to be made. I felt that if you’re going to be great at something, you’ve got to really start to focus in on that one sport alone. I know Jeff loved both sports, but he had to choose,” exaplained Klanow. “I remember Jeff coming into my office. He was really distraught about everything being that his dad was a pro baseball player and it was in the family. My thing to Jeff was – “Listen, I think that you’re really growing as a player. I think you have all the potential in the world. You’re going to be able to do things with your hockey, but it’s got to become your life. It was hard for him, but he knew he had to talk to his dad and let him know. He didn’t need to feel bad, though, because Dan fully understood.”

In retrospect, it’s safe to say Petry, now 27, made the right choice. Not long after the season came to an end, the multi-talented defender caught the eye of future Des Moines Buccaneers (USHL) assistant coach Todd Knott at a camp in Orchard Lake. Knott immediately expressed interest in Petry, who still had one year of hockey remaining with the Eaglets. While Petry didn’t commit to a move to the USHL right away, electing instead to begin the year playing Little Caesars AAA hockey, Knott kept a close eye on the local product, bringing him out to Iowa for a visit that would prove successful from the start.

“When Knott called and said they wanted to fly Jeff out to Des Moines, his mom, dad and I had a long talk. I thought this was going to be the best thing for him. They went out there with him and he ended up playing a game or two and he was fantastic. Todd called me and said that the Buccaneers were ready to take him right now. When he said that, I was all for it,” mentioned Klanow. “As a school, we didn’t want to lose him. We didn’t want to lose a player like that, and we didn’t want to lose a young man with that type of character, especially in his senior year in high school.”

Petry and his teammates celebrate the state title victory.

Petry is forever grateful to Klanow for his help at that point in time. He helped him deal with the inevitable pressures that come with forging a career path at such a young age, supporting Petry in every conceivable way up until the USHL came calling for his services.

“My senior year, a lot of people were telling me not to rush and take the next step. Even people from the school were saying they didn’t think I should go to the USHL and that I should stay at Orchard Lake. Brian unselfishly said that [making the move to Des Moines] was the best thing for me to do,” explained Petry, who went on to spend two seasons with the Buccaneers, where he not only claimed a Clark Cup Championship in 2006, but was also named a USHL All-Star twice and the USHL’s Defenseman of the Year in 2007 before moving on to star at Michigan State University for three seasons. “He was losing a player, but he knew it was right. He put me in front of the team’s success and the success they would have had with me in the lineup.”

Petry and his former mentor remain close. The Canadiens’ No. 26 visits Orchard Lake on road trips to Detroit during the year, and also works with kids at the school’s summer hockey camps during the offseason while residing in West Bloomfield, MI. Knowing Petry like he does, Klanow isn’t at all surprised to see the now-five-year NHL veteran remain as grounded as ever.

“The Jeff Petry you see right now is the same guy he was in high school. He doesn’t change. Nothing has steered him from his ideals as a person and how he conducts himself. That’s what makes him such a fun guy to be with. He’s like a staple for a lot of kids at St. Mary’s because of where he came from. He started here. Now, you see where he’s at. It gives kids something to dream about and a sense of hope,” concluded Klanow, who was pleased to see Petry agree to terms on a six-year contract with the Canadiens back on June 2. “I’m just happy that he’s reached his full potential. Potential is just a word for many kids. That’s the thing that we try to convey to them. Don’t just be satisfied with having potential. Make sure that you try to reach it.”

Simply put, Jeff Petry is a shining example of that.

Matt Cudzinowski is a writer for canadiens.com.

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