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Top prospect has strong sports lineage, including his uncle James Patrick who played defence for the Flames

by GEORGE JOHNSON @GJohnsonFlames /

CHICAGO - For an impressionable young hockey dreamer, the dressing room at Ralph Engelstad Arena on the UND campus in Grand Forks could just as well have been inside the Bell Centre, MSG, or Joe Louis Arena.

Or the gates of heaven, for that matter.

"I hung up the jerseys one time when Buffalo was playing an exhibition game against someone there,'' says Nolan Patrick, remembering the sensation of being star-struck.

"I must've been, five. Seven, maybe? Right around there, anyway.

"Uncle James pulled some strings."

Uncle James, then an assistant coach with the Sabres, is none other than ex- Flames' D-man James Patrick, now coach of the WHL Kootenay Ice.

Thanks to Uncle James' 'in', father and son made the 232-kilometre drive south from their Winnipeg home to get a taste of the pro experience.

"I remember guys walking around the room, all the players were there, and I was just staring at them hanging these jerseys up,'' says Nolan.

"That was so cool."

Across the street from the United Centre on this early Thursday afternoon, 85-degree-farenheit heat shimmering up off the asphalt where the grand old Chicago Stadium once stood, another generation of impressionable young hockey dreamers are getting their chance at something cool.

A game of pick-up ball hockey with some of the most prized current junior players on the planet - besides Patrick, there's Nico Hischier, Gabriel Vilardi, and Casey Mittelstadt (as well as Hockey Hall of Famer Denis Savard) - in advance of Friday's 2017 NHL Entry Draft.

The Brandon Wheat Kings' star pivot, of course, is widely tapped to be the first- or second-overall selection, depending on which way the wind is blowing for the draft-lottery-winning New Jersey Devils.

"People have been asking me and I don't know if they believe me but for me it doesn't matter if I go 1 or 2,'' maintains Patrick. "I could care less.

"A lot of guys will tell you what you want to hear and say they don't care. But I actually don't care.

"I just want to make the NHL next year. Wherever I get picked doesn't matter. I just want to go somewhere the team wants me.

"It's been my goal for three years. I don't know how much it would benefit me as a player going back to junior. Playing against better competition will help me improve."

Holding the 16th selection, Calgary GM Brad Treliving won't have a chance at putting another Patrick in a Flames' jersey.

"This year, this draft class, probably hasn't gotten its due,'' reckons Treliving. "Nolan's in that group. A big centreman who can make plays, is smart, rangy, productive. He had a tough year with injuries and

"I don't think anybody should be sleeping on this guy.

"This is a really, really good player. To find a big centreman with a skill package like that?

"Someone's going to go home real happy."

The Patrick family sporting lineage is long and rich in Manitoba.

Nolan's grandfather Stephen played 13 seasons along the offensive front for the Winnipeg Blue Bombers. Dad Steve logged 250 NHL games for Buffalo, Quebec and the NY Rangers.

And there's Uncle James, of course, with 1,280 big-league starts along the blueline to his name for four organizations, including, for five seasons, the Flames.

"They (dad and uncle) both said just have fun, it's a one-time experience,'' says the newest Patrick. "I'm excited. It's coming quick.

"I'm happy to spend it with my family and friends."

Nolan admits he hasn't viewed much footage of Uncle James in action.

"I've seen a little bit but there's not too many highlights from back then as compared to now.

"Obviously he was a good player and played a long time. I wish I could've seen more of it."

The family ties, though, obviously run deep.

Stencilled on Patrick's hockey gloves are his grandfather's initials and the number he wore as a Blue Bomber.

"When he passed away (Jan. 15, 2014), I thought I'd get something for him,'' explains Nolan. "We were pretty close.

"He was big for me. He was always on the educational side of things; pushing me to stay with my schoolwork. He took me to the driving range a lot when I was younger. That's kinda when I fell in love with golf.

"He was a lot different guy from my dad. My dad's a real upbeat non-stop talking guy. He was more laid-back, a lot of wisdom. Just hilarious. Always telling my dad to shut up.

"A great father for his seven kids. He was awesome."

The Winnipeg connection goes further. Patrick's favourite current player happens to be a certain Jonathan Toews, of Manitoba capital stock, who plies his trade just across the street.

"He's got a cabin about 30 minutes from mine. I think he spends most of his (off-season) time out there. But I've never met him."

They're apt to bump into each other once or twice this winter.

It's a ways from then to now, from hanging up jerseys for an exhibition game in Grand Forks thanks to Uncle James to a point where he could go first over-all.

Did Patrick know, even back then, that this was the direction fate would steer him?

"Oh yeah,'' is the quick reply. "Ever since I was younger. I had my uncle say I wasn't just watching it, I was picking apart the game. Watching guys, where they go on the ice, that sort of thing.

"I think that it helped me now.

"I've always loved the game. I've always wanted to be an NHL player."

'Always' is suddenly very close at hand.

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