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Through lengthy wait, roster limbo, Stars' Pateryn never flinched

Despite sitting for the first nine games, the defenseman proved himself as an ultimate teammate

by Scott Burnside @OvertimeScottB / DallasStars.com

WHISTLER, British Columbia -- In the absence of the real deal, in the absence of real-time jarring collision of bodies on ice, and pucks fired with intent and points on the line, you have to create your own internal competition.

You have to find a way to challenge yourself -- to get better without letting disappointment and frustration erode your confidence, or sour your personality.

In some ways, it's more difficult -- certainly more challenging mentally than knowing you're going to play every day.

This, for long stretches, is Greg Pateryn's lot in life as a National Hockey League player and, specifically, a member of the Dallas Stars.

"Every day, I pick out two or three things, every single day, and I focus on that and I do 10-15 reps of that," Pateryn said. "And if that helps me get a little bit sharper every day, that's worth it right there."

"So it's finding little ways like that to keep yourself sharp," he added. "Because when you do get the call, you are playing against one of the best players in the world, so you don't have any room for error."

Not unlike the backup goaltender who plays sparingly but must condition himself to go in and perform at a high level at a moment's notice, Pateryn has found himself in a kind of limbo world. A bonafide member of the Dallas roster, he outlasted other veteran defensemen, including Stars prospect Patrik Nemeth, who was waived and picked up by the Colorado Avalanche, to remain with the big club when training camp broke almost a month ago. 

But for most of this month, he has been here -- but not here.

As Julius Honka and Jamie Oleksiak rotated in and out of the lineup through the first nine games of the regular season, it wasn't until Stephen Johns suffered concussion symptoms in Tuesday's loss to Colorado that Pateryn got the word that he would be playing in his first regular-season game on Thursday in Edmonton.

"Every game you don't play, it's definitely tough," admitted Pateryn, who was drafted 128th overall in 2008 by the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Video: Pateryn ready for chance against Oilers

Pateryn never played a game for the Leafs as he was sent to Montreal weeks after the '08 draft in a trade for Mikhail Grabovski. The 27-year-old Pateryn played 82 games for Montreal through parts of four seasons -- seasons that also included regular stints in the American Hockey League before he was dealt to Dallas last March as part of the trade that sent Jordie Benn to Montreal at the deadline late last February.

Pateryn got in 12 games with the Stars last season as the team missed the playoffs.

With significant offseason changes at the start of training camp, it seemed touch and go that Pateryn would remain with the team in any capacity. 

But here he is.

"You know, you find ways to stay positive and to stay motivated, and you know it's a long season," Pateryn said. "And it's funny how the beginning of seasons usually kind of start out like this for me, and they always end up working out at the end. It's something that I kind of keep reminding myself. I've been in this spot before, unfortunately, but also, at the same time, it kind of gives me an idea of what to expect and what I've got to do for myself."

There is a delicacy to how teams get built.

When they are built correctly, they hum along not unlike a car or piece of sophisticated machinery. You know, when things sound right, when it's right. But just as noticeable are the times when there's a hiccup -- a rattle in the works. 

Sometimes, that happens when there are unhappy people in the mix. And what makes players unhappy, more often than not, is not playing.

"It's a tough spot to be in when you're in that role," said veteran defenseman Dan Hamhuis. "When you got guys that are in that role that carry a positive attitude, I don't know if it so much helps a team, but the opposite would really take away from the team.

 

[LISTEN: Burnside Chats podcast, featuring former Stars assistant GM Frank Provenzano and Dallas head coach Ken Hitchcock]

 

"I think bad attitudes and dragging your feet around the room and being (ticked) off and the negativity is really easily contagious. So I think you really appreciate that side of it. And he's done such a great job of it."

As it turned out, when Pateryn took the ice Thursday night in Edmonton, it was alongside Hamhuis. The two were solid, although they did struggle to clear the zone in the third period on what would turn out to be a crucial tying goal.

Stuff happens, although no question, when you're hoping not just to get in the lineup but stay every moment, every play or misplay can have ramifications.

"I thought he was good. Solid. Hard. Heavy. What we needed," said head coach Ken Hitchcock, who has had nothing but praise for Pateryn's attitude and professionalism this fall.

"To me, Pateryn's the guy that deserves the most credit because his attitude has been terrific since Day 1, and I think it's going to help him when he gets in the lineup," Hitchcock said. "Because I got a feeling with a guy like him, he's going to come in the lineup, and then we're not going to want to take him out."

Hitchcock was prophetic. Even after Thursday's loss, 24 hours later, Pateryn remained in the lineup and he and Hamhuis were almost without flaw in what was a critical 2-1 win over Calgary.

By the end of the night, Pateryn had played 21:32 -- the most of any Dallas player. 

Remarkable, really.

And it makes you wonder at the process of not just building a team, but of becoming a professional, what that means and how it so often means doing very hard things without complaint. Like watching your peers go to work every night while you take the ice for warmups and then take your gear off, put on a suit and sit in a press box while the game is played.


"You know what? There's talk of being a professional and then there's acting professional, and Greg Pateryn, he talks the talk and walks the walk," Hitchcock said. "He's a professional athlete that deals with adversity in the most positive manner you can see. He's supportive. He's a good team guy. He's working at an unbelievable level to be ready, and when it's his turn, when you show that much character, when things aren't going your way, you just know that when the guy comes in he's going to make it really hard for us to take him out."

For Pateryn, he understands the fine line that separates being in the lineup and being not just in the press box, but perhaps somewhere else entirely.

"I think just dealing with adversity is something that I've had to do for my whole career, starting in college all the way through," said Pateryn, a native of Sterling Heights, Michigan, who played four years at the University of Michigan. 

"So I think it's kind of just been installed in my brain and wired a little bit in that way. I kind of have an idea of what I got to do every time. You find ways to keep yourself positive and keep yourself motivated."

Put in the work and make yourself into the kind of guy that general managers, coaches and teammates want to have around.

"When guys bring negative energy to the room, you can feel it right away," Pateryn said. "When there's negative energy on the ice, everyone knows. A small thing like staying positive goes a long way, especially in a season where there are so many ups and downs, you have to be optimistic and you have to stay positive, or else you might end up somewhere else -- or out of the league."

Who knows how long this run lasts. A bad bounce, a bad read, an ill-timed penalty and it may be back to creating your own kind of competition to stay sharp and hope you get another chance. Things change quickly in a league where wins and losses are the ultimate measure of worthiness. 

Still, who doesn't root for the guy who waits for his moment and doesn't let it slide by?

"This is what you talk about waiting for," Pateryn said. "You want your opportunity and this is it. It's right in front of you, and you can either take full advantage of it or let it slip away.

"And I'm not planning on letting it slip away."

This story was not subject to approval of the National Hockey League or Dallas Stars Hockey Club. You can follow Scott on Twitter @OvertimeScottB, and listen to his Burnside Chats podcast here.

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