Over the last 14 seasons, hockey fans have learned a lot about Joe Pavelski. During that time, he has played in over 1,200 NHL regular season, Stanley Cup playoff, or Winter Olympic games. Pavelski has been a team captain. He has skated in All-Star events. Tonight, he’ll be on the ice for Game Two in the 2020 Stanley Cup Final; it’s the second time he has helped a team into the shadow of the most coveted trophy in sports.
Matt Fornataro didn’t have the benefit of reviewing Pavelski’s expansive resume when he formed a first impression of his future teammate back in the summer of 2002.
“When I first saw Joe in a scrimmage game for training camp in Waterloo, I said to myself ‘That’s him…?’” Fornataro recently remembered.
They spent two years together with the Black Hawks, winning a United States Hockey League division title that spring before going on to celebrate a Clark Cup championship in 2004. Fornataro had discarded his initial assessment of Pavelski long before those achievements. In fact, Fornataro remembers already being impressed as their first season together was beginning.
“Being around him every day, you started to realize that he was a special player. The biggest things were his attention to detail and his hunger to grow and learn. He was always staying late and doing more than the rest of us, but it was never about him. Joe understood at a young age that if he made himself better, he could help the team more. TEAM is always more important than individual, and Joe has always understood that.”
Defenseman Reid Cashman was on hand too, as the 2002/03 Black Hawks were forming. The arc of Cashman’s career – like Pavelski’s – also included rising to the NHL; the former assistant coach of the Washington Capitals is preparing for his first season as head coach of Dartmouth’s men’s hockey program. While making arrangements for the college campaign, Cashman was also willing to reminisce.
“Our year together – from Coach O’Handley’s first meeting – Coach hammered home two points that were going to become part of the identity of the Waterloo Black Hawks’ organization. 1) Compete every day and compete in every aspect of your life, on the ice and off. Always strive to get better; always strive to win. 2) If the team has success, then individuals will have success.
“I think Joe has won as much as he has, and been as successful as he has, in large part due to him living these two ideas.”
Cashman and Pavelski were among the most successful Black Hawks as the 2002/03 season ended. The defenseman from Red Wing, Minnesota, notched 47 points in 56 games and tied for the league scoring lead among players at his position. Cashman claimed a spot on the All-USHL Second Team before going on to an All-American college career at Quinnipiac and time spent playing as a pro in North America and Europe.
Pavelski was the 2003 USHL Rookie of the Year and took a step toward the NHL that summer when the San Jose Sharks drafted him 205th overall. After Pavelski had scored 36 goals and earned more than a point per game (69 in 60 appearances), hindsight indicates that it was a remarkable value pick.
Forward Garrett Regan played with the Hawks before and after the Minnesota high school hockey season in 2002/03 and came to Waterloo fulltime in 2003/04, joining a club which had begun establishing a new culture of winning.
“Joe is just a winner,” says Regan. “He doesn’t make a big deal about it, that’s just all he knows and all he expects. It’s fun to be around those types of players and people, because there isn’t any other option for them.”
Regan says Pavelski’s impact came with the way he played the game rather than what he said. Serving as Waterloo’s captain in 2003/04, Pavelski was the steadying influence as the Hawks struggled through the early months of the season. For a time, the talented team was at the bottom of the standings before rallying in the second half of the schedule to reach the playoffs, then defeating both division champions on the way to the Clark Cup.
Regan was the Hawks’ third-highest scorer during the playoff run with 11 points. He and Pavelski each scored six times.
Zach Bearson was one of the youngest players on the 2003/04 team. He would later become a Black Hawks captain, an NHL Draft pick, and a Wisconsin Badger, following Pavelski’s trail in each of those distinctions. While Pavelski’s teammates consistently reinforce the idea that his leadership was primarily by example, some of Pavelski’s words have also stuck with Bearson.
“He told me, sitting on his balcony in Madison, that he thought about hockey like he thought about golf (which he is clearly awesome at also!)…that to be truly great, you have to be well-rounded, capable of hitting all the shots.
“I think his career probably reflects that mature approach. I think about that metaphor all the time in the professional/business world: just improving in all facets, never being satisfied. Give credit to 21-year-old Joe with that sage wisdom and advice.”
Pete MacArthur tied Pavelski as the 2003/04 Hawks’ playoff scoring leader with a dozen points. The forward – one of a limited number of Pavelski’s Waterloo’s teammates who is still playing (MacArthur signed a contract with Orlando of the ECHL in July) – offered his assessment of Pavelski’s talents, which have improved with time.
“Truthfully, I think he has just fine-tuned his skill set over the years. He was never an unreal skater, blowing by people or dangling guys. His Hockey I.Q. is off the charts, which allows him to constantly be in the perfect, or close-to perfect, position.”
Fornataro says Pavelski’s game has evolved, providing new opportunities to contribute, first as a veteran for the Sharks, and this season with the Dallas Stars.
“If you look early in his career, his goals were a lot more off the rush or one timers from the dot; he scored more goals with his shot. As the game has changed, he has found ways to continue to produce by finding new ways to score goals. This is where tipping pucks come from. He worked at it for years before it started to benefit his game. A key lesson for any young athlete is that these skills take time to cultivate, practice, and perfect.”
That ability to continue developing provided Pavelski with the chance to play in his 1,000th NHL regular season game last fall. He has remained relevant long enough for a teammate like Cashman to make a substantial climb up the coaching ladder and toward a reunion of sorts when the Sharks met Washington prior to this season.
“Seventeen years later [after Waterloo], we were both in the NHL,” Cashman notes. “He’d always look up and give a little wink if there was a faceoff by our bench. We would catch up after the game; those were special moments, [although] we got rained out of golf both years when we were on the road in San Jose.”
Now after his first season with Dallas, Pavelski has exploded for nine goals and 14 points in the postseason after a modest 14 goals and 31 points during the COVID-19-shortened campaign. Even without the recent tangible scoring production, Pavelski’s former Waterloo teammates believe his contribution has had a substantial impact on helping the Stars into the Stanley Cup Final.
“They are lucky to have a guy with a lot of experience, a guy who is certainly motivated, and a guy who has won at every level he's ever played at,” says Bearson, who coincidentially stepped out of Pavelski’s footsteps and moved to Dallas to take a job there (outside of hockey) before Pavelski arrived last summer. “You know he will show up in the moment when [he is] needed the most.”
“Joe is a gamer,” adds MacArthur. “That experience he has is invaluable to the Stars. He takes some pressure off Benn/Seguin/Radulov with his style of play and really makes the team that much deeper.”
Regan and Fornataro expressed what all of Pavelski’s former teammates are feeling as the Stars-Tampa Bay Lightning series continues.
“We look forward to Joe having a great Cup Final and hopefully bringing it home!” Regan says.
“I think Joe has touched so many people in so many ways throughout his career that the culmination of him winning the Cup will mean so much to so many,” notes Fornataro. “He has a lot of people pulling for him.”
With the Stars leading Tampa Bay after a 4-1 Game One victory Saturday, the shadow of the Cup could become a little thicker tonight. Game Two begins at 7 p.m.
Photo provided by the Dallas Stars; used with permission.