Montreal Canadiens forward Blake Geoffrion confirmed Monday that he will be stepping away from the game of hockey at the age of 25. A freak injury in the form of a depressed skull fracture during an AHL game last November robbed the 2010 Hobey Baker winner of his career far too soon. While his playing career was relatively brief, Geoffrion’s impact and lessons should not soon be forgotten.
From the second Geoffrion hit the ice, he was destined to be a special player.
He had special bloodlines as the great-grandson of Hall of Famer Howie Morenz, the grandson of Hall of Famer Bernie “Boom Boom” Geoffrion and the son of former NHLer Danny Geoffrion.
The name on the back of his jersey carried such weight, but that isn’t what made him special.
Geoffrion was born in Florida, raised in Tennessee and despite those non-traditional roots, he played hockey and blossomed into a terrific player. That’s not what makes him special either, though.
It is very rare to find a hockey player, particularly a good one, who is wholly self aware. So many, in my experience, aren’t great personal evaluators and oftentimes lack perspective in their younger years. There’s getting to the NHL as quickly as possible, then there’s everything else. That was never the case with Blake Geoffrion, however.
He knew he couldn’t get by on talent alone and he knew the road to the NHL would be long and arduous for a kid from Tennessee.
Where he grew up limited his opportunities for top competition, so he played higher-level hockey in Cleveland at the pee wee level, which was far, but not too far from Nashville. He went to Culver Military Academy in Indiana in his early high school years, where he could live on campus. He made it to the National Team Development Program in Ann Arbor, where he could live with a billet family.
Those were the sacrifices he had to make that a lot of others don’t simply because of geography.
He was drafted by the Nashville Predators in the second round in 2006. With that came more responsibility on top of his famous last name. Now he had to be the local kid that made it. Geoffrion was more than a prospect, but a symbol for local kids.
Despite that pressure, Geoffrion played at the University of Wisconsin and stayed the full four years despite opportunities to leave early. He got his degree. Not only that, but he got better every single year on the ice as well.
In his senior season, he captained the Badgers to the national championship game. He posted 50 points in 40 games including 28 goals. His performance that year was among the most dominant I’ve seen.
The thing about that Hobey Baker season was that Geoffrion didn’t necessarily make it look easy. He worked for every point, he fought for every loose puck and it was that competitiveness that really sparked that Wisconsin team and carried him to college hockey’s highest individual honor. It was one of the more memorable individual efforts of the last several years.
That he was a good player, that he stayed all four years and that he was a hard worker also wasn’t what makes Geoffrion special, though.
My last year at the NTDP, the same season as Geoffrion’s Hobey Baker win, we invited him to be the keynote speaker at our end-of-year banquet. it was there that I became convinced Geoffrion was different than a lot of the other guys I had come into contact with over the years.
Speaking to a group of kids who were just ready for the year to be over and go home, Geoffrion had been in those seats before and knew what the players were probably thinking. He was unfazed by it.
Geoffrion was entertaining and funny, sprinkling in stories from his NTDP days and some of the hijinks he and teammate Patrick Kane would get into, but then he got to the part where he was able to impart wisdom on a teenage audience that went from disinterested to captivated pretty quickly.
Geoffrion spoke about patience and why these players — many of whom were weeks away from being drafted, some even in the first round — didn’t need to be in such a hurry to get to the NHL. That the process was just as important as the end result, and if they cared to pay attention, just as enjoyable. For those that were going to college he talked about how proud he was to be able to finish with his degree and how much he learned in four years at Wisconsin.
He was only four years older than these players, and only four younger than me, but he was a pretty good teacher that night. Even I learned a few things.
Geoffrion was certainly a hockey player, but he has continually proven that he is defined by more than his abilities on the ice. That’s not something you’ll find as easily in other guys hoping to make a living in pro hockey.
Despite the brevity of his time in the NHL, Geoffrion is still a beacon for players from non-traditional markets who have aspirations beyond their local rink.
Disappointingly, we won’t see what else Geoffrion reach his full potential on the ice, but did he ever accomplish a lot in the time he had.
Geoffrion played in games for both his hometown team and the Montreal Canadiens, which his father, grandfather and great grandfather all played for. He could have run from such a weighty heritage, but instead he wore Boom Boom’s No. 5 in college and in Nashville. When he made it to Montreal, he wore 57, to honor both Boom Boom and Howie Morenz, both of whom have numbers hanging in the rafters.
Anyone that knows anything about Geoffrion knows how important family is to him and how proud he was of where he came from.
He won the Hobey Baker. He won a World U18 gold medal and a World Junior bronze (when any medal was a huge deal). He might have had the bloodlines to help, but he proved a kid from Tennessee could make it to the NHL.
However, it is in his decision to retire that Geoffrion is once again showing what makes him a special player.
In John Buccigross’ beautiful feature on Geoffrion and his decision to walk away (something you should read just as soon as you can), this is the quote that struck me most.
“I love the game of hockey more than anything, and this decision tears me up inside, it’s killing me,” Blake says, “but we are talking about my brain. Not a knee or a shoulder. I want to have a family, have kids and a strong quality of life for another 60 or 70 years. The first three months of recovery were hell. The plate in my head is still sensitive. I’ve tried to put a hockey helmet on four or five times, and I can’t even put that on yet.”
To have the self-awareness of his limitations and what his body can handle, while also a lifelong goal and career are hanging in the balance, is not common. To slip into denial would be incredibly easy and he’d hardly be faulted for it, but that’s not happening here. It takes a much stronger man to walk away than to cling to the hope that one day he’ll be just well enough to make it back to living that dream.
Geoffrion, who believes he is lucky to be alive at all, also had the forethought to finish his schooling, get his degree and let everything else fall into place as it should. He got dealt a bad hand, but he is meeting his challenge head on because he has the tools to do so.
We might not see Blake Geoffrion on the ice again, and it is sad to see such a bright career come to an end, but we certainly have not heard the last of him. In fact, we might be hearing from him in hockey soon. Geoffrion has joined the Columbus Blue Jackets as a pro scout.