Big footsteps to follow in

by A.J. Atchue || for

Perhaps more than any other player in the American Hockey League, Milwaukee Admirals rookie center Blake Geoffrion can say professional hockey is in his blood.

Geoffrion’s great-grandfather was Howie Morenz, a three-time NHL MVP with the Montreal Canadiens and one of the original 12 inductees into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1945.

His grandfather, fellow Hockey Hall of Famer Bernie “Boom-Boom” Geoffrion, amassed a dozen 20-goal seasons for the Canadiens and later spent two successful years as a head coach in the AHL.

And Geoffrion’s father, Dan Geoffrion, is a former first-round draft pick by Montreal who scored a team-high 37 goals for the AHL’s Sherbrooke Jets in 1982-83.

Talk about some serious hockey heritage.

“There were a lot of family dinners, just sitting around and hearing all these stories about different people’s hockey experiences,” Blake Geoffrion said. “I was just there listening, eating it all up and trying to get the most out of it.”

Given that the sport was a constant presence in his youth, it should come as no surprise that Geoffrion embarked on a hockey career of his own. That path has now led him to the precipice of the NHL, and he’s making quite a case to get there sooner rather than later.

With 17 points (6-11-17) in just his last seven games, Geoffrion has earned back-to-back Reebok/AHL Player of the Week awards – the first man to achieve that feat in more than 16 years. After a tough start, he’s up to second on the Admirals in scoring with 10-23-33 totals in 38 contests.

“I think it’s been a gradual progression,” Geoffrion said. “I took everything in and reassessed at Christmas, and came back with a better attitude. That attitude was that I want to dominate at this level, and I wanted to be more confident. It was like the start of a new year.”

“It took him awhile to get his feet under him and figure out how he needed to play in order to have success at the pro level,” said Milwaukee head coach Lane Lambert. “But you see that with a lot of young players. It’s part of their progression and development, and sooner or later they start to figure things out and the light comes on for them.”

The 23-year-old Geoffrion has been developing, so to speak, since his dad first put him in pads and skates at the tender age of two. Although he says he was never pushed or forced to play hockey, he simply fell in love with the game.

Born in Florida, Geoffrion moved to suburban Nashville at a very young age and eventually began playing in area youth leagues. However, growing up as an aspiring hockey player in the middle of Tennessee was quite a bit different than, say, the middle of Canada.

“We only had one rink growing up (in the city of Nashville). Our team got on the ice twice a week and the second time, we only got half the ice and had to share it with another team. It was definitely a different culture.”

But when the NHL’s Nashville Predators arrived for the 1998-99 season, hockey really began to grow in the area, with new rinks popping up and more kids becoming involved.

In addition to out-of-town American-born players like Mike Modano, Geoffrion closely watched early hometown favorites like Cliff Ronning and Scott Hartnell, now of the Philadelphia Flyers.

And after playing two years for the U.S. National program, Geoffrion was made a second-round draft pick (No. 56) in 2006 by none other than the Nashville Predators.

“Just an unbelievable feeling to be drafted by my hometown (team),” he said. “To be watching all those guys when I was smaller… and kind of coming full circle to being drafted and playing in the organization here, having the opportunity to one day play for Nashville, it couldn’t be better.”

Whereas his father was a prolific scorer in major junior hockey, after careful consideration Geoffrion opted for the college route at the University of Wisconsin in an effort to develop his body through weightlifting programs and extra practice time.

Geoffrion showed flashes in his first three years with the Badgers before erupting as a senior in 2009-10 with a 28-goal, 50-point season that netted him the Hobey Baker Award as college hockey’s top player and a berth for Wisconsin in the NCAA championship game.

“It was the most fun I’ve ever had in hockey, best year of my life,” Geoffrion said. “We had a great team and were all real close. We’d been there four years, gone through a lot of adversity together.”

With that wildly successful experience still fresh in mind, Geoffrion turned pro this season and only had to move 75 miles east from Madison, Wis., to Nashville’s AHL affiliate in Milwaukee. However, he endured a difficult first half which proved that success wouldn’t come quite so easily in the AHL.

He didn’t score a goal in any of his first 12 games, and in the first week of November, he landed on the sidelines after suffering a concussion in the Admirals’ last home game before departing on a lengthy road swing.

“It was terrible,” Geoffrion said. “The team went out on a two-week road trip, and I was here in Milwaukee all by myself with nothing to do and no one to hang out with. It was pretty brutal, but it also gave me a lot of time to think about my game and what I needed to do in order to succeed when I came back.”

In those early weeks, Lambert saw a young player struggling mightily to adjust to the pro game.

“I don’t think he was discouraged, but I don’t think his confidence was that high either,” Lambert said. “Whether that was a little frustration or a little discouragement, you’d have to ask him that, but the confidence level at the start of the season, without having immediate success, was certainly lower than it is now.”

Geoffrion returned to action on Dec. 5 at Peoria and wasted no time in turning things around, finally nabbing his first goal and adding an assist in a 5-4 win. He wouldn’t score again until the Admirals’ first game after Christmas, but the goals soon began coming more rapidly until his efforts culminated with a remarkable run starting just before the AHL All-Star break.

The 6-foot-2, 190-pound center recorded a goal and two assists on Jan. 21 vs. San Antonio, put up five points (2-3-5) a week later vs. Peoria, scored another goal the next night at Rockford, and combined for seven points (2-5-7) in his first two contests after the break.

After totaling 16 points in his first 31 outings, Geoffrion had produced the same number in a six-game span.

“The biggest thing has been confidence with the puck, and playing with (linemates) Linus Klasen and Ryan Thang,” Geoffrion said. “They make the game easy for me out there.”

Geoffrion’s strongest attributes are his patience and poise with the puck to create opportunities, as well as a potent shot. Klasen also brings tremendous skill to Geoffrion’s line, and Thang complements with speed, the ability to win puck battles, and solid defensive play.

They’ve all brought the best out in each other, and Geoffrion is now thriving as a result.

“I think he’s been more tenacious on the puck in all three zones,” Lambert said. “The second and third effort that he has right now, I think that was part of the learning process. He had to figure out that’s what he needed to do in order to have success at this level.”

As with almost any top prospect, Geoffrion’s hot streak has brought questions of whether he’s ready to make the jump up to the NHL and help his hometown Predators in their playoff push. It’s a question which Geoffrion prefers to leave to others.

“I’m just trying to control things I can right now, and obviously that’s my play,” he said. “I look at Nashville’s history of calling guys up and the success of bringing their prospects up at the right time. That’s in their hands. I have no control over that. All I can do is play hard every night, compete and hope for the best.

“It’s been the goal my whole life to make the NHL, and hopefully one day I’ll get that opportunity.”