by Jason Pearson | AHL On The Beat
Good things happen to those who wait.
Now in his ninth professional season, Pat Nagle of the Grand Rapids Griffins is savoring both his lengthiest and his most fruitful stay in the American Hockey League.
But, as they say, good things also come in pairs.
On the third day of 2020, Pat and his wife, Monica, welcomed a baby boy, Bryson.
Old adages can become cliched to the point that when something truly is relevant, it’s almost rare. So take Nagle’s recent fortunes as one of those extraordinary cases where the maxims fully apply.
The 32-year-old Nagle started the 2019-20 season in the same place he ended the last one – in Toledo, logging number-one minutes for the ECHL’s Walleye. Fresh off backstopping the franchise to its first-ever Kelly Cup Finals appearance after ranking second in the league with both 14 postseason victories and a sparkling 2.03 goals-against average, the bearded Nagle was off to a similar start once October rolled around, tying for the ECHL lead in wins with nine at Thanksgiving – the time of his first recall to Grand Rapids.
As is often the case when opportunities arise, it was injuries to Detroit’s goaltenders that first left the door ajar, followed by ailments in Grand Rapids’ net. But no matter which goalies at what level got injured when, Nagle’s play has provided more than enough reason for the gate to remain open. He posted a 2.32 GAA, a .915 save percentage and a 3-5-1 record in his first 10 Griffins appearances this season. Since then, he’s sizzled to a 2.01 GAA, a .931 save percentage and a 5-2-0 mark in his last eight.
“Not only is Pat a great teammate, a great personality and a good guy, but he’s worked hard to put himself in this position and when the opportunity came knocking, he’s taken full advantage of it,” Griffins captain Matt Ford said. “He’s playing unbelievable hockey, and the goaltending between him and (Calvin) Pickard lately is the reason we’re in a good spot now going into our playoff push in the second half of the season.”
A longtime ECHL’er, Nagle’s 191 victories rank fifth all-time and his six seasons of 20-plus wins tie for third in the history of that league, which began play in 1988-89. He helped Florida win the Kelly Cup as a rookie in 2011-12 behind a league-best 1.42 GAA. In 2017-18, during his first season in the Red Wings organization, he appeared in the ECHL All-Star Game and was named to the year-end All-ECHL Second Team after racking up a career- and circuit-high 37 wins. He’s also manned the pipes in Idaho and Fort Wayne.
Entering this season, he had only played eight AHL contests over his first eight pro seasons, with five of those coming in 2014-15. Nagle’s first AHL win came as a member of the Griffins on Jan. 23, 2015, after joining the club on a professional tryout 11 days prior. He witnessed Grand Rapids’ first Calder Cup title in 2013 from the opposing bench as he backed up Syracuse’s Cedrick Desjardins in all six Calder Cup Finals games.
His lone start with the Griffins last season – and only his third-ever appearance in a Grand Rapids uniform – during an overtime defeat at San Jose on April 6, came 1,464 days after he had last logged AHL minutes on April 3, 2015, with Rochester.
“Each year is different,” Nagle said. “It’s just a matter of opportunity sometimes. If it’s an injury or a trade at the right time that gives you an opportunity to go up, you’ve just got to take advantage of that. As you get older, you learn that you need to play well wherever you are and make the most of that opportunity.”
Nagle has seen game action 18 times for Grand Rapids this year since his season debut on Nov. 29, and he has charted a five-game winning streak and an appearance in seven consecutive games, both AHL career bests. Currently, his 2.23 career GAA with the Griffins stands sixth all-time in the club’s record book and his .920 save percentage ties for fourth.
“It’s everything,” Nagle explained when asked where his success can be attributed to this season. “From the facts of how well our team’s been doing – we’ve really picked it up as of late – to the goalie staff from Detroit to Grand Rapids, everybody plays a large part. I’ve spent a lot of time with Beemer (goaltending development coach Brian Mahoney-Wilson) doing video and doing drills before and after practice. He’s helped me grow my game a lot over the last 3-4 seasons.”
During his time in the ECHL, Nagle faced frequent defensive breakdowns and odd-man rushes, which improved his ability to comprehend situations and improvise.
“He’s adapted well to the American League level and the speed,” said Mahoney-Wilson. “More than anything, his hockey sense has showed in being able to read the play. That’s the one thing that’s stuck out to me.”
Described by others in the room as a good teammate who is competitive, quiet and always good for a laugh, Nagle was sent back down to Toledo on New Year’s Day, after starting in Grand Rapids the night before, to head to Beaumont Hospital in Royal Oak, Mich., for the birth of his first child.
Bryson, named after Monica’s maternal grandfather, was born Jan. 3 at 2:14 p.m. and weighed 6 pounds, 11 ounces.
“It’s life-changing, obviously,” Nagle said. “It’s been a whirlwind but it’s been fun getting to see him grow and become a human here in the last couple of weeks.”
Having a baby due at any time presents its own unique set of challenges no matter the circumstances, but especially so in the middle of a hockey season for a player whose position requires mental focus. Nagle started four consecutive games Dec. 21-31 and the team was on a season-long 14-day, six-game road trip earlier that month.
“It was a little nerve wracking,” Nagle admits about the last several games of the 2019 calendar. “We had had a long road trip in December, so I was always checking my phone. Luckily, I talked to all the management here and they knew that if something happened, they’d get me on a flight. They were great about it, so it definitely took a little pressure off my back from that aspect.”
After taking a full week off midseason and getting two conditioning games in with the Walleye on Jan. 10 and 12, Nagle headed back to Grand Rapids and picked up right where he left off between the pipes.
The 6-foot-2 netminder’s numbers have remained steady, whether he’s playing consecutive games or having his appearances spread out. His practice habits and attention to detail have aided in that regard, and Mahoney-Wilson also notes Nagle instantly applies coaching within a practice.
“He has excellent hands that are on display,” Mahoney-Wilson said, providing an example of the Feb. 9 game against Texas when Nagle made more than half of his 34 stops with his left catching glove. “He’s really done a good job, especially the years I’ve worked with him, adapting to and enhancing his post play and then ultimately improving his skating, especially in tight against the post.”
Depending on the Griffins’ schedule, either the three-member Nagle family is at their downtown Grand Rapids abode or, when there’s a longer road trip, wife and son return to Oakland County on the east side of the state, where lots of family and friends are closer by.
“We’ve had a lot of long ones here lately,” Nagle said last week before the team departed on a 10-day, four-game trip. “For me, I just try to take advantage and get some good meals in, get tons of rest and kind of get caught back up. At the same time, you feel for her knowing she’s all on her own with the little guy, and then we have a big black lab too who’s going to want to play.”
Both Pat and Monica are from Bloomfield, Mich., and, in fact, knew each other at now-defunct Lahser High School growing up. But they didn’t start dating until the end of college – Pat at Ferris State from 2007-11, when he left the Bulldogs ranking second all time in wins, and Monica at Oakland University, when a mutual friend more or less re-introduced them.
The two, approaching their three-year wedding anniversary this July 29, have made a great team taking care of Bryson, often taking nap turns on non-game day afternoons. On game nights, if Bryson is struggling to snooze, Monica will take him to stay in the other room. On practice days or days off, Pat is quick to assume childcare duties so Monica can catch up on her sleep.
“There’s always pressures here; you want to perform well, you’re always trying to keep your job, maintain your numbers and provide wins for the team as well as be a good teammate when you’re not playing,” Nagle said. “At home, it’s the same thing, you want to be a good husband and a good father. But, you also got to look after yourself, make sure you’re getting your rest and getting some me time to just get away from everything to take a little break to reset. It’s been busy, but my wife’s done an awesome job and we’ve gotten a ton of help from close family and friends, which has been really nice.”
Nagle wasn’t the first Griffin to experience the birth of a child this season and he won’t be the last. Mahoney-Wilson can relate, as he has his second on the way later this spring after his first arrived two summers ago. He just talked to Nagle about what to expect those first 3-4 months and the importance of rest.
“More importantly, focus on your rest when you can get it because these opportunities are slim in your career,” Mahoney-Wilson said. “He’s getting this opportunity and he’s making the most of it, which is awesome.”