Gentle giant Patrick Maroon finally finding his way with the Oilers

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The footage caught him by surprise, so his reaction was laced with pure emotion. First went the voice, cracking like desert clay. Then the eyes started to well, reddening as they fixed on the TV monitor nearby. At 6-foot-3 and 230 pounds, with rippling shoulders and wrought-iron fists, Patrick Maroon casts a daunting presence on the ice. On the air, though, the big guy melted.

When he was summoned for Sportsnet’s postgame interview on Dec. 19, 2016, the Edmonton Oilers winger had banked on discussing two basic topics: his team’s 3-2 road win over the Blues, and his tying third-period goal against his hometown team in St. Louis. He did not, however, expect this: a slow-motion replay of his 8-year-old son, Anthony, wearing a No. 19 Oilers jersey and raising one fist, jumping in the Scottrade Center stands to cheer dad’s goal, flashing a gapped smile that probably deserves a visit from the tooth fairy.

“Seeing his face and his smile, it was truly amazing,” Maroon says later. “It choked me up. That’s what happens when you don’t see someone for so long. You miss the joy they bring to your life. It just hit me.”

The full exchange between Maroon and Sportsnet reporter Gene Principe lasts only 80 seconds, but it instantly became one of this season’s most raw and indelible moments. (If YouTube views are your choice measurement of popularity, it’s nearing 390,000.) Maroon fighting back tears and forcing out words. “Pretty cool,” he repeats. “Pretty emotional.” Principe resting a hand on Maroon’s shoulder and graciously ending the interview by saying, “Hey, Patrick, thanks a lot, Christmas is on the way. More time with Anthony.” The soft smile of thanks from Maroon, who replies, “Absolutely,” before walking away to wipe his eyes dry…

A deeper story accompanies those tears, one Maroon isn’t shy about sharing. As the 28-year-old enjoys the best year of his NHL career, a 20-goal scorer for the first time while riding shotgun with Connor McDavid on Edmonton’s top line, Anthony attends second grade in the St. Louis area, where he lives full-time with his mother. They still FaceTime daily, Patrick and Anthony do. They also spent Christmas together, like Principe promised; Patrick reports Anthony unwrapping Nerf guns, Pokemon gear, and an Xbox One. But in-season, in-person meet-ups are sparse. Since the St. Louis game was the first of ’16-17...waterworks. “Anyone in that situation would cry, if they knew what kind of situation I was in,” Maroon says. “Anyone would’ve done that.”

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His buddies loved it. Typical Pat, for one thing. “A gentle giant,” says his agent Allain Roy. “Like a Labrador puppy.” Says Kyle Kraemer, a childhood friend who watched the game from a Scottrade Center suite: “He’s a soft kid. He acts tough in the rink, but he’s a big teddy bear. He wears his heart on his sleeve.” For another, those close to Maroon understand the additional layers baked into that night, Anthony and family notwithstanding. To them, it was also about the sheer improbability of Maroon returning to St. Louis in an opposing NHL uniform for the fifth time, and then scoring against the Blues for the first. Around them, the words “proud” comes up often. “He had all the odds against him,” Kraemer says. “I would say maybe a couple handful of people believed in Pat. I think that’s why they’re so happy.”

***

Growing up, though, even Maroon’s most faithful friends teased him with an unfortunate nickname. “A lot of people called him Fat Pat,” Kraemer says. “But what 12-year-old kids are worried about what they’re eating? He was just bigger at that age.” So Kraemer, remembering how young Pat always seemed to be rooting around the refrigerator whenever he visited the Maroon household, settled on something slightly more imposing. “F---,” Kraemer realized. “He’s the Icebox.”

Maroon was certainly capable of bruising opponents like one, but youth coaches struggled to see beyond his beefy build and choppy skating. “Some guy can have 10 donuts and not put on a pound,” Roy says, “and some guys can look at two donuts and put on five. That’s how his metabolism works.” Jeff Brown, the former NHL defenseman, remembers Maroon from one minor bantam team in St. Louis, when he was 12 or 13. “He basically couldn’t move,” Brown says. “He couldn’t get there. There was no way I could take him.”

Maroon learned to compensate, stickhandling a golf ball in his garage for hours and honing his toe-drags at roller rinks around St. Louis. Tournaments often featured six games crammed into a single weekend, the entirety of which Maroon would spend strapped into his skates. In 2010, along with another local friend named Shawn Gawrys, he and Kraemer led the United States to gold at the IIHF InLine Hockey World Championships in Sweden; though Maroon was in the AHL at the time, he was well-known enough that the team allowed him to join without trying out. “I knew I didn’t have the footwork, so I had to find something,” Maroon says. “That was the only way. I wasn’t using my feet. I was using my hands.”

Slowly, allies in the hockey world began climbing into Maroon’s corner. The year after getting cut by Brown, he returned and made the team. As a teen he played for the Texarkana (later St. Louis) Bandits, a tier-two junior A team owned by former Blues forward Kelly Chase and helmed by current Lightning head coach Jon Cooper. “When those people believe in you,” Kraemer says, “they can push you a long way.”

After the Flyers drafted him at No. 161 in 2007, Maroon spent one season with the OHL’s London Knights before reporting at Philadelphia’s minor-league affiliate, the Phantoms. He posted decent numbers, all things considered, 98 points in 167 games, but ran afoul of the coaching staff during the ’10-11 season, upon returning from the InLine worlds, due to his conditioning. “I don’t really think he knew how to train and play at that level,” his coach, Greg Gilbert, told the New York Times in 2015. Eight games in, Maroon was dismissed from the team. “They just felt he wasn’t quite getting it,” Roy says. “They wanted to send a message.”

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Stranded without a clear path, Maroon briefly returned to St. Louis but spent most of his layoff in New Jersey, living with an aunt and training with a local college team. Says Roy, “He had a lot of time to ponder, ‘What the hell I’m going to do if I’m not playing hockey?’ And that’s a scary thought for a lot of guys.” At one point, Kraemer remembers receiving a call from Maroon, who sounded wrecked on the other line. “When I heard his voice, he felt like he let people down,” Kraemer says. “I told him, ‘Patty, you’re going to get a second chance. But the only way you’ll get a second chance is if you believe in yourself and you stay positive and you learn from that. To me, that was a changing point in his career.”

Salvation came swiftly enough. Three weeks after his dismissal from the Phantoms, Maroon was flipped to Anaheim for two prospects, neither of which are still playing in North America. He had fits of success with the organization, particularly in the minors (three straight 20-goal seasons) and the 2015 Stanley Cup playoffs (11 points, 16 games). At times, he also proved a capable third wheel on the top line beside Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry. “A really good complimentary player for skill guys,” says Capitals winger Daniel Winnik, an Anaheim teammate for two seasons.

All of which left Maroon blindsided when the Ducks dealt him to Edmonton for relative pittance—a fourth-round pick and prospect Martin Gernat, who’s currently skating in the Czech Republic—exactly one year ago, Feb. 29, 2016. But he was smoothly eased into the ranks. Welcome texts pinged into his phone. The Oilers had just arrived in Buffalo to begin a four-game trip, so Maroon joined them on the road. When its outbound flight got canceled after a 2-1 overtime win, Edmonton stayed overnight and convened for team dinner at the hotel. “You already felt welcomed from everyone I didn’t even know,” Maroon says. “I felt like I was starting friendships already. I felt comfortable going in right away. I was nervous at the beginning. I didn’t know what the feeling was going to be in the room.”

On the ice, Maroon slid into an equally ideal scenario. He closed the calendar with 14 points in 16 games, including 10 in 10 while flanking McDavid.  “A remarkable finish,” he says. “I’d never had that in my career.” Heading into the off-season, perhaps for the first time in his pro career, Maroon knew exactly where he wanted to go next. “I had to get in better shape,” he says. “I just had to get my body to where it needed to be to keep up with Connor. I wanted that spot. I felt like I could take that spot there and just ride it out as long as I can and as far as I can.”

***

C.J. Jung first met Maroon almost two decades ago. They were classmates at Oakville High School, and then teammates with the St. Louis Jr. Blues. Now a fitness trainer based in the area, Yung for years had lobbied Maroon to come work out at his gym, Prodigy Deliverance. But it wasn’t until Maroon’s former strength coach, ex-NHLer Rik Wilson, suddenly died in Jan. 2016, that he sought help from an old friend.

Last summer, Maroon returned from an appearance with Team USA at the world championships, ice, this time, not inline, weighing 250 pounds, according to Jung. Since Edmonton wanted him at 227 before training camp, Jung sculpted a program that built Maroon’s aerobic base over the first month, and then tailored workouts to mirror shift length as the summer wore on. “Him and the bike were best friends,” Jung says. “Every day it looked like he just got out of a swimming pool, he was so sweaty. He’s literally the sweatiest human being I’ve ever seen.” 

The results were readily apparent. Maroon reported at 229 pounds, with a body fat percentage hovering at 10. He overtook Milan Lucic as Edmonton's top-line left wing around mid-November and, like in Anaheim, has thrived beside all-star talent. Compared to the booster rockets McDavid employs for skates, Maroon can still seem ploddingly slow. But, owing to the days of Fat Pat, he has maintained an undeniable gift for grease; all but four of his 20 goals—nine more than he's ever scored in an NHL season—have come in the slot, below the faceoff dots, on tips and rebounds and wraps. "He doesn’t sit back," center Ryan Nugent-Hopkins says. "He feeds off them well. He gives them the puck in the right situation. Obviously Connor’s got so much speed, you just want to give it to him and let him do his thing, and then get open. Patty does a good job of doing that."

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Plenty other clients work out regularly at Prodigy Deliverance, but Maroon requested solo sessions with Jung, preferring the solitude of training alone. “He’s been the guy that I needed,” Maroon says of Jung. “He’s all business when I’m in there. Just me and him.” Only one regular visitor was allowed: Anthony. “He’d make him do pull-ups and pushups,” Jung says. “It was pretty funny.” Not that Anthony struggled to hang. He’s an athlete too, perhaps even more naturally so than Patrick. “Basketball, soccer, baseball,” Patrick says. “He does it all.” This January, Anthony visited Edmonton for the first time this season. When Patrick let Anthony take his turn during the Oilers’ in-house skills competition, the kid damn near deked goalie Laurent Brossoit with a nifty backhanded move. “He’s got some pretty good skill,” Maroon says. “I’m really proud of him. It’s tough when your father lives away from you six months out of the year. He’s doing a really good job of maintaining it and trying to be positive.”

For better or worse, this has been the arrangement since Anthony was born in 2008, when Maroon was 20 years old and entering his full year with the Phantoms: daily FaceTime sessions, periodic trips whenever possible during the season, major bonding time reserved for the summer, when they can hang at the condo Maroon still owns in St. Louis. During a recent interview with SI.com, in the visiting locker room of Washington’s Verizon Center, a gold chain emblazoned with Anthony’s birthday was dangling from Maroon's neck. It was a gift from his girlfriend, whom he lives with in Edmonton. “He’s always on my chest at all times,” Maroon says. “You look down, you smile, you know he’s always going to be there.”

Which makes the moments they get all the more cherished. On Tuesday, the Oilers visited St. Louis for their sixth straight road game. Maroon attempted four shots on goal in a 2-1 win, but was held pointless for the entire trip. No matter, at least not then. The night before, he and linemates McDavid and Leon Draisaitl had taken Anthony to play basketball, first outdoors in the neighborhood, and then in Pop-A-Shot form over pizza. And during warmups at Scottrade Center there was Anthony stationed in the front row, cheering as Patrick rapped on the glass. No tears this time. Only that gap-toothed grin. 

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