The correct path
Once split between hockey and baseball, it's now clear Jeff Petry made the right decision
Junior defender Jeff Petry looks to pass the puck during a Jan. 22 game against Ohio State at Munn Ice Arena.
In the spring of 2005, Dan Petry stood in the St. Mary’s Preparatory gym wondering where his youngest son was. The former professional baseball pitcher had taken a job as an assistant varsity baseball coach at the high school to help coach his youngest son, Jeff.
But on this day, Jeff was late to practice.
And he wasn’t coming.
Before practice started, Dan received a phone call from his wife, and by the tone of her voice, he knew something was up.
After years of juggling hockey and baseball, Jeff was worn out and finally decided one sport had to go. Baseball was it, and he didn’t know how to tell his dad.
Junior defender Jeff Petry looks for an opportunity to pass or shoot the puck as Ohio State defender Sean Duddy attempts to block him during a Jan. 22 game at Munn Ice Arena.
Junior defenseman Jeff Petry skates during the first period of a game against Michigan Tech during the Great Lakes Invitational at Joe Louis Arena in Detroit.
Imagine breaking that news to the 13-year Major League Baseball veteran, who helped pitch the Detroit Tigers to the 1984 World Series title and wanted to lend his expertise to the team Jeff was about to quit.
After the initial shock sank in, Dan left practice and went home to talk with his son.
“I remember it well,” Dan Petry said. “I think he didn’t know how I was going to react. But when I got home, I reassured him and said, ‘Jeff, geesh, don’t play baseball because of me. If you want to play hockey, you aren’t going to get any argument from me.’”
Jeff’s decision to leave baseball behind during his junior year of high school has paid dividends in his hockey career.
A junior and co-captain on this season’s No. 12 MSU hockey team, Jeff Petry has established himself as one of the best defensemen in the CCHA and the country.
“I can say he’s easily one of the best players in the conference without any hesitation at all,” MSU head coach Rick Comley said. “If he’s not the best offensive-defenseman in the country, he’s in the top three. He has the ability to impact the game and turn it around. Not many people can do that.”
To reach this level of success, Petry — a 2006 second-round pick by the NHL’s Edmonton Oilers — has traveled through a long and winding road with tough decisions around every corner.
Petry started competitively playing baseball and hockey when he was 5 years old.
Because the sports were played in opposite seasons, there never were any timing conflicts.
Dan Petry coached his son in baseball growing up, but admittedly felt helpless when it came to helping develop Jeff’s hockey skills.
“With his birthday, he was always playing against bigger and older kids,” Dan Petry said. “It was a challenge for him and really led him to press harder in both sports. I was always there to help him in baseball, but I wasn’t pushing him towards it. I was just trying to figure out a way to keep him improving in baseball because I didn’t know anything about hockey.”
Throughout his middle school years, it was tough to say which sport Jeff was better at. The same stayed true in high school.
As a freshman at Orchard Lake St. Mary’s in 2003, Petry was moved up to the varsity baseball team and was a part of the school’s state championship team.
As a junior in 2005, he guided his high school hockey team to a state championship.
Then things started to get complicated.
To take his skills to the next level, Petry knew he needed to commit to participating in one sport year round. He wanted to attend national hockey camps, but knew it wasn’t fair to his baseball teammates for him to miss practices and still be a starter.
“It was a really tough decision, and I was thinking about it for awhile,” Petry said. “But ultimately, it was the decision of whether or not I wanted to pursue hockey seriously.”
Petry’s father was behind his son 100 percent, as was then-Orchard Lake St. Mary’s varsity baseball coach Jeff Willis.
“I just told him not to think twice about it,” Willis said. “If scouts were after me that bad, I’d hang up the spikes and pick up the skates in a second.”
Everything at once
By the end of Petry’s junior year of high school, things were starting to take off.
In the fall, he played midget-major for Little Caesars in Detroit and was garnering serious attention from junior scouts. The Des Moines Buccaneers of the United States Hockey League (USHL) showed the most interest and offered Petry a tryout at the team’s facility.
“It took all of one period for us to figure out we wanted to keep him,” then-Des Moines head coach Regg Simon said. “We saw him as a raw, talented kid. He came in with the tools. We just needed to show him how to use them.”
Once again, Petry had a tough decision. Should he try his luck in the USHL, leaving behind his friends and family while transitioning from a small, all-boys high school to a public school? Or should he stay one more season with his high school team and try to repeat a state champion season?
Petry opted to try his hand at Des Moines.
“He is the best defenseman I ever coached,” said Brian Klanow, who has been the head coach at Orchard Lake St. Mary’s for the past 10 seasons. “It was really tough because our best player was leaving, and we knew we had a team that was going to make a strong run at another state championship. You never want to lose a character kid like that. But you’ve got to do what’s best for him, and it has worked out.”
Petry spent two years in Des Moines, helping his team to a 2006 Clark Cup Championship, given to the USHL playoff champions. Petry also was named the USA Junior Player of the Year in 2007 and posted a 19-41-60 scoring line in two seasons with the Buccaneers.
In Petry’s first season in Des Moines, he received the call every athlete dreams of: He was drafted No. 45 overall by the NHL’s Edmonton Oilers.
“I was invited to the combine in Toronto and talked to quite a few teams,” Petry said. “I had no idea where I was going to be drafted. Getting that call was really exciting and a big relief.”
In a span of nine months, Petry won a high school state championship, a junior national championship and was drafted by an NHL team.
Choosing hockey had proven to be the correct path.
Go Green! Go White!
When it came to choosing a college, Petry narrowed it down to three — MSU, Michigan and St. Cloud State.
Petry was impressed with MSU’s facilities and immediately clicked with older members of the team. It was a comfort thing, and Petry decided MSU was the best fit.
Becoming a Spartan proved to be another solid decision for Petry.
In his freshman year, Petry played all 42 games for the Spartans, recording three goals and 21 assists en route to being named to the CCHA All-Rookie Team.
Last season was more of a struggle for Petry and the team. MSU ended the season with a shocking second-to-last place finish in the CCHA, and Petry finished the year with a team-worst minus-31 rating.
Because the Spartans averaged a national-low 1.63 goals a game last year, Petry often tried to put the team on his back and charge up the ice on his own to start the rush.
“Last year he was trying to do too much,” Comley said. “That team had so many deficiencies. There weren’t enough players surrounding him to take advantage of his skills.”
With freshmen expected to be a big part of the success or failure of this season’s team, Comley waited until the rookies arrived on campus and let them partake in the election of the team captains. Petry and senior forward Nick Sucharski were chosen to wear the “C” for MSU, and both players believe the differences in their leadership styles have benefited the team.
“It was a good honor to have from the team, knowing they see me as a leader,” Petry said. “We have a good mix of leadership on the team. I try to lead by example, but if I see something, I’ll put my two cents in. And Nick is a lot more vocal.”
Petry has rediscovered his freshman form this season, establishing himself as the team’s lockdown defenseman. The 6-foot-3, 195-pound blueliner has recorded four goals and 21 assists already this season, with four regular-season games and the playoffs still to come.
“This year he’s taken such a major step,” Comley said. “He’s so much sounder in every area this year than he has been in the past.”
Another tough decision
With this season winding down, Petry soon will be facing a familiar decision.
He opted to leave high school a year early to pursue a hockey career. Everyone assumes the Edmonton Oilers will come calling at the end of the season, asking him to make a similar choice.
Undoubtably, the decision will be one of the hardest of his life. Does he join the struggling Oilers organization, who are desperate to insert young talent into their lineup? Or does he finish at MSU, with a surprisingly strong team losing only one senior?
The Oilers organization has been keeping a close eye on Petry throughout his MSU career and have been impressed with his development.
“Every time we go in and watch him, we see something we like more,” Oilers assistant general manager Kevin Prendergast said.
“We are in a tough situation here. We are one of the worst teams in the league, and he’s a talented young player. We would like to bring him along at our pace. But it’s something we will address when his season is over.”
Although Comley is confident Petry will have the option to leave early, he doesn’t want to think about having to replace one of the best defensemen he’s ever coached.
“It’s the unfortunate part from our perspective,” Comley said. “We don’t know if we need to try and replace him. But I’ll support him in whatever decision he makes. Obviously, we’d prefer if he stayed.”
Junior forward Corey Tropp, who leads the conference in goals (20) and points (39), was drafted in the third round by the Buffalo Sabres in 2007 and likely will have the same option at season’s end.
Petry said he’s not going to start thinking about the decision until the end of this year. But with the youth of this season’s team, the Spartans will return a stacked lineup next year and could create a stir nationally.
“You look at the players we have and the players that are coming back, and on paper, it’s going to be a great team next year,” Petry said. “But we’ll see what happens at the end of the year and weight the options from there.”
Whether Petry decides to play his last season at MSU or leave early, Edmonton’s front office couldn’t be happier with their draft pick.
“This season he’s really put everything he’s learned to work,” Prendergast said. “He’s easy to coach, and he’s easy to teach. From our standpoint, we think we have a hell of a prospect on our hands.”