June 25, 2014
BY MIKE LUCAS
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MADISON, Wis. -- His Hobey Baker award has been stashed away in a storage unit, not necessarily a final resting place. Even though Blake Geoffrion became the first player in school history to claim the prize -- college hockey's equivalent of the Heisman Trophy -- he has moved on from that meaningful period in his life to another and yet another.
What has more meaning today for Geoffrion, now 26, is the undergraduate degree that he earned in consumer affairs from Wisconsin in 2010. Since then, when he was still the property of the Nashville Predators and about to transition to the pro game with the Milwaukee Admirals, he has learned that it's the gift that keeps on giving long after the skates have been hung up for a final time.
While he will be forever proud of what he was able to achieve on the ice with the Badgers -- he was a first-team All-American and National Player of the Year in addition to capturing the Hobey as a senior -- there's still no substitute for having a fallback once your playing days are over. Especially when that decision is out of your control because of a career-ending injury.
"There are a lot of things that I wish I would have accomplished in my (professional) career," conceded Geoffrion, who played three seasons (55 games) in the NHL with Nashville and Montreal. He expected a longer run but he was forced to retire after suffering a skull fracture in a 2012 minor league game when he was hip-checked to the ice and his head struck the end of an opponent's skate blade.
"When I got hurt," he said, "I saw how this life can end pretty quickly."
And what a life it has been for the Geoffrion family, which is among the most prominent in the history of the sport. His great-grandfather, Howie Morenz, and his grandfather, Bernie (Boom Boom) Geoffrion, were legendary figures. Both are in the Hockey Hall of Fame. Morenz was the first player to have his number (7) retired in Montreal. Geoffrion's dad, Danny, also played with the Canadiens.
Although he had to walk away from the game that he loved -- he officially retired last July -- Blake Geoffrion said, "I'm a guy who looks at the positive side of things. I got to experience so many things. I got to win awards. Hockey has given me a lot and I don't live that way (with regrets)."
One door closed, another opened. That's why he couldn't put a price tag on his UW degree. "If I didn't have it, I wouldn't be sitting here today," he said from his office on South Wacker Drive in downtown Chicago. Geoffrion works for Korn Ferry, the world's largest executive search firm. Stan Van Gundy, Bill O'Brien and Andy Reid are among the most recent coaches who have shown up on the firm's client list.
Geoffrion had been working as a pro scout with the Columbus Blue Jackets; a timely safety net that allowed him to stay close to the game after retiring. "Someone asked, `Why did you leave Columbus and go into another industry?'" he posed. "I wanted to put my degree to use and I wanted to see the other side of world, the business side, which I had never seen before or experienced."
During the short time that he has been with Korn Ferry, he said, "I've learned a heckuva lot ... In my situation, obviously with having a career-ending injury and having that degree to fall back on, I was able to go out and get a job, a good job, too. (Otherwise) I would probably be scrambling.
"I'm glad that I made the decision that I did. That's for sure."
Geoffrion has made a lot of good choices, not the least of which was to stay in school for four years. During that period, he got in the habit of sharing his time with others on campus. It came natural. At a much younger age, he got involved with his church and had served food in homeless shelters.
That had left an indelible impression on him.
"I always wanted to give back," Geoffrion said. "I know I've been very fortunate and I've been able to experience things that a lot of people haven't. And that all falls back on a lot of people helping me get to this point -- on and off the ice -- as a man.
"If I can return the favor to someone, long term or short term, that's what I've always wanted to do. Anyone who knows me will tell you I've always tried to help anyone who has asked, whether it's with something small or something large.
|"I've been able to experience things that a lot of people haven't," Geoffrion said. "If I can return the favor to someone, long term or short term, that's what I've always wanted to do."
"I'll always try to go out of my way to do that because I know that someone along the way has always helped to get to where I am today and that's why I wanted to do something like this."
This is the Blake Geoffrion Hockey Classic, which will take place Friday night at LaBahn Arena (6:30 p.m. faceoff). All of the money raised in this charity exhibition between former Badgers players will benefit the UW Health Burn Center. Mike Eaves will coach one team, Mark Johnson the other.
"With some of the big names coming back that people watch on TV," Johnson said, "you'll get a first-hand view of how good these players are and see how they've fully matured as NHL stars."
Minnesota Wild defenseman Ryan Suter will captain Johnson's team, which will also feature New York Rangers center Derek Stepan and defenseman Ryan McDonagh, along with St. Louis Blues goalie Brian Elliott. Stepan and McDonagh are fresh off their appearance in the Stanley Cup Final.
Eaves' team will be captained by San Jose Sharks forward Adam Burish, who will be joined by Edmonton defenseman Justin Schultz, and Montreal winger Rene Bourque (if his schedule works out).
"This is phenomenal," Eaves said, "to have all of these guys that are in the National Hockey League and are very successful in their profession to come back to do something for the burn center. And really it has been Blake's presence that got this thing going."
While he was still in school, Geoffrion got to be friends with Dr. Lee Faucher, the burn center director. Geoffrion twice had hernia surgery and Faucher was his doctor. Over the years, they stayed in touch and discussed staging this type of charity game and it has finally come to fruition.
Geoffrion had made regular trips to American Family Children's Hospital with his teammates, a part of the culture for student-athletes at Wisconsin. So when he called on them, and the other hockey alums, and asked them to volunteer their time for Friday's fundraiser, the response was overwhelmingly positive.
"They all said, `Sounds awesome. Will be an absolutely blast. Love to help you out,'" he said.
And the fans can do their part by filling LaBahn and welcoming them all home while helping a worthy cause. It will be a particularly sweet homecoming for Geoffrion because of how this school and hockey program, and how this campus and community have helped shape him.
"I learned a lot of valuable lessons in life, both on and off the ice, in terms of maturing and becoming a man," he said, citing all of his former coaching mentors and teammates "who were always there for me and backing me." As such, he said, "It has kind of made me the person that I am today.
"That's why I'm so thankful and want to give back to the university as much as I can."