Reward for Return: Decision to Wait on Pros Pays Off for Wisconsin’s Geoffrion

Any voter or onlooker wanting to get a snapshot of what Wisconsin senior tri-captain Blake Geoffrion is like needed to be present in a privately candid moment Wednesday morning.

Geoffrion didn’t know what to do or say when Badgers coach Mike Eaves presented him with the advanced knowledge that he was one of the three finalists for the Hobey Baker Award.

But instead of calling home first — a joyful phone call, he said — or sharing it with others, Geoffrion’s first thought was to see if junior defenseman Brendan Smith, one of the other 10 finalists for the award, made the cut with him. Smith wasn’t as fortunate, but one can hardy argue that Geoffrion isn’t as deserving.

“It’s a tremendous honor [for him],” Eaves said. “He was very humble by this happening and somewhat surprised. But for Blake and our program, it’s a distinct honor.”

A 24-member voting panel selected Geoffrion with New Hampshire right winger Bobby Butler and Maine right winger Gustav Nyquist as the three finalists for the top individual award that will be given in a presentation at the Frozen Four in Detroit on April 9, one day after Wisconsin plays RIT in the semifinals.

“This award is definitely a team reward,” Geoffrion said. “It goes back to being a little of myself and most of my teammates for being there for me, sacrificing a lot and having a great support staff around us. Nobody can be successful like this unless you have a great team around you, and I love them to death.”

Those players have made the 22-year-old Geoffrion one of the top players and perhaps the breakout performer of the year. After scoring 27 combined goals in his first three seasons, Geoffrion’s 27 tallies are second most in the nation, behind Butler’s 29. He’s scored a nation-leading 14 goals on the power play and his 21 assists for 48 points made him a natural selection for all-WCHA first-team honors.

“I never thought I would have this many goals, be a top 10 in the Hobey Baker … all-WCHA member? No way,” Geoffrion said. “I think it’s a little bit mixture of luck and hard work.”

But part of the reason for where he’s at individually and why Wisconsin (27-10-4) is two wins away from the school’s seventh national championship is Geoffrion coming alive during the playoffs.

Geoffrion scored six goals and five assists in six postseason outings, including the game-winning goal against Vermont in the first round of the NCAA tournament and added a goal and two assists against St. Cloud State in the second round to send UW to its 11th Frozen Four.

He was fearless in blocking shots, won 63 percent of his faceoffs and was a standout on the power play and the penalty kill before being named the outstanding player of the regional.

“It would have been a huge difference [if he went pro before this season],” said senior, roommate and best friend Michael Davies. “I can’t even explain it. He plays 25, 30 minutes a game, he’s a leader and pretty much puts the team on his back. It showed in the regional. The points he had this year would have been a huge loss, because you can’t replace a guy like Blake.

“As much as he was being pushed to sign, he wanted to come back to win a national championship, and a Hobey Baker might come with it.”

It’s rare to see a top NHL draft choice stay in college all four years. UW has had 17 players chosen in the top two rounds since 1980 and five, including Geoffrion, have stayed for all four years. Five left after one season.

Throw in the fact that Geoffrion’s grandfather and great-grandfather are Hockey Hall of Famers and have their numbers retired by Montreal; that his father played in the NHL; and that he was drafted by Nashville after growing up in Brentwood, Tenn., it wasn’t a question of if, but when he would make the transition.

“It’s one of those things where we roll the dice and based on recent history, it didn’t look like he would [come back],” Eaves said.

The decision wasn’t so cut-and-dry for Geoffrion. He was just coming off groin surgery, a thought that made him leery of playing a professional schedule just coming off the injury and not in the best physical shape. Looking in the mirror, Geoffrion didn’t think his game was mature enough for the pros, meaning he would have to spend a decent amount of time in the minors, costing him the chance to graduate on time and a get a degree.

With hometown Nashville saying it would sign Geoffrion — the 56th overall pick in the 2006 draft — if he wanted to come but also that it would be fine if he decided to come back to school, Geoffrion made his first step toward returning.

“I just felt my game need more maturing to do, more details and be more creative offensively,” Geoffrion said. “I felt that I would increase my chances from about 5 to 15 percent of going right to the NHL with another year under my belt.”

Once he started leaning toward coming back, Geoffrion started listing the positive of returning. He figured he would be a captain — a goal on which he placed a high level of importance — and playing outside in Camp Randall Stadium in February was right at the top, along with the confidence that the amount of depth the Badgers had returning made Wisconsin a prime candidate to compete for a national championship.

And, of course, the degree in consumer affairs, which would make him only the second Geoffrion in his family to earn a college degree, next to his older brother Nick.

“There really weren’t any bad reasons, other than being freezing cold riding my scooter around campus here at Wisconsin,” Geoffrion said. “That’s the only thing I hate. Other than that, there’s really nothing bad about this program.”

So after sitting on the decision during the 2008 Christmas break, Geoffrion called Eaves upon returning to campus and told him he wanted to meet with him, planning to tell him he was going to come back so the coaching staff could plan around him and their allotment of scholarships.

“When I told him, I think I caught him off guard more than anything,” Geoffrion said. “I told him that I was coming back and he went, ‘Oh … OK … is that it?’ He went on to say that he’ll see me at practice.”

The brief three-minute conversation went against the grain of the growing trend of high-drafted prospects leaving early.

After last season, seven WCHA schools saw at least one player with eligibility remaining turn pro, including the Badgers, who had junior defenseman Jamie McBain sign with Carolina. Seventeen WCHA non-seniors signed in 2006, 16 in 07 and already four this season — causing coaches to scramble to adequately recruit to fill the voids.

Eaves knew he would have to replace Geoffrion sooner or later. He’s just glad it came after a 48-point season.

“Look what’s happened,” Eaves said, referring to Geoffrion’s breakout year. “I think he’s got a lot better road to the NHL this year because he came back and has got this huge reservoir of confidence right now. All those things he’s got in spades now.”

The big thing now is dealing with what Eaves calls “the circus,” handling the media requests, interviews and all of the other individual things associated with being a finalist.

It’s harder for Geoffrion. He’s the only nominee of the three still playing and he has a chance to be the first Wisconsin player to win the award.

“It makes us scratch our head,” Eaves said. “You wonder how nobody has [won] from the regimes we’ve had here at Wisconsin. To have Blake do that, it would be another feather in our cap. We have a lot of feathers in our cap, and that’s one we would have with great pride.

“But you talk to anybody, they would trade an individual title for a team because it’s something you share with your teammates.”

Not surprisingly, the tri-captain is the same way.

“I am just going to go in there, play my game and try to do what I’ve done all year,” Geoffrion smirked. “I’m just going to keep it real simple. I am not a big skill guy, a guy that has good hands or an unbelievable shot. I am just a hard worker that gets his nose dirty and do what I can for the team. I think that’s why I am up for the award, but the real award would be doing those things to win a championship.”


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