After spending the first four years of his professional hockey playing career with the Detroit Red Wings organization, splitting his time between Motown and the Wings’ top farm club the Adirondack Red Wings, former Bear Joe Paterson could have been considered a journeyman at that point of his career and was dealt to the Philadelphia Flyers in October of 1984. In that swap, the Flyers sent future Hockey Hall of Fame member Darryl Sittler, father of former Bear Ryan Sittler to the Wings for Paterson and Murray Craven.
And although Paterson would not go on to a Hall of Fame career of his own as a player, his two-year stay with the Flyers organization, most of which was spent in Hershey, was very eventful for the native of Scarborough, Ontario, and helped solidify him as a legitimate NHL player who spent 170 games over the next four seasons in the NHL.
“When you get traded right away, you have mixed feelings,” said Paterson of the trade. “When they tell you you’re traded, you’re a little let down at first, but as soon as you hear from the other team you’ve been traded to, everything is positive. It was very exciting to go to the Flyers organization and spend time in Hershey.”
Selected by the Red Wings in the 5 round of the 1979 NHL draft, the same draft that saw the club select former Bears’ coach Mike Foligno, Paterson’s initial season with the Bears in 1984-85 was anything but successful for the club, which won only 26 games, went through three head coaches (Gary Inness, Frank Mathers, and Bill Barber), and failed to make the playoffs.
“It was tough when you’re not winning all the time,” said Paterson when talking about how difficult that season was to endure. “But going to the rink was always exciting, especially on Saturday nights. It seemed like the crowd was always into the games, and even in warm-ups it seemed like it was a big thing to do on a Saturday night in Hershey to come out to a Bears’ game.”
As tough as that season was from a team perspective, from a personal perspective it was a great one for Paterson, who finished with a career-high 26 goals, second only to Doug Morrison’s 28 tallies, and also tied Morrison and Paul Guay for the team lead in points (53), all while also playing his role as patrolman for his teammates and leading the club in PIM’s with 173.
“I played with Guay on the right wing, and I spent some time with Don Nachbaur as my center. We had a pretty good balanced line. Nachbaur was great on faceoffs and Paul was fast and was a hard-working kid.”
Paterson’s persistency and consistency in that losing club impressed the Flyers’ brass enough to earn him and a few of his Hershey teammates a chance to become a member of their “Black Aces” squad during that spring’s Stanley Cup playoff run.
“I was called up with several other players, and we went on stand-by not really expecting to play. I remember Len Hachborn went up with me and Ray Allison, and also the big kid Greg Smyth as well as Todd Bergen and goaltender Darren Jensen.”
Players who are members of the “Black Aces” are seldom used by the NHL club in the high stakes playoff games, where one positive play could mean going on to the next round and possibly capturing the Stanley Cup. , or one mistake could send your team home to arrange a tee time to help endure the disappointment.
But Paterson, with the combination of his prior NHL experience and his solid numbers in Hershey, was entrusted with a tremendous amount of responsibility by the Flyers after a slew of injuries hit the club, and he proved that their trust was warranted by having a tremendous playoff run.
“We had been skating and staying in shape and were ready to play, but we hadn’t played in a while. But eventually the Flyers ran into some injuries in the second round. I was able to get in, and so did Hachborn. Once I got into the lineup, I believe Tim Kerr was hurt, I was able to stay for a little while and play in 17 games.”
In those 17 games, Paterson, who played only six games with the Flyers in the regular season that year,played his normal bruising style which gave some much needed space to the Flyers’ marquee players, but he also stole a bit of the spotlight in helping them dispose of the Quebec Nordiques in the Wales Conference Finals series, leading the team in points in the series (3g, 3a). Eventually, the Flyers fell to Wayne Gretzky and the Edmonton Oilers in the Stanley Cup Finals.
The next season saw Paterson divide his time between the Bears and Flyers before the Flyers sent him to the Los Angeles Kings in December. He then spent the rest of that season as well as all of the next two in the “City of Angels”, eventually wrapping up the NHL portion of his playing career with the New York Rangers in the 1988-89 season and finishing his AHL playing career after the 1991-92 season.
When asked to recall his toughest opponents during his time spent in Chocolatetown, it’s not surprising that he chose a couple of players that Bears’ fans of that era will have no trouble remembering, as they were both from the Baltimore Skipjacks, Hershey’s neighbors ninety miles to the south, who were frequent foes due to their proximity.
“I would say Bennett Wolf and Gary Rissling. Wolf was just a straight fighter (1,657 PIMS in 319 professional games), where Rissling had a different type of toughness, and was a bit of a stick man and would do some dirty things. One time I was skating by their bench and he stuck his blade into my ribs, so he was a guy you always had to watch on the ice and also on the bench.”
With his playing days over, Paterson immediately embarked on a coaching career the next season with Adirondack, serving as assistant coach for the baby Red Wings, a gig that he stayed in for three seasons before becoming a head coach for the first time in the 1995-96 season with the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds of the Ontario Hockey League.
In his first season behind the bench in the ‘Soo’, Paterson led his young charges to an impressive 38-23-5 record. Leading the charge on the ice for the Greyhounds that season was “Jumbo” Joe Thornton, who captured the Canadian Hockey League Rookie of the Year award that campaign, potting 33 goals.
Even now, 15 years later, Paterson has to be proud of his part in developing Thornton, who went on to become the first overall pick in the NHL draft the next season, and who continues to be a force in the NHL.
“Joe was a pleasure to coach and a low-maintenance guy,” said Paterson. “He competed really hard, whether it be in practice or a game. The only thing that was hard to manage with him was dealing with the media that followed him. Our opponents would use his name to advertise, saying that first round pick Joe Thornton was coming in to play, to draw fans. After the games, there would always be a bunch of media there waiting for him. Joe was such a nice guy he had a hard time saying no to them. I remember telling him time that if ever got caught up and needed to leave, to tell them that his coach only gave him fifteen minutes so he could get back on the bus.”
Thornton and Paterson both vacated the OHL after the next season, Thornton for the bright lights of the NHL, and Paterson for New Haven Beast of the American Hockey League, where he joined up as an assistant coach with his former Hershey teammate Kevin McCarthy, who was the head coach of the Beast.
“At the time, I had no idea that Thornton was actually going to leave the junior team,” said Paterson about whether Thornton’s departure has anything to do with his. “Another opportunity came up to go back into the AHL. I worked for the Florida Panthers there, and that eventually led to a head coaching job with Louisville two years later.”
In Louisville, Paterson and the Panthers struggled to gain a foothold in the new market, but he did manage to guide his charges to a playoff berth in his first season in the “Bluegrass State.”
Among the players that skated for the Panthers during their two-year existence were former Bears Travis Brigley and Paul Brousseau, and their captain up until the time he was dealt to the Bears late in the 2000-2001 season, Brent Thompson. Thompson, the current coach of the Bridgeport Sound Tigers, was always regarded as the epitome of a “team player” and Paterson confirmed that was definitely the case in his experience with him.
“Brent played very hard in games and in practices,” said Paterson of Thompson, who finished the 2000-01 season with 311 PIM’s, which was only good for 7 place in that category. “He actually made people better around him because he competed so hard and played his practices like games. He was a guy that didn’t have a lot of natural talent, but he played with a big heart.”
Last season with the Adirondack Phantoms struggling out of the gate, the Philadelphia Flyers organization called in Paterson to help steady the ship, first as an assistant coach to former Hershey coach John Paddock who took over the team on an interim basis in early November, and then as the bench boss in late December. In rejoining the Flyers’ fold, Paterson was reunited with former Bears’ players Craig Berube (an assistant coach in Philadelphia) as well as Flyers’ scouts Al Hill and Ross Fitzpatrick (both of whom he played with in Hershey), in addition to Paddock and McCarthy.
In the 49 games with Paterson calling the shots from behind the bench, the Phantoms, who sported a feeble 6-23-0-2 record before Paterson permanently took over the coaching reigns, went from a team in turmoil to a club charting a steady course the rest of the way, going a very respectable 25-16-0-8 the rest of the way.
“I think the biggest thing was the players were mentally fragile,” said Paterson, 51, who shares the same June 25 birthday as former Bears Hugh Harvey and Bill H. Armstrong.
“They hadn’t won a lot and games weren’t going their way, and you could see that they were starting to slip sometimes. Eventually, we wanted to just play andnot play by the score, just to play shift-by-shift well. When you play well, you outplay the person across from you and play your shifts well, that will lead to some victories. Players responded to that and played very hard, and eventually when they started to win, it snowballed, and they realized that winning was enjoyable again and helped them feel good about themselves.”
This season, Paterson’s Phantoms currently hover right around the .500 mark, but they do hold a couple of victories over the Bears, including an exciting overtime win in the outdoor game in Philadelphia’s Citizens Bank Park, and in another season filled with the ups and downs that invariably occur in the AHL, Paterson can call upon all of the up and down experiences of his playing career to help the future Flyers cope.
“When you’re a player, you go up and you go down, and I think my experiences I had as a player are very important to helping my players. You talk to a lot of people when you get called up-you call your parents, your brothers and sisters, to tell them you’re going up, and all of a sudden it could only be for one game and you’re back down."
"There are different reasons why players go up. Sometimes only for one game, sometimes it’s more of an opportunity, so I think helping a player understand to get back and be focused right away and playing his best again is going to be not only best for him, but for the team and also gives him another opportunity to show that he’s ready for recall again.”