Inside Patrick Maroon's decision to come home this season

A long, winding NHL journey has brought Pat Maroon back home to Missouri. Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

ST. LOUIS -- Since the birth of Patrick Maroon's son, Anthony, on Sept. 2, 2008, the two have celebrated Anthony's birthday together in St. Louis. One year they went to Chuck E. Cheese's. Another year, it was Incredible Pizza. One time, Patrick took Anthony and all of his friends to Epic 6, an indoor arcade, where they buzzed around playing laser tag.

"I love every birthday," the elder Maroon says. "But Anthony knew, and I knew, that after his birthday, Daddy was leaving. He cried a lot. I cried a lot. It sucks." It only got worse as Anthony got older. "Because that's when he really started to understand," Maroon says.

Maroon spent summers in St. Louis but packed up each September for training camp while Anthony stayed with his mother back home. Maroon has played in eight cities over that 10-year span. He clawed his way from a sixth-round draft pick with the Philadelphia Flyers to Connor McDavid's top winger with the Edmonton Oilers. It wasn't easy. Maroon spent seven seasons in the AHL, making a little over $40,000 per year. He was dismissed from the Flyers' farm team, sending him into a spiral of shame and self doubt. He almost quit hockey.

When Maroon finally made it to the NHL, he was traded twice in three years. He tried to be the best father he could be, from afar. There were countless FaceTime calls. There were the times Maroon's father, Philip, would drive Anthony 16 hours just so they could spend a long weekend together. There were the rare times Anthony could see his father play, like a December 2016 game when the Oilers visited the Blues. Maroon scored, and in a live television interview afterward, he was asked about Anthony's reaction in the stands. Maroon could barely get his words out, he was so choked up.

"It's pretty emotional," Maroon said, eyes welling. "I don't get to see him as much."

For his entire professional career, other people determined where Maroon would play. This past summer, Maroon finally had a choice. He had multiple offers on the table. He could sign in New Jersey, the team he ended the season with. He had other offers too, including one from a Western Conference team that was double the salary he wound up taking, and others that offered multiple years. Finally, he could take a one-year, $1.75 million deal in St. Louis. "For a player like me," Maroon says, "that's life-changing money."

Maroon chose to bet on himself. He also chose Anthony.

"Every father is supposed to want to be with his son," Blues superstar forward Vladimir Tarasenko said. "I'm happy for Patty because he had this opportunity. It's his hometown. It's like John Tavares coming back to his hometown, Toronto. I think it's unbelievable to play in front of your whole family, friends and people you grew up with. I think it's pretty special."

Patrick Maroon grew up as the youngest of four in Oakville, Missouri, a town along the Mississippi River just 15 miles south of St. Louis. "It's one of those towns where everyone knows everyone and you can't get away," Maroon says. "Small bars, small restaurants. When you move there, you don't leave."

Maroon's father, Philip, played Division I soccer at St. Louis University before moving back to Oakville to run a real estate business. He loved soccer and football and was incredulous when his youngest son said he wanted to try hockey. But Philip Maroon embraced it and bought two season tickets at the old St. Louis Arena. The Maroons parked their minivan by the train tracks and bellied up inside: One brother would sit on Dad's lap, the other two brothers would share a seat. "Back in the day, you could get away with anything," Maroon says.

Maroon was always a bigger kid (his nickname was "Fat Pat"), but gifted in hockey, and began playing for the NAHL St. Louis Bandits. When he was a teenager, former Blues defenseman Jeff Brown, then a local coach, pulled Maroon aside. "I think you have a chance to be drafted in the OHL," Brown said. Maroon relayed this to his father who responded, "What's the OHL?"

As the Maroons navigated a new world of high-level hockey, the NHL wasn't on the radar. In fact, Maroon was at a roller hockey tournament in 2007 when his father said, "I think I saw your name go across the ESPN scroll." Maroon checked his phone, with several missed calls, including one from then-Flyers GM Paul Holmgren. Philadelphia selected Maroon with the 161st pick in the sixth round. The Maroons threw a huge party. "It was like I was drafted in the first round," Maroon says. "I was like, 'Guys, I might not even make it at all.'" Maroon played a season with the OHL London Knights before joining the Flyers' top AHL affiliate, the Philadelphia Phantoms, in 2008.

After his first professional season, Anthony was born. Maroon knew the responsibilities back home but was thriving in Philadelphia. Now with a filled-out 6-foot-3 frame, he put up 23 goals and 31 assists his first season. He played a physical net-presence game but had good hands too. In his third season in the AHL, he turned 21.

"I was into bad stuff," Maroon says. "I thought it was going to be easy. I was one of the leading scorers the year before, and I knew how to work around anything. I knew how to compete, how to go into the games and do what I had to do that night, but it was stuff after that -- going to practice, competing at practice, being a leader, learning from the leadership group -- I didn't know how to do that at the time."

Games were clustered around weekends, and Maroon didn't handle the free time well. "Playing in the minors, you're fighting, you're competing every night, and you don't know if you're ever going to make it to the NHL," Maroon says. "They say 'keep your nose clean.' I was keeping my nose dirty. You're making 40 grand, you're living on your own, you're living with roommates who party, you party, things can get a little sideways at times. I knew how to play hockey, that's it. I didn't know how to take care of myself off the ice."

On the ice, Maroon was one of the Flyers' best forward prospects. But coaches felt they weren't getting through to him. Though Maroon could produce in games, his conditioning was becoming a problem. On Oct. 30 of his third AHL season, Maroon was dismissed from the team. It shocked everyone. He was humiliated. "That began the dark days," he says.

"They say keep your nose clean, I was keeping my nose dirty. You're making 40 grand, you're living on your own, you're living with roommates who party, you party, things can get a little sideways at times." Pat Maroon

Maroon's agent told him to stay on the East Coast. He tried playing for an ECHL team, but the Flyers didn't allow it. The agent tried working out a contract with a Swiss team, but the Flyers wouldn't release his rights. Maroon crashed with cousins in Lyndhurst, New Jersey, and skated at Montclair State University -- with a college club team -- just to stay in shape. For two months, he was in limbo.

"I was ready to quit. I was ready to retire. I had enough," he says. "I was 22, and I had an infant at home. He was a year old. I was thinking, what am I even doing?"

Over the phone, Philip Maroon delivered tough love: "Either you get it together, or you come home."

Maroon considered taking the college package that was offered to him by the OHL, but instead stayed East. "As a sixth-rounder, you don't realize how hard it actually is to make it," he says. "I had so many people who were hard on me and wanted me to make it, because they knew I had the talent. But I wasn't willing to put in the effort." Maroon thought about what example he wanted to set for Anthony and decided to give professional hockey one last try.

Then Maroon got another call from Holmgren: Maroon had been traded to the Anaheim Ducks organization. He was given another lifeline. Maroon was anxious as he flew to California. "I was thinking, 'OK, new teammates, what will they think of me?'" he says. "They're all going to know I was dismissed."

Maroon didn't have time to dwell in his own head. When he reported to the team's AHL affiliate in Syracuse, the coach, Mark Holick, said bluntly: "I traded my best player for you. I don't know what you did in Philly, but I hope you can play." Maroon showed him what he could do; he put up 21 goals and 27 assists in 57 games.

During the next two seasons (and as the Ducks' AHL affiliate switched to Norfolk, Virginia), Philip Maroon would often drive Anthony out to visit. The drives were tedious -- Anthony would complain to his father that his grandfather only listened to sports radio, which was boring -- but the few days he was able to spend with his son grounded Patrick.

After the 2012-13 lockout, Maroon made the Ducks and was playing on a line with Mathieu Perreault and Teemu Selanne. "Hugging Teemu Selanne, scoring goals, you'll never forget those moments," Maroon says. "Those are the moments I can tell Anthony, tell my future kids, that I played with the best players in the world."

While in Anaheim, Maroon would see Anthony "once in a blue moon." Maroon's fiancée, Francesca Vangel, who is not Anthony's birth mother, would fly back and forth with Anthony. Maroon finally felt comfortable with his career in the 2015-16 season, though he feared he might be traded at the deadline after putting up only 13 points in 56 games. Maroon, Vangel, Corey Perry and Perry's wife, Blakeny, took a trip to Pelican Hill resort in nearby Newport Coast on trade deadline day. As the 3 p.m. ET deadline passed, Blakeny toasted to Maroon not having been moved. Then Maroon got a frantic call from his mother: "You've been traded!" she told him. (Maroon's mom saw the news first on Twitter.) Sure enough, Maroon was now moving even farther from home, to Edmonton.

Maroon's first game with the Oilers was on the road -- coincidentally in Philadelphia. Maroon scored in the second period to give Edmonton a 3-0 lead. As he was swarmed by teammates Taylor Hall and Brandon Davidson, Maroon looked into the crowd of orange Flyers jerseys around him and "it all hit me," he says. "It brought me back to my time in Philly, when I didn't know how to train, I was out of shape, my dark days. And then now, like, holy f---, this is really happening."

Maroon meshed well in Edmonton. In his second game as an Oiler, he fought -- which made him a favorite among fans, who began calling him "Big Rig," a nickname Maroon says he "doesn't mind at all." By late March, coach Todd McLellan was gushing about Maroon.

"I'd love to talk about that, because he's been a wonderful addition to our team," the coach told reporters. "He has fit our locker room well, and while he has been moved before ... to come to a new team that will not be making the playoffs and leave a team that will be pushing to win the Stanley Cup, it's not an easy thing, but he's really fit our room real well. He's shown leadership skills that we need, brought in the proper attitude, and that's just off the ice."

And by the end of the season, Maroon was playing with McDavid. "I don't know what it is, coaches like me with top players," he says. "I don't ask for it, but ... maybe I just don't give myself enough credit."

Vangel, once again, would accompany Anthony on flights to Edmonton for a few days here and there to visit his father. The Oilers are a family-oriented club, and Anthony loved playing shinny hockey with McDavid and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. He also really took to defenseman Darnell Nurse. "Nurse loved Anthony," Maroon says. "They really got along well."

The Oilers were winning, the city was buzzing and Maroon was loving every minute of it. "He feeds off of good energy," Vangel says. "He's someone who needs positive reinforcements."

Before he went home for the summer in 2016, Maroon sat down with Oilers GM Peter Chiarelli and McLellan. They noted Maroon was on the verge of something great but needed to home in on his conditioning. "They said, 'You can ride shotgun with this guy [McDavid], it depends on what you want. Either your career is going to take a downfall or you put in the time and effort and can make a living out of it.'"

Maroon didn't really understand their message until that summer, after he returned from the world championships in Russia. He had ballooned again; he stepped on the scale and it read 260 pounds. "It was bad. I couldn't even move," Maroon said. "I needed to figure it out."

Over the past few years, a high school teammate from Oakville, CJ Jung, had been reaching out to Maroon. Jung had become a trainer and wanted to work with Maroon. Maroon kept brushing him off. Finally, Maroon decided to call back. Jung put Maroon through the ringer, including "God knows how many hours on the bike." Vangel helped Maroon meal prep. Maroon lost 25 pounds in one summer.

Finally, he'd figured out what it takes to be a professional.

Maroon never wanted to leave Edmonton. He loved it there. But the team floundered last season, and at the trade deadline, Maroon was shipped to New Jersey. Maroon was looking forward to free agency this past summer.

"I was in shape the last three years. I was taking care of myself," he says. "I had made it far in the playoffs with really good numbers [27 points in 47 games], and so I was ready. I was ready to get that three-year, $3 million deal."

But five days passed in free agency, and then six. Maroon did not receive an offer. Maroon thought he'd at least have meetings with teams. He had only one, with Blues GM Doug Armstrong. Maroon had surgery in May to repair a herniated disc in his back and also had a knee injury. But they were both minor, and he was training by July 1.

Maroon was a wreck. He was supposed to go to former Oilers teammate Zack Kassian's wedding in Italy. "But I was freaking out, so I didn't go," Maroon says.

Maroon ended up switching agents. Maroon's new agent drummed up more interest, especially from the Devils. In his short stint in New Jersey, Maroon fell for Ray Shero, a GM he says "was like a father to me." Shero also embraced Maroon's family. (After Maroon's back surgery, Shero sent Vangel a long text message followed by a meme. For an hour, Maroon's fiancée and the GM texted memes back and forth to each other.) Meanwhile Maroon took another meeting with Armstrong and considered what it might be like to play at home.

"New Jersey offered me more money," Maroon says. "I love Ray Shero. I hope one day I can work for him. He's one of the best men in hockey. So all of that considered, it would take a lot for me not to go there."

But Maroon also took time to consider the winding road that led him here and how he finally found confidence. He knew he deserved more -- more than the one-year, $1.75 million deal St. Louis could offer. But by taking it, he was telling himself he wouldn't regress, that he was on the right path.

Maroon had many conversations in the car on speaker phone with his agent, going over the details of the deal. Often, Anthony was in the back seat listening. "Dad," Anthony would say. "If you can make more, you should do it." But Maroon hated the idea that his kid was thinking he was choosing money over him.

"Not only is this for my son, but I'm betting on myself," Maroon says. "I know I'm a good hockey player. I'm tired of people saying I only scored 20 goals with Connor McDavid. I'm going to score 20 again, I know I am. I'm not asking for much. Not $4 or $5 million, I just want a two-year deal after this and see where it goes. But I'm betting on myself because I know I worked hard enough to deserve that kind of money."

When Maroon told Anthony this summer that he was staying in St. Louis -- and that after his Sept. 2 birthday they wouldn't have to say goodbye -- the then-9-year-old didn't quite understand. "He kind of just went to his room quietly, like he had to think about it," Vangel says. "I don't think it's hit anyone yet what this really means."

But for now, Maroon is enjoying the small moments. When Maroon was en route to drop off Anthony at school one day in September, he ordered Starbucks online to pick up. He was surprised to learn Anthony now has sophisticated tastes: He prefers chai tea.

One of the first items on Maroon's agenda after signing? He bought his own father two season tickets for the Blues. After all, Philip Maroon was the one who set the example for his son of what it means to be a good father.