How 1999 top pick Patrik Stefan moved past a career of letdown

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Patrik Stefan stands on the bench, watching the final seconds tick down on the game clock. The scoreboard above a sea of blue seats broken up by splotches of friends, family and the odd scout reads, "Home 4, Guest 0." As the buzzer sounds, a flurry of orange, white and powder blue debris goes flying in a whirlwind of youthful exuberance as the 15-year-olds clad in white jerseys pile over the boards, grabbing anyone they can find. They are USA Hockey national champions.

Among the blur of bodies tumbling across the ice is a jersey with "Stefan" across the top and a familiar No. 13 below. After the dog piles subside, Patrik wraps his arms around his 15-year-old son, James, and tells him he had a good game and that he is proud of him.

Patrik Stefan spent the past four years with this group of kids at the Detroit-based Little Caesars hockey club, coaching and developing them. But his life had a much different trajectory 20 years ago, when he was called to the stage as the first overall -- and first-ever -- pick of the Atlanta Thrashers at the 1999 NHL draft.

Stefan, now 38, knew his life had changed that day, but he didn't know how things would play out. He didn't know that infamy is easier to come by than fame, that YouTube was going to be a thing, and one of his worst on-ice moments would be replayed in perpetuity. Or that he'd suffer a life-altering injury, forcing retirement before he even hit his 30s.

As the 2019 NHL draft in Vancouver, British Columbia, approaches, it's easy to think back to that '99 draft, which defined the past two decades for the host city's team, thanks to the picks that happened immediately after Stefan was taken at No. 1. Canucks general manager Brian Burke swung what might be his greatest move as an NHL executive -- rearranging picks and moving out players over three separate trades to select twin brothers Daniel and Henrik Sedin second and third overall, respectively. The Sedins went on to Hall of Fame-worthy careers, complete with Hart Trophies, scoring titles, a trip to the Stanley Cup Final and a combined 2,111 points, all with Vancouver.

If not for Burke's wheeling and dealing, Stefan likely would not have been the top pick. In his third trade of a 24-hour period, Burke got the Thrashers to agree to swap picks with the Canucks so he could select the Sedins at the same time with pick Nos. 2 and 3.

"I knew I was going to Atlanta," Stefan said in a phone conversation with ESPN. "They had the second pick, then right before the draft, they announced [the trade] and all of the sudden Atlanta was making the first pick. And I'm like, 'OK, I think that may be me.' Then you're like, 'Holy s---.'"

Stefan had been the No. 1-rated player by NHL Central Scouting. He had spent the previous season and a half with the Long Beach Ice Dogs in the old International Hockey League, then considered the second-best league in the world. And although concussion issues in his draft year limited Stefan to 35 games, he was still an all-star and produced over a point per game in a big-time pro league at just 17 years old. The Thrashers took on that risk, and a wild ride commenced.

A skipping puck

As a rookie, Stefan played in 72 games and registered 25 points, the sixth most on a team that won just 14 games all season. In total, Stefan played 414 games for the Thrashers. His best season was a 40-point run in 2003-04, which was followed by the lockout-canceled 2004-05 season. Stefan finished his Atlanta career with 177 points and was traded to the Dallas Stars in 2006.

During his lone season with Dallas, injury limited him to 41 games, in which he garnered 11 points. But his Texas days will be remembered more for what appeared to be an easy empty-net goal to give the Stars a road victory over the Edmonton Oilers. Instead, the puck skipped over his stick and he missed, before losing his footing while trying to collect the unsettled puck and allowing the Oilers to go all the way down and score the tying goal with 2 seconds left on the clock. The most popular YouTube video of the incident has been viewed nearly 1.5 million times. History tends to forget that the Stars ended up winning that game in a shootout.

History tends to forget a lot, but as Stefan notes, no one is going to feel sorry for you in hockey. The first overall designation is a special one, if you can live up to the billing. If not, it's a boat anchor that drags you down, and everyone gets to take their shots as you sink.

Nuance doesn't tend to travel over time, either. Like the 1999 draft not being particularly strong, with only 37 percent of the players selected in the first three rounds appearing in at least 100 NHL games, putting it among the least effective at placing NHL regulars of the past 20 years. Or the fact that had Atlanta taken Stefan with the second overall pick it originally had, rather than in the spotlight of that top spot, the glare might have softened over time. Or that Stefan's injury luck was nil, having managed to appear in all 82 regular-season games just once over a seven-year career.

There were concussions, but the final straw was his hip. He wanted to play, but physically could not. His career quietly ended after three games with SC Bern in Switzerland when pain and a lack of mobility robbed Stefan of anything that was left of his hockey abilities.

After years of gritting through the pain, not wanting to endure the lengthy recovery process and limiting aftermath as a younger man, Stefan is due to finally have his hip replaced later this summer.

"I'm about eight years too late," Stefan said. "I tried to hold on as long as I could. There aren't many guys at 38 that need a hip replacement. I remember going to the hospital, when I was 30 or 29. I'm sitting there with my bad hip and the next-youngest person is 65 or 70. 'What am I doing here?' It's been a struggle. With coaching, being on the ice so much, it's a struggle."

Life after the NHL

Despite the way the outside world might perceive how Stefan's career went or how he should feel about it, the struggles and ridicule he endured made him no less passionate about the game. He couldn't stay away.

"I look at my career and what I've been through, I've been through a lot," Stefan said. "I grew up playing in Czech. Moved to the U.S. when I was 16 to play in the IHL. Got drafted first overall and didn't have the career that I wanted to. All these things, you can look at it as a failure, but I was looking at as, 'What can I do about it?' I can sit at home and feel sorry for myself or I could transfer that experience and get into this business."

The business Stefan got into was forming his own player agency, which he still operates. His first NHL-drafted and -signed client was Philadelphia Flyers goaltender Michal Neuvirth, who remains with Stefan. New Jersey Devils forward Pavel Zacha and a host of prospects are among those Stefan advises. He keeps his client list tight so he can be hands-on.

His unique and trying experience in the NHL gives him perspective when speaking with clients and the gravitas necessary for them to listen.

"This is a tough business to be in, there's no question about it," he said. "But when you start working with players and you guide them through their ups and downs -- because I've been through that -- it's been very rewarding. I wish that I could still play -- when I was working with young kids, it was like I was living through it. It's kind of like you're playing. You look at the games, you start looking at video and obviously, I understand the game a lot better and I look at the game differently now than when I was playing."

Beyond the busy life of being an agent, the coaching bug bit Stefan hard when he was asked to help run a practice for his nephew's team in the place of an absent coach. Soon, he was on the bench for the two teams sons James and Wyatt play on.

"I thought travel was busy when I was playing, but it's nothing compared to now," said Stefan, who moved his family to Michigan to make travel to clients easier, while also giving his boys a chance to play at a high level among their peers.

Family is clearly at the heart of so much of what the Stefans do. Carolyn Stefan, a self-described surfer girl from Southern California who met Patrik while he was playing in Long Beach, makes it all go. She has seen her husband through it all, from having his face on billboards in Atlanta to needing her help tying his own shoes on days when his hip made it impossible to bend.

"She holds the house together," Stefan said of his wife of 18 years. "I'm tough. I'm strict and she's the fun one, so there's nice balance to the household."

Patrik has preached never being too high or too low in hockey or in life to his boys and his clients. That was put to the test for the Stefan family not long after Patrik retired, when Carolyn was diagnosed with a rare, aggressive form of breast cancer. She went through two grueling years of treatment, including numerous operations.

"That rattled us. We can get through anything, but that was a tough one," Carolyn said. "You look back at the things where you missed the net and all that stuff, and then your wife's got cancer. Perspective happens real quick. Now I'm healthy and grateful. It changes you forever and I'm just grateful for every day."

Carolyn went into remission after about a year and a half. Had Patrik's playing career not ended when it did, he might not have been able to be there as much as he ultimately was. But Patrik and their sons were by Carolyn's side as she tackled the fight of her life.

"I feel like I'm in good hands," she said. "We got a great little group here in this family. We all got each other."

Another generation

Standing among the scattered gloves, sticks and helmets on the ice after Little Caesars' 4-0 championship win, decades after his name was called as the Thrashers' top pick, there's no better place to be today for Stefan. But amid the celebration, another roller-coaster chapter commences for the family.

Next season, for the first time in some time, James Stefan will play for someone other than his father. Filled with NHL dreams of his own, the 15-year-old is bound for the Western Hockey League's Portland Winterhawks after signing as a free agent in November.

James had what one junior hockey scout described as a "breakout season," posting 95 points to lead Little Caesars in scoring. The scout noted that the younger Stefan had grown a bit since the previous season and started to improve his skating, leading to more success.

"My decision-making, my hockey IQ, the skill ... I think took a lot of that from him," James said when looking at his father's playing style. Patrik agreed: "I think I was quick, had good hockey sense, good passer. That's what you see in the game now. It's fast."

It's too soon to say where James' career will go next, but Patrik will be there guiding him. He moved to Oregon to be with James through his journey. The Stefans know the next steps are hard. It's something Carolyn thinks about, having seen the meat grinder that this career can be for anyone, even a No. 1 pick.

"I just hope he has a bit of what his father has in that he can let [pressure or criticism] just go right off his shoulders," she said. "He trusts his dad so much so I'm super grateful for that. But it's a different thing, watching your husband versus watching your kids."

"I had my career and I was only 27 years old [when I retired]," Patrik said. "But this gave me an opportunity to be around my kids, to help them out, to be around their hockey careers. That goes quickly. That age, 7 or 8 to 15, it's gone and you're never going to get it back. This injury happened and I wish I was still playing for sure, but I can do all these things here that make me really happy."

No, Patrik Stefan didn't go where he was supposed to. But he ended up exactly where he needed to be.