Geoffrion continues NHL family legacy as Panthers exec

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After seven seasons with the Columbus Blue Jackets, four as a pro scout and three as assistant GM with Columbus’ AHL affiliate in Cleveland, the 32-year-old was a natural hire for the Panthers; Zito was also with the Blue Jackets for seven seasons.

Geoffrion is among several front-office additions to the Panthers in the past two months. Florida also hired Rick Dudley and Paul Fenton as senior advisers to Zito, Paul Krepelka and Brett Peterson as assistant GMs, Tom Bark as an assistant to the GM and Gregory Campbell as vice-president of player personnel and development.

“I’m excited to see what the future holds with guys like Billy (Zito) leading the charge,” Geoffrion said from his home in Chicago. “We have senior advisors in Rick and Paul, who have pedigree and have been around the game a long time … and we have some youth and a (potential) Hall of Fame coach in Joel Quenneville.”

Blake Geoffrion with the 2010 Hobey Baker Award, having that year been voted the best collegiate player in the U.S.

It’s the latest stop on the remarkable hockey road of Geoffrion, who arrived in the NHL with great promise out of the University of Wisconsin, winner of the 2010 Hobey Baker Award as the top collegiate player in the United States.

The Nashville Predators would need patience, having selected the forward in the second round (No. 56) of the 2006 NHL Draft. Geoffrion, born in Florida but raised in Nashville from age 1, played four years at Wisconsin before joining the Predators for 20 games in 2010-11, then 22 more in 2011-12, scoring a total of 11 points (six goals, five assists).

And then on Feb. 17, 2012, he was traded to the Montreal Canadiens with forward Robert Slaney and a second-round pick in the 2012 NHL Draft for defenseman Hal Gill and a conditional 2013 fifth-round pick. In effect, Geoffrion was going from his hometown team to the one of his family, becoming the fourth member to play for the NHL’s oldest, most storied franchise.

His great-grandfather, Howie Morenz, was one of the greatest players in the early history of the League, a three-time winner of the Stanley Cup with Montreal and three times awarded the Hart Trophy as the most valuable player in the NHL. Grandfather Bernie Geoffrion starred with the Canadiens in the 1950s and early 1960s, a six-time Cup champion who won the Calder Trophy as the top rookie in the League, the Hart and twice the Art Ross as the NHL leading point scorer. Geoffrion’s father, Danny, played 32 games for Montreal in 1979-80, more than three decades before Blake was acquired by trade.

From left, Blake Geoffrion’s great-grandfather Howie Morenz; grandfather Bernie Geoffrion; and father Danny.

“I believe, and I’ve always heard this from guys who really know the game, have followed it for a long time and know the history, that when you put the Canadiens jersey on, there’s a very special feeling, that you’re a part of history,” Blake Geoffrion said. “Maybe I’m a little biased, given how closely I followed the Canadiens and my family’s history with them. But I remember the first time I put the jersey on, it was, ‘Wow, this is pretty cool.’ It almost felt like my first NHL game again.”

Geoffrion vividly recalls his first game for the Canadiens, at the Tampa Bay Lightning on Feb. 28, 2012, robbed by goalie Mathieu Garon on an excellent chance. His first game at Bell Centre in Montreal was two days later against the Minnesota Wild.

“I tell any fan that if you can see only one game in the NHL, go to Montreal,” Geoffrion said. “The tradition and the history and aura that you feel in the building. … I compare the Bell Centre a bit to Augusta National and the Masters. That golf course is magical, like the Bell Centre is for me.”

He would score two goals in his 13 games with the Canadiens, on the road at the Vancouver Canucks and Carolina Hurricanes.

Blake Geoffrion in his 2006 NHL Draft photo, having been selected by the Nashville Predators, and at home in Chicago on Nov. 17, 2020 wearing his Montreal Canadiens jersey.

But Geoffrion’s playing career ended abruptly on Montreal ice on Nov. 9, 2012. Playing for Hamilton, then Montreal’s American Hockey League affiliate, he was hit by a Syracuse defenseman, his opponent’s skate crushing his head as they fell to the ice. Badly cut, Geoffrion skated off then collapsed with a depressed skull fracture, a critical injury that required life-saving surgery during the hours that followed. He retired as a player eight months later at age 25.

Geoffrion’s brush with death was a frightening reminder of two other family injuries suffered in Montreal. Morenz fractured his left leg in four places during a game at the Forum on Jan. 28, 1937, which ultimately led to his death that March 8 due to a coronary embolism. Twenty-one years to the day after Morenz’s injury, Bernie Geoffrion collapsed with a ruptured bowel during a Forum practice, rushed to life-saving surgery while his wife lay in a Montreal hospital hearing the news on the radio four days after having given birth to Danny.

Administered last rites, Bernie Geoffrion recovered that season to help lead the Canadiens to their third of five consecutive championships.

Bernie died of cancer on March 11, 2006 at age 75. Among the last to speak with him that day was Blake, who was in Montreal for his first Canadiens game, participating in the ceremony that day to retire and raise Bernie’s No. 5 to the Bell Centre rafters. Sixty-nine years to the day earlier, Morenz had lay in state at the Forum, his death at age 34 mourned by thousands of Montrealers and all of hockey.

The family of the late Bernie Geoffrion on Bell Centre ice on March 11, 2006 for the Montreal Canadiens’ retirement of Geoffrion’s No. 5.

“That’s pretty crazy, I didn’t know some of that stuff,” said Blake Geoffrion, who wore No. 57 with the Canadiens in honor of Bernie’s No. 5 and Morenz’s No. 7, which had been retired on Nov. 2, 1937.

Freshly retired in July 2013, Geoffrion was immediately steered to the Blue Jackets by Zito, who was then his agent, and hired as a scout by GM Jarmo Kekalainen. Little did he know that Zito would join Columbus a month later as Kekalainen’s assistant.

Geoffrion worked as Zito’s assistant with Cleveland of the AHL. It was within days of Zito being hired by the Panthers that they spoke again, and the fit in Florida proved ideal for each of them.

“I’ll be overseeing and running the pro scouting department,” Geoffrion said, “and I’ll also be a Swiss Army knife for Billy, which is what I’ve always been, helping wherever he needs it, being a bit of a right hand for him.”

His workout room at home is a reminder of his too-brief NHL playing days.

Blake Geoffrion with his first NHL goal puck, scored for the Nashville Predators at the Edmonton Oilers on March 1, 2011.

“My Predators and Canadiens jerseys, first NHL goal puck, first Canadiens goal, first Canadiens scoresheet and my hat-trick game plaque,” he said, having scored three times on three shots with Nashville against the Buffalo Sabres on March 20, 2011.

“It was a short-lived career,” he added with a laugh, “but I’ve got some good stuff. Now, I’m looking ahead. We have a lot of good pieces with the Panthers. 

“If we can get this boat going the right way and give it some momentum, I think the future is bright for the organization.”

Photos: Getty Images/HHoF Images/Katelyn Geoffrion/Montreal Canadiens

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