Joe Pavelski was once criticized for a lack of speed. A lack of strength. A question mark on the scoring front.
Those criticisms dropped his NHL stock, where he waited until the seventh round (205th overall) of the 2003 NHL Entry Draft to hear his name called by the San Jose Sharks.
But Pavelski proved that critics don’t always accurately predict the future of success. The elite center is now in his 13th NHL season and serving as the Sharks’ captain, helping put them in the conversation as a Stanley Cup contender once again this season.
So what made the difference? How did Pavelski get to be one of the best in the game after being doubted? While he notes every level of hockey played its role, his two years in junior hockey with the Waterloo Black Hawks of the United States Hockey League (2002-04) were true game changers.
“I went in very nervous, wondering if I could cut it at that level,” the Plover, Wisconsin native recalled. “It was such a critical time in my hockey development—it’s a critical time in every hockey player’s development (age 17-20)—that it really made a difference.”
Despite early naysayers, Pavelski showed plenty of skill in his game early on with the success to go along with it.
“I had a lot of aspects of my game always questioned, primarily my speed and strength,” Pavelski explained. “So coming out of high school and getting into the junior league, we played more games and I was able to pick up my speed, really work on my strength and develop all of those aspects of my game.”
The junior hockey route wasn’t his first choice. As a kid, he grew up idolizing the Stevens Point Area Senior High School varsity team. In 2002, he lifted the Panthers to a Wisconsin State Hockey Championship. Once his high school season ended, he went on to play with Team Wisconsin where an additional 20-30 games and tournament play helped him get recognized by junior hockey squads.
“That was the first time I really started to consider the junior hockey route,” Pavelski said. “In juniors, you’re on the ice so much more and sharing the ice with more high-end players. Everybody’s trying to move up another level, and everyone’s committed to seeing how far they can take this sport.”
For Pavelski, junior hockey was the natural stop before college hockey. While he went to Waterloo with expectations of developing and performing well, his eye was to earn a Division I college offer.
In his first season with the Black Hawks, he amassed 36 goals and 69 points through 60 games.
Then the University of Wisconsin came calling.
“I knew the University of Wisconsin was one of the top places that I wanted to go,” said the two-time Olympian. “I went to a few different places, but when I took my initial visit to Wisconsin, it was the last one and I think within the first 10 minutes that I was there, I knew it was the place.”
But then-Badger coach Mike Eaves and his staff wanted Pavelski to continue his development for one more season in Waterloo before joining them in Madison.
“It was tough, because you want to go (DI) right away,” Pavelski said. “I wanted to go and I knew I just had to have patience before I went there. I trusted the people around me and the end result of playing another year of juniors was by far one of my better decisions.”
Pavelski saw his game excel during the second half of his first season; by year two, he was even better.
“When I came back that next year, I had higher expectations,” said Pavelski, who added another 51 points (21 goals, 31 assists) in his second junior hockey season. “I was working hard and trying to just be a better player and find some success and confidence.”
That hard work paid dividends, earning Pavelski the 2004 USHL Dave Tyler Junior Player of the Year Award, and helped clinch Waterloo’s only Clark Cup Championship the same season.
“That was pretty special,” he said. “It was such a fun team to be on. I had a lot of great friends and memories from that team. We knew we had a good team, but we didn’t get into the last few days of the season. We were the 8-seed, but we just went on a roll and played our best hockey. It’s always fun winning championships with the team, but that city had an awesome rink, fans were loud, so it was pretty special to win there.”
Pavelski’s winning tradition, and that extra year of development Wisconsin encouraged him to take in the USHL, powered the Badgers to the 2006 NCAA national championship.
And while his journey has been paved with plenty of championship rings along the way, he still credits the development he’s learned during his critical youth years in Waterloo as how he’s been able to achieve so much of it.
“You’re always trying to be an adult and mature a little bit,” Pavelski said. “In junior hockey, you grow as a person, and that’s one of the biggest things. It’s the development on the hockey, but also as a person and the maturity that comes with it. It’s a huge step and one that I’m glad I took.”