Entrepreneurial defenseman Nathan Paetsch is determined to be successful on and off the ice.
Story and photo by Mark Newman
Griffins defenseman Nathan Paetsch was born in LeRoy, Saskatchewan, a small town located in the western prairies of Canada – an environment that would exert a big influence over his life.
“It made me the person I am today,” said Paetsch, who has fond memories of growing up in a town of 400 people. “It was a great place to grow up.
“My dad had a key to the rink down the road, so I had the opportunity to skate whenever I wanted. It was just a safe feeling. I’d get home from school and play street hockey for hours. You knew when dinner time was and you just went home.”
Paetsch, who has an older sister, spent most of his formative years being coached by his electrician father, Rich, a demanding disciplinarian who had plenty of advice for his son.
“He definitely pushed me,” he recalled. “Like most of his generation, he was old school. He was a strong voice in my development and he helped build my character.”
Paetsch ended up playing most of his junior hockey in Moose Jaw, which was a good three-hour drive south of LeRoy.
He spent four full seasons with the Warriors before pursuing a pro career with the Buffalo Sabres, who selected him in the seventh round (202nd overall) of the 2003 NHL Entry Draft.
Paetsch was strictly a defenseman until he turned pro. When he arrived in Rochester, he found that the AHL team had an abundance of seasoned defenseman. Doug Janik was the youngest, and he was already in his third season.
“It didn’t look like I’d make it on defense to start, so I just lied to my coach and told him, ‘Yeah, I can play forward.’ So I ended up playing 50 games at forward my first season after having never played a lick there, except for shinny.”
He laughs at the memory. He eventually told his coach the truth. “In the end, it worked out well for both of us,” said Paetsch, who still plays softball in the summer with Randy Cunneyworth, who was the head coach in Rochester from 2000-08.
Playing forward proved to be beneficial to Paetsch’s development.
“It gave me more confidence in the offensive zone,” he said. “There are situations where you want to jump into the play, and having played forward it makes it a lot easier to be confident when the opportunity presents itself.”
Paetsch said it wasn’t an easy transition.
“I found that it was tough when I was in tight, in down low,” he said. “On defense, the play is usually in front of you when you’re carrying the puck up the ice, but down low, it isn’t easy to stick handle in tight spaces.”
Paetsch got his introduction to the NHL during his third season in Rochester. He had an assist during his only appearance in the regular season, then was recalled for Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals against Carolina in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
“Nothing ever compared volume-wise to that game,” he said. “The third period was deafening. We were leading 2-1 going into the third period, but after they scored twice to tie it and go ahead, you couldn’t hear a thing.”
Paetsch spent the next four seasons in Buffalo until he was dealt at the trade deadline to Columbus.
“Leaving the organization was definitely hard because I had spent my entire pro career with them,” he said. “I can’t thank the Buffalo organization enough. I still have great friends there, from players to management.”
After spending the 2010-11 season in the AHL, Paetsch headed to Wolfsburg, Germany. “Going to Europe was a change of pace and it was something I wanted to experience,” he said. “But after a year, I was excited to come back.”
Paetsch was happy to come to Grand Rapids this season. “Obviously I’ve been around a while, so I know a lot of people who have played in this organization, and they had nothing but great things to say about it,” he said.
As a veteran, he embraced a leadership role.
“I learned from a great group of veterans when I started in the Buffalo system, guys like Chris Taylor, who is now an assistant coach and played until he was almost 40,” Paetsch said.
“I learned a ton from guys like him, how they came to the rink every day, how they prepared, how they kept the right attitude. Now that I’m a vet, I hope to provide the same guidance and leadership. I’d like to help by leaving my legacy with the young guys on this team.”
That includes financial advice.
“As a hockey player, you start earning your money at such an early age that you don’t really grasp the concept of saving for retirement,” Paetsch said. “Guys get all this money when they’re 20 and then all of a sudden they’re 26 and the paycheck is no longer there. It’s something you have to think about.”
It’s something that Paetsch, who has a strong entrepreneurial streak, has thought a lot about.
Paetsch is involved in a partnership that owns five commercial properties and the Marina Restaurant & Bar in Rochester. In addition, he is part-owner of a company that specializes in geographic information system (GIS) mapping for the gas and electric industries.
“I’ve been playing hockey since I was four years old – it’s been my business my whole life,” Paetsch said. “At the same time, unfortunately, I know I can’t play forever.
“When the day (to retire) comes, maybe I’ll stay in hockey and become a coach, but the plan is to have somewhere to go when this career ends. I want to do whatever is best for my family.”
His family includes his wife Jaclyn and son, Kellen, who turned two in December.
“Becoming a father was the most amazing experience. Life has gotten so much richer,” said Paetsch, who celebrated the birth of daughter Mira Ann in early March.
“Coming home from the rink now is so exciting. I can’t wait to get home and see that big smile of his. He’s got so much energy and even though he’s only 2, he loves his hockey.”
Watching his son run around with his little hockey stick has provided inspiration.
“For me, it’s made playing so much better,” Paetsch said. “He comes to the games and his eyes light up and he smiles ear to ear. It makes what I’m doing feel so more special when my son can watch. It makes me want to play that much longer so he can be a part of it.”
Paetsch, who turns 30 on March 30, feels he still has several good years ahead. “I love coming to the rink every day,” he said after a recent practice. “My plan is to keep playing until they have to rip the skates off my feet.”