It was 2003 or 2004—the year doesn’t matter much—and Joe Pavelski and Matt Fornataro were teenagers playing golf with Waterloo Black Hawks teammates at Sunnyside Golf and Country Club in Waterloo, Iowa. It was a close match, Fornataro recalls: back and forth, with plenty of smack talk.
“Then the final three holes, Joe just went silent,” Fornataro says of his childhood friend. “The assassin came out.”
Pavelski birdied the 422-yard par-four 16th.
He did the same on the 202-yard par-three 17th.
Finally, the 368-yard par-four 18th.
“It was just dart, birdie. Dart, birdie. Dart, birdie,” Fornataro remembers. “Then he just turned and flashed that classic Pavs smile.”
If you’ve watched the Dallas Stars, you’ve seen that “classic Pavs smile.” It’s confidence personified, a bolt of radiant joy.
“It’s that ‘gotcha’ look he can’t help,” Fornataro says. “Joe doesn’t like to gloat. He’s not a showboat, but you see it after he scores a goal. We see it on the golf course. It’s an inability to hide internal happiness.”
Pavelski has found a lot of internal happiness on the ice rink. At 39, he’s entering his 18th NHL season and fifth with Dallas. Age has shown no sign of slowing him down. Last season, he was third on the Stars with 77 points. A similar campaign this year could place him as high as sixth all-time among American-born NHL players.
And much of Pavelski’s on-ice success mirrors his image on the golf course.
Pavelski is both a tactician and a technician in his preparation. His work in front of the net—he’s widely considered one of the NHL’s best at tipping pucks—was developed through decades of mastering the mundane act of tracking shots before and after practice. It’s similar fare on the links, where he has tinkered with his swing for years, always searching for ways to improve his ball striking.
“It’s like watching him practice hockey,” says Stars goalie Jake Oettinger. “Same approach: he drills so far into the details. And then you see the payoff.”
That payoff is a place on the short list of the best non-pro golfers in sports. In the 2021-22 NHLPA poll, his peers voted him most likely to go pro in another sport—golf, naturally. He has a plus handicap, which he says fluctuates between plus-0.5 and plus-1, meaning that Pavelski is routinely shooting under par. This summer Pavelski finished third in the American Century Golf Championship, a celebrity pro-am held each summer in Lake Tahoe, behind Steph Curry and Mardy Fish. In 2022 he finished second, losing to Tony Romo on the second playoff hole. And if the Stanley Cup is what drives Pavelski during the NHL season, golf is what energizes him in the summer.
“He’s close—he really wants to win that thing,” says Fornataro, who serves as Pavelski’s caddie in the event. “He’ll do it soon. Joe was excited to get into that tournament. He builds toward it each summer.”
Pavelski started playing golf as a 9-year-old in Wisconsin. His dad, who is not an avid golfer, signed him up for Friday afternoon lessons, and Joe would play three holes. He took to it well enough, and after a couple of years, that morphed into a junior membership. Soon the elder Pavelski would drop Joe off at the course in the morning in the Wisconsin summers, and he would play 18 if not 36.
“I also played a lot of Little League—played a lot of baseball, actually—but my freshman year of high school, I had the option of playing golf or baseball at school,” Pavelski recalls. “I picked golf.”
Golf blossomed into his second athletic passion, alongside hockey. The difference is that, on the course, Pavelski peaked in high school. That’s when he shot his personal-best, a 65, at Stevens Point Country Club. He also won the annual Channel 7 tournament as a high school senior, shooting a 67 on the second day to win the event.
“There are days you might play good now, might shoot a 67 or 68, and you think, ‘Maybe I left a couple out there,’” Pavelski says. “But you have to remember how often you played back then, playing every day, that’s really the difference in getting that low.”
Pavelski doesn’t play golf every day, but it is part of his in-season routine, dating to his time with the San Jose Sharks. When Pavelski entered free agency in 2019, he whittled down his options to the Stars and the Tampa Bay Lightning. Both had stellar hockey teams—Dallas and Tampa would meet in the Stanley Cup Final the following season—but it didn’t hurt that the cities had year-round golf climates, too.
Shortly after putting down roots in Dallas, he joined Maridoe Golf Club in Carrollton. He’s typically on the course two to three times a week, if not more. Romo is a frequent opponent.
Pavelski’s influence has rubbed off on Oettinger, who sports a 2-handicap. Like Pavelski, Oettinger is from the Midwest, and he grew up with golf as a summer sport. He, too, has joined Maridoe, and is on the course “at least twice a week.”
“It’s an escape from the rink, something to focus on athletically outside of hockey,” Oettinger says. “It helps you clear your head.”
The goalie says he and Pavelski play together more frequently on the road, where, as long as the weather allows, players tee it up to pass the time between games. Pavelski is often the one organizing team outings: thanks to his cachet on the course, he has connections at many of the best clubs in NHL cities. He believes the benefits spill over onto the ice.
“I think it’s one of the great ways to build a hockey team,” he says. “You get to know guys so well, learn about each other, you get to chat a lot about life, everything, when playing. I think early road trips are always such an important part of a season. You get away, together, and a lot of those relationships are further formed on the golf course.”
Of course, Pavelski admits he loves the competitive element, too. Sometimes that’s a friendly bet with teammates. When he has more time to prepare, Pavelski relishes tournament golf: the pressure that comes with it, the preparation it requires.
“If you’ve got something like that, a competition coming up, it makes you dial in more for those reps,” he says. “It gives you something more to push for.”
Similar to how he approaches hockey?
“Yeah, I think that’s fair,” Pavelski says. “You drive into the little things in practice because that’s how you’ll succeed when it matters in a game.”
Those who have played golf with Pavelski, including Oettinger, Fornataro, and other NHLers D Magazine touched base with for this story, believe he’d be even better if he were able to dial in fully to golf. Like, say, when his hockey career ends? While Pavelski has broken hockey’s traditional aging curve—his career-best in points came at age 38—someday soon, he’ll no longer have a job at the rink. Could a run at a second pro career be in the offing?
“Guys who are pros, those guys are good, and they are that good for a reason,” Pavelski says. “But I’ll probably enter some more local tournaments, state tournaments, something like that. I think golf is always something that will always be part of my life.”