Much gets made of the money parents spend on their hockey-playing children. And while it is sometimes considerable sums given up to specialized coaching, training and equipment, there is another cost to a hockey career that gets paid by families all over the world.
William Nylander was born in Calgary because his father was playing hockey there. He grew up mostly in North America, as did his brother Alexander. Their family understood the sacrifices of travelling, giving up your choices and often living apart, all for the glory of pucks in nets.
Michael Nylander talked about the very rare chance to live in Toronto last year and see both his sons play all of the time. And fortune has favoured their family with the boys’ NHL teams only a short drive apart. It helps also, that as an ex-NHL player, Nylander senior doesn’t have a day job now that he’s not coaching with the Mississauga Steelheads.
For other families, the sacrifice is even tougher. Jory Carrick, father of Connor, talked about the road their family took to get one of his three hockey-playing sons into the NHL.
At sixteen, Connor left home near Chicago for the US National Team Development Program in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
The USNTDP is clearly working in America to develop their top quality players. There are two teams, the U18 and the U17, and they play a full schedule against other junior-aged teams and participate in tournaments while enjoying a level of coaching and training the average team can’t afford to provide. Auston Matthews is a graduate of that program. So are Jeremy Bracco, J.D. Greenway and Joseph Woll. The World Junior Champion team of 2017 is full of graduates of that program. And almost all of them had to go far from home to participate.
The program has been so successful it has been imitated in Slovakia, with the U20 Orange team that competes in the men’s league, and in Russia where a national team program is improving their elite level youngsters in a similar way.
In Canada, the proliferation of junior teams, many of them organizations that are run like cut-down NHL teams and consistently produce high-draft-pick players, means that a family might only be sending their teenager to a nearby town, not across the country—particularly for players in Ontario and Quebec. Connor Brown and Mitch Marner have spent their entire lives within emergency trip home distance.
The same holds true in Sweden and Finland, where the junior teams are part of the same club system that produces the men’s leagues, and even a move across the country isn’t very far. To get the best possible training for a kid who is showing potential, many European families make the choices the Nylanders made to have their kids come to Canada to play.
For Americans, it’s tough because it’s Michigan or Canada until a player is college age.
Jory Carrick says, “The hardest thing is watching your 16-year-old leave home.”
The solution for their family was that Deb Carrick and Connor’s two brothers moved to Michigan for two years while Jory commuted to see his family on the weekends. He calls it, “The best two years of their lives,” despite all of the sacrifices involved.
Connor Carrick played a year in the OHL rather than go to college, another tough choice, but one that worked out for the family.
All of these systems of turning talented children into preternaturally adult-seeming NHL players by 19 or 20 leave people behind. The Canadian junior system allows teams to operate that are terrible environments for young people and terrible hockey environments as well. The sheer surplus of talent in Canada makes the country wasteful with it, so bad teams stay bad.
The American system ensures that you have to be in a position to watch your teenager leave home, or take your home to him, in order to see him get the jump start on his career he needs.
If you live in Europe, you’re left to wonder if a gamble on a Canadian junior career is worth it. Many parents are saying yes to it, while the European leagues are decrying the number of players they are losing to North American hockey.
William Nylander isn’t the only Maple Leaf with a former pro for a father. Ernst Andersen talked about Frederik’s young life in Denmark, and hidden in the charming story of a kid who became a goalie because his team was so bad is the big surprise of Frederik’s career. He never left Denmark until he was 22 and he never left his home town until he was 20.
The very lucky few get to grow up like Andersen or Brown or Marner, but for most of the elite-level “kids” in the NHL, they’ve been on their own, at least in part, for years. And their families have had to watch that happen, sacrifice their own lives, and hope for the best.