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Son of a gun, all grown up: Big-league fathers continue to produce NHL prospects

More and more kids of retired NHL players are being drafted into the league. It helps to have an inside edge.

One look at the roster for USA Hockey’s under-17 development team for the 2019-20 season tells a pretty interesting story. First, it’s really, really good. At forward, you have Tyler Boucher, Redmond Savage, Ryan St-Louis, Caden Brown and Colby Saganiuk. See where we’re going here? What’s compelling is not that four of those five players descend from Canadian bloodlines, but that all five of them have a father or grandfather who played in the NHL.

Which means the stands for their games will not only be chock full of NHL scouts scouring for 2021 draft talent, they’ll also be occupied by a group of former NHL players who combined for 3,142 games, scored 794 goals and 2,102 points, won a Stanley Cup and an Olympic gold medal and once had a shutout streak of five straight games. Brian Boucher, Brian Savage, Martin St-Louis, Jeff Brown and Rocky Saganiuk (Colby’s grandfather) all played in the best league in the world, and all of them were pretty good. That doesn’t guarantee their progeny will follow in their footsteps, but it gives them an enormous leg up in pursuing their NHL dreams.

The same goes for Nolan Foote (son of Adam, brother of Callan), Alex Turcotte (son of Alfie) and Ryan Johnson (son of Craig), three players who are slated to go in the top two rounds of this year’s draft. The fact remains the vast majority of players in the NHL are sons of men who never skated in the league, but kids of former players are parlaying their advantages into getting looks like never before.

Since 2002, a total of 75 players whose fathers played in the NHL have been drafted, highlighted by the 2016 draft that featured the sons of eight players, including the offspring of Keith Tkachuk (Matthew), Michael Nylander (Alex), Jeff Brown (Logan), Jeff Chychrun (Jakob) and Brian Bellows (Kieffer). In three of the past four drafts, at least five sons of NHLers have been taken.

All of which raises the question, is this proliferation a product of nature or nurture? There’s nothing to suggest that sons of former players are bigger, stronger, faster or more talented than those whose dads are butchers, bakers and candlestick makers, which nudges us more toward nurture. Or as one NHL scout said when asked what he sees in sons of NHL players compared to other prospects: “Incredible wealth.”

There’s no doubt that NHL players who made many millions of dollars have the financial wherewithal to give their kids the best on- and off-ice training and, in many cases, move to the cities of their choice to expose them to the best competition. (Savage, for example, moved from Phoenix to Austria when he took over the prestigious Red Bull Hockey Academy, then relocated to Detroit to give his two sons the best hockey competition.) But CEOs can do the same thing for their kids, and even those who don’t have the financial means are often willing to make incredible sacrifices to make up for it.

Where the sons of former NHLers get their biggest advantage is in the fact they’re constantly around the game at the highest level. They play mini-sticks in the bowels of the arena with other players’ kids, hang around the family lounge and have access to the world’s best hockey minds. So by the time they’re in their teens, they’re not the least bit intimidated by the NHL and have spent their lives integrating themselves into it. Canadiens center Max Domi, for example, chose to follow in the path of Mats Sundin rather than his own father. ‘Uncle Mats’ still sends Domi workouts and regularly texts tips to him. Huge advantage.

When longtime Winnipeg Jets pro scout Jack Birch did his PhD thesis on this very subject at McMaster University in the 1980s, he came to the conclusion that players who had familial connections to NHL players had an 18-percent better chance of making it than players who didn’t. “They weren’t bigger, better, stronger, they weren’t more skilled,” Birch said. “It had to do with socialization. They were around general managers, they were around coaches, they were around other players. So when it came time for them to get to the next level, they’ve already seen everything happen in the past. Mark Howe knew what it was going to take to be a professional.”

Birch did acknowledge there is a built-in bias to all of this. When a scout shows up to a rink without a familiarity with the 40 players on the ice, one thing that will get his attention is seeing the name of a former NHL player. That won’t necessarily give the youngster an advantage relative to comparing his skills to those of his peers, but it will give him an all-important first look. “Oh yeah, I do it all the time,” one NHL scout acknowledged. “I just did it at a USHL game this afternoon. I saw a kid and the first thing I asked the coach was, ‘Is he any relation to so-and-so?’ It turned out he wasn’t, but that impression gets put in your mind.”

Another scout pointed out that sometimes the impression can be deceiving. It might prompt a team to draft a player higher than he deserves because they’re hoping the qualities his father showed will emerge, and sometimes they never do. “I think there are teams that are biased that way,” a scout said, “and it’s to their detriment, in my opinion.”

Savage retired at the end of the 2005-06 season when his youngest son was just three years old, but he’s convinced that having his son at the rink to watch him finish his career with the Philadelphia Flyers was instrumental for him. Savage and his wife had a feeling that would likely be his last year, so they took Redmond and his older brother, Ryan, to every game. That not only allowed his sons a snapshot of their father as an NHLer but also ingrained the game into their minds at an early and impressionable age.

“Red might have only been three years old, but he was at every game, and he watched a lot of hockey when he was younger, even if he didn’t think he was watching it,” Savage said. “I’ve got to think that helps. Then you have your parents giving you the right drills in the driveway and the frozen ponds. When we’re watching NHL games together, I say, ‘Hey, did you see that play?’ ‘No, I didn’t.’ And then we’ll rewind it and I’ll say, ‘Did you see how he broke to the net, stick was on the ice…whatever.’ And they get it. The non-hockey parent doesn’t have that in his repertoire.”

Players who have decent NHL careers tend to retire in their mid-30s with a lot of money and time on their hands. And with kids at the age when they start playing, a lot of them get involved with coaching. In Tampa Bay, Vinny Lecavalier is coaching an under-8 team that includes his son and the sons of Lightning coach Jon Cooper and defenseman Dan Girardi. One of the reasons why St. Louis has become such a hockey hotbed is that former Blues players Tkachuk, Brown, Al MacInnis and Basil McRae got involved in minor hockey. Not only did their own kids benefit, but players such as Clayton Keller received the best coaching and tutelage.

Back to that USA Hockey under-17 team for next season: another one of the players trying out was Chase Stillman, son of former NHLer Cory. He didn’t make the team but was drafted 25th overall by the OHL’s Sudbury Wolves, where his father just happens to be the coach. Luke Hughes, whose father, Jim, was an NHL assistant coach and director of player personnel, and whose brothers, Quinn and Jack, went through the U.S. program, will be on defense. And Jackson Hughes (not to be confused with Jack), the son of player agent Kent Hughes, is also on the team.

“We tend to gravitate toward excellence, right?” one scout said. “Anyone who plays one game in the NHL is excellent. The more you play, the higher level of excellence. And when you see the son of excellence out there, you tend to get a little excited.”

LIKE FATHER, LIKE SON?

Since 2002, at least a couple of players have been drafted in Rounds 1 or 2 whose fathers played in the NHL.

2002
1. Eric Nystrom, 10th overall
Father: Bob Nystrom, 900 NHL games

2. Alex Steen, 24th overall
Father: Thomas Steen, 950 games

2003
1. Robert Nilsson, 15th overall
Father: Kent Nilsson, 553 games

2. Zach Parise, 17th overall
Father: Jean-Paul Parise, 890 games

3. Jeff Tambellini, 27th overall
Father: Steve Tambellini, 553 games

4. Patrick Eaves, 29th overall
Father: Mike Eaves, 324 games

5. Danny Richmond, 31st overall
Father: Steve Richmond, 159 games

6. Colin McDonald, 51st overall
Father: Gerry McDonald, 8 games

7. B.J. Crombeen, 54th overall
Father: Mike Crombeen, 475 games

2004
1. Chris Bourque, 33rd overall
Father: Ray Bourque, 1,612 games

2. Logan Stephenson, 35th overall
Father: Bob Stephenson, 18 games

2005
1. Tyler Plante, 32nd overall
Father: Cam Plante, 2 games

2. Brendan Mikkelson, 31st overall
Father: Bill Mikkelson, 147 games

3. Taylor Chorney, 36th overall
Father: Marc Chorney, 210 games

4. Paul Stastny, 44th overall
Father: Peter Stastny, 977 games

2006
1. Nick Foligno, 28th overall
Father: Mike Foligno, 1,018 games

2. Blake Geoffrion, 56th overall
Father: Dan Geoffrion, 111 games

2007
1. Sam Gagner, 6th overall
Father: Dave Gagner, 946 games

2. Brandon Sutter, 11th overall
Father: Brent Sutter, 1,111 games

3. Alex Plante, 15th overall
Father: Cam Plante, 2 games

4. Logan MacMillan, 19th overall
Father: Bob MacMillan, 753 games

2008
1. Colin Wilson, 7th overall
Father: Carey Wilson, 552 games

2. Anton Gustafsson, 21st overall
Father: Bengt-Ake Gustafsson, 629 games

3. Philip McRae, 33rd overall
Father: Basil McRae, 576 games

4. Luke Adam, 44th overall
Father: Russ Adam, 8 games

5. Maxime Sauve, 47th overall
Father: Jean-Francois Sauve, 290 games

2009
1. Tim Erixon, 23rd overall
Father: Jan Erixon, 556 games

2. Dylan Olsen, 28th overall
Father: Daryl Olsen, 1 game

3. Carter Ashton, 29th overall
Father: Brent Ashton, 998 games

4. Landon Ferraro, 32nd overall
Father: Ray Ferraro, 1,258 games

2010
1. Jarred Tinordi, 22nd overall
Father: Mark Tinordi, 663 games

2. Dalton Smith, 34th overall
Father: Derrick Smith, 537 games

3. Christian Thomas, 40th overall
Father: Steve Thomas, 1,235 games

2011
1. Sean Couturier, 8th overall
Father: Sylvain Couturier, 33 games

2. Connor Murphy, 20th overall
Father: Gord Murphy, 862 games

3. Tyler Biggs, 22nd overall
Father: Don Biggs, 12 games

4. Vladislav Namestnikov, 27th overall
Father: Yevgeni Namestnikov, 43 games

5. David Musil, 31st overall
Father: Frantisek Musil, 797 games

6. Alexander Ruuttu, 51st overall
Father: Christian Ruuttu, 621 games

2012
1. Griffin Reinhart, 4th overall
Father: Paul Reinhart, 648 games

2. Henrik Samuelsson, 27th overall
Father: Ulf Samuelsson, 1,080 games

3. Stefan Matteau, 29th overall
Father: Stephane Matteau, 848 games

4. Lukas Sutter, 39th overall
Father: Rich Sutter, 874 games

2013
1. Elias Lindholm, 5th overall
Father: Mikael Lindholm, 18 games

2. Max Domi, 12th overall
Father: Tie Domi, 1,020 games

3. Kerby Rychel, 19th overall
Father: Warren Rychel, 406 games

4. Andre Burakovsky, 23rd overall
Father: Robert Burakovsky, 23 games

2014
1. Sam Reinhart, 2nd overall
Father: Paul Reinhart, 648 games

2. William Nylander, 8th overall
Father: Michael Nylander, 920 games

3. Brendan Perlini, 12th overall
Father: Fred Perlini, 8 games

4. Kasperi Kapanen, 22nd overall
Father: Sami Kapanen, 831 games

5. Brendan Lemieux, 31st overall
Father: Claude Lemieux, 1,215 games

6. Ryan MacInnis, 43rd overall
Father: Al MacInnis, 1,416 games

7. Ryan Donato, 56th overall
Father: Ted Donato, 796 games

2015
1. Jake DeBrusk, 14th overall
Father: Louie DeBrusk, 401 games

2. Jansen Harkins, 47th overall
Father: Todd Harkins, 48 games

3. Rasmus Andersson, 53rd overall
Father: Peter Andersson, 47 games

2016
1. Matthew Tkachuk, 6th overall
Father: Keith Tkachuk, 1,201 games

2. Alexander Nylander, 8th overall
Father: Michael Nylander, 920 games

3. Logan Brown, 11th overall
Father: Jeff Brown, 747 games

4. Jakob Chychrun, 16th overall
Father: Jeff Chychrun, 262 games

5. Kieffer Bellows, 19th overall
Father: Brian Bellows, 1,188 games

6. Max Jones, 24th overall
Father: Brad Jones, 148 games

7. Tage Thompson, 26th overall
Father: Brent Thompson, 121 games

8. Jonathan Dahlen, 42nd overall
Father: Ulf Dahlen, 966 games

2017
1. Nolan Patrick, 2nd overall
Father: Steve Patrick, 250 games

2. Lias Andersson, 7th overall
Father: Niklas Andersson, 164 games

3. Cal Foote, 14th overall
Father: Adam Foote, 1,154 games

4. Josh Norris, 19th overall
Father: Dwayne Norris, 20 games

5. Jake Leschyshyn, 62nd overall
Father: Curtis Leschyshyn, 1,033 games

2018
1. Brady Tkachuk, 4th overall
Father: Keith Tkachuk, 1,201 games

2. Mattias Samuelsson, 32nd overall
Father: Kjell Samuelsson, 813 games

3. Jesse Ylonen, 35th overall
Father: Juha Ylonen, 341 games

4. Jack Drury, 42nd overall
Father: Ted Drury, 414 games

5. Kody Clark, 47th overall
Father, Wendel Clark, 793 games

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