A Brief History of a Hockey Family

TORONTO - JANUARY 13:  Tom Fitzgerald #12 of the Toronto Maple Leafs poses with his family during a ceremony before the game against the Calgary Flames at Air Canada Centre on January 13, 2004 in Toronto, Ontario. The Leafs defeated the Flames 4-1.(Photo By Dave Sandford/Getty Images)
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This week, Ryan and Casey Fitzgerald will take the ice for Boston College in the 2016 Frozen Four. Their father Tom played for 17 years in the NHL for the Islanders, Panthers, Avalanche, Predators, Blackhawks, Maple Leafs and Bruins. We got them all together recently to answer a simple question: What makes a hockey family?

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Casey:
One of my most vivid memories as a kid is seeing my dad walk into the house with stitches all over his face. Four different colors of stitches. A red one on his chin. Yellow one in his eyebrow. Blue one on his cheek. I thought it was the coolest thing. I thought he was a badass.

Ryan:
I remember when one of his stitches burst. That was kind of gross. But other than that, I think we were used to it.

Tom:
I never remember you guys saying, “Oh my God, what happened?” It was always, “Hey, dad, how was your day?”  

Ryan:
All our friends were so in awe of dad. You know, big tough hockey player. Always walking around with that badass look on his face. Our buddies were so scared of him. Meanwhile, Casey and I would be getting ready for school and he’d be dancing around the house in his underwear at 8 a.m.

Casey:
I wish the world could see our dad’s iTunes playlist.

Ryan:
In high school, he’d hop in the car to drive us to hockey and say, “What’s up, bro? You want me to put my music on?” Then he pops on the Taylor Swift. He’s like, “Oh yeah bro, I work out to this song.”

Tom:
I … what can I say? I am a fan of Taylor Swift. She makes an appearance on my iTunes. Sure.

OTTAWA, CANADA - JANUARY 30: Tom Fitzgerald #12 of the Boston Bruins fights with Dany Heatley #15 of the Ottawa Senators during their NHL game on January 30, 2006 at the Scotiabank Place in Ottawa, Canada. The Boston Bruins defeated the Ottawa Senators 5-0. (Photo by Phillip MacCallum/Getty Images) *** Local Caption *** Tom Fitzgerald;Dany Heatley

Casey:
I just laugh at my dad now, but when we were kids, he was like a superhero. We moved to Nashville when we were little, and dad was the captain. When I was five, I would actually take pre-game naps with him.

Tom:
Two to three is naptime in the NHL. That’s standard. But when you’re a dad, this can be challenging. You have to have a very understanding wife. Your kids might be running around like crazy wanting to play, and you’re like “Alright honey, it’s two. Shutting it down here.”

Casey:
I was excited to nap, personally.

Tom:
I had a little pullout couch in the basement and Casey would come down with his blanket. He was very professional about it. Then around four, it was off to the rink.

Casey:
I remember running around the Predators arena like it was our playground.

Ryan:
We used to play mini sticks in the locker room and in the wives’ room.

Casey:
Kimmo Timonen would play with us. He’d actually get down on his knees and play for real. I didn’t think anything of it back then. Now, I’d be freaking out.

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Ryan:
You would think that we’d be so excited to get to be at all these NHL games, but we were totally blind to it at six, seven years old. All we cared about was playing knee hockey.

Tom:
People probably think, Oh their dad played in the NHL. These kids must have been like little hockey machines. But that wasn’t the case at all. I remember when Ryan was 4 years —

Ryan:
Here we go.

Tom:
I’m telling it. Ryan was 4 years old. Mite hockey tryouts. I was on the road. So I called my wife at the rink for an update on how we was doing.

She says, “Well, the coach told them all to skate down and back a few times.”

I’m on the edge of my seat.

I say, “Yeah? What happened?”

“Well, Ryan went down and back. And he was doing great.”

“And?”

“Well, when he got back to the goal line, he skated right over to me at the glass and said, ‘I done.’”

I done. That’s what he said. My wife just smiled and said, “Okay.” He got undressed and she took him to McDonald’s.

Ryan:
I was four. What do you want from me?

CHESTNUT HILL, MA - NOVEMBER 3: Ryan Fitzgerald #19 of the Boston College Eagles skates against the Massachusetts Minutemen during NCAA hockey at Kelley Rink on November 3, 2015 in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts. The Eagles won 7-0. (Photo by Richard T Gagnon/Getty Images)

Tom:
And then Casey was a different story. Casey’s first hockey camp, they had the kids skating through cones. They didn’t even let them use sticks yet. So Casey skates through the little obstacle course, and he beats all the other kids down the ice. So he picks up the last orange cone, puts it on his head, and starts skating around the ice.

Casey:
He’s laughing about this stuff now, but when we were little, we was the ultimate Hockey Dad. He was so intense, in a funny way.

Tom:
You have to understand, hockey in Nashville was a new thing. These guys they had coaching weren’t exactly experienced. One game, I saw Ryan just hanging out at the blue line. He was cherry picking. So I said, “Ryan, what are you doing? You have to come back and help your team.”

Ryan:
Coach Rick told me stay there. You said listen to your coaches.

Tom:
I finally had to be like, “Ryan, buddy, your dad is a hockey player, right? I think Coach Rick is a mechanic.”

LOWELL, MA - FEBRUARY 27: Casey Fitzgerald #5 of the Boston College Eagles skates against the Massachusetts Lowell River Hawks during NCAA hockey at the Tsongas Center on February 27, 2016 in Lowell, Massachusetts. The River Hawks won 3-1. (Photo by Richard T Gagnon/Getty Images)

Casey:
I remember we used to play the NHL video games and we would be cracking up, because dad’s character looked absolutely nothing like him. He was the captain in Nashville. He was on the billboards and stuff, so I guess I thought he was a superstar.

Ryan:
Back then, in NHL 2002 and 2003, only the superstars had their real faces.

Casey:
Whenever a new NHL came out, we would go into the replay mode and zoom in on dad’s face to see what he looked like. He always looked super weird. It was hilarious.

Ryan:
Iginla looked like Iginla. Thornton looked like Thornton. Dad looked like a random dude. We’d joke with him, “Nope, still not good enough to have a real face.”

Casey:
One year, they bumped up his rating a few points, and I was so excited. I’m like, “Dad! Look! You’re an 82 now.”

Tom:
My skillset wasn’t really tailored to video games I don’t think. Is there a button to block shots?

Casey:
We would switch off who got to be the Predators and play as dad. Whenever he would get hit and his guy would go flying, we’d try to show him the replay. “Dad, check it out. You got lit up.”

Ryan:
Whenever YouTube came out, I searched for some highlights of dad. Not much came up. Then one day I was watching Top 10 Big Hits or whatever, and all of a sudden I see my dad dumping the puck in — huge shocker — and he gets rocked so hard that he slides down the full length of the bench before hitting the stanchion. It was such a weird feeling, because this is my dad, and I was like, “Yes! You just got BLOWN UP. That was awesome!”

Tom:
I retired with my own teeth, knock on wood. That’s an accomplishment.

Casey:
When he retired in ‘06, I was 9. Ryan was 11. We finally stopped moving around. We pretty much settled in Boston, which was cool.

Ryan:
Dad had some time on his hands, so he started coming with us to tournaments. That was a really fun time. A lot of long car rides. A lot of knee hockey in the hotels, sneaking off to the pool when we weren’t supposed to be.

Casey:
Dad’s whole thing was, he didn’t want to coach us. But that didn’t stop him from trying to school us all the time.

Ryan:
“Keep it simple.”

Casey:
“Keep it simple. Work hard. Keep it simple.”

Tom:
That was a great time. I always felt bad how much I moved the kids around over the years. Back then, there was no FaceTime. When you were on the road, you were just gone. It’s not easy on any family. Finally, we had some normalcy.

Ryan:
Then Pittsburgh called.

Tom:
It was 2009. The Penguins had just fired Michel Therrien near the end of the season. They were bringing in Dan Bylsma to replace him. I got a call from Ray Shero, the GM, who I knew well from Nashville. Ray said, “Hey Tom, I could use you here. You want to come help us out?”

Ryan:
We were all sitting around the dinner table, and dad’s like, “So … I’ve been asked to be an assistant coach in Pittsburgh. If I do it, I’m going to be gone a lot.”

Tom:
They weren’t even in the playoffs at this point.

Casey:
I was really skeptical. I knew that meant endless hours on the road.

Ryan:
My first thought was: Crosby and Malkin. Awesome.

Casey:
Dad said he would only do it if everybody agreed it was a good idea. Mom was amazing about it. I think she knew how much it meant to him.

Tom:
I said, “So… what do we think?”

Ryan:
Right away, I said, “Yes! Yes! Yes!”

Casey:
I said, “Can I visit you?” Dad said sure. So I said, “Can I go on the ice?” Dad said sure. So I said, “Alright, you can go.”

Ryan:
From that day on, we became the biggest Penguins fans on earth.

Pittsburgh Penguins center Sidney Crosby talks with assistant coaches Tom Fitzgerald, center, and Mike Yeo, right, during practice in Pittsburgh, Monday, June 8, 2009. The Penguins will play the Detroit Red Wings Tuesday in Game 6 of the NHL hockey Stanley Cup finals. The Red Wings lead the series 3-2. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

Tom:
I repeat — I never really wanted to coach. But Ray thought I could help them. So when I got to Pittsburgh, it was like the first day of school. I was so nervous. It was a trial by fire for all of us coming in there.

The first day, Dan Bylsma turns to me and says, “Alright, you got the PK video breakdown today.”

I’m like, “Uh … I’ve never done a video before.”

So we go into the film room, and I’m sweating through my shirt. I start the video, and I look out and I see Crosby, Malkin, Gonchar, Fleury. They’re staring back at me. I’m stuttering like crazy. My shirt is soaked. I was an absolute mess.

When I finished, Dan just clapped his hands and said, “Welp, I guess I won’t be nervous now.”

The whole room was cracking up. It actually helped to break the ice.

Ryan:
We watched every single game. This is going to sound weird, but I was actually more proud to see my dad on the bench than I was when I saw him on the ice as a kid. I guess I appreciated it more.

Casey:
They went from 12th place to the Stanley Cup Finals. It was amazing. My mom deserves a lot of credit. She was running us around to hockey and doing everything again.

Tom:
Dan and I were living out the Marriott Hotel next to the arena. At one point, I had not seen my family in 36 days. It was a whirlwind. All of a sudden, we were in the Stanley Cup Finals against Detroit.

Ryan:
Then it was such an emotional rollercoaster. Oh my God.

Tom:
I remember I was standing around with the other coaches after we lost Game 2 in Detroit. We were down 2-0 in the series. Gonchar happened to be beside us. We all just kind of looked at eachother and said the same thing. “You know what? We’re gonna win this thing.” We just felt it.

Casey:
When Jordan Staal scored the goal to take the lead in Game 6, that was maybe the happiest I’ve ever been watching a hockey game.

Ryan:
I had my 8th grade senior trip all lined up. I told my mom I wasn’t going. I had to be in Detroit for Game 7.

Casey:
For Game 7, we were sitting up in the Penguins’ family section with all the wives and girlfriends and kids of the players. We were all decked out in our Penguins gear, completely surrounded by a sea of red.

Tom:
I tried looking up for them in the crowd. I could see the black-and-gold jerseys way up there, but I couldn’t pick them out.

Casey:
It was us vs. the world. When Pittsburgh scored the first goal, you we started a “Let’s Go Pens” chant. The whole building probably wanted to kill us.

Tom:
We were up 2-1 with six minutes left. That clock could not go any slower. It was like a sundial. At some point, I’m pretty sure I blacked out.

Ryan:
Eleven seconds left. Face-off in the Penguins zone. Craziest 11 seconds I’ve ever seen.

Casey:
I was thinking, My dad is gonna win the Stanley Cup. This is incredible. Then …

Ryan:
They lost the faceoff.

Tom:
Somehow, they got three scoring chances in 11 seconds.

Ryan:
Fleury made the first save, then you could see the puck slide right over to No. 5 in red. Lidstrom. I thought, Overtime.

Casey:
Then somehow Fleury stopped it, and it was pandemonium. We immediately tried to run down to the lower bowl to see my dad.

Tom:
I still had not seen my family in almost 40 days. Then I finally saw them on the ice to lift the Stanley Cup. It was really emotional. I can’t put it into words. I did not envision this happening when we had the conversation at the kitchen table.

Casey:
My dad never got a chance to play for a Cup as a player. It was really eye-opening to see what it meant to him.

DETROIT - JUNE 12: Evgeni Malkin #71 and assistant coach Tom Fitzgerald of the Pittsburgh Penguins celebrate after defeating the Detroit Red Wings by a score of 2-1 to win Game Seven and the 2009 NHL Stanley Cup Finals at Joe Louis Arena on June 12, 2009 in Detroit, Michigan. (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)

Ryan:
We were standing on the ice looking at the faces of all these grown men, seeing how much it meant to all of them … Just incredible. I remember thinking, Why are these guys crying? Now that we’re playing at Boston College, I totally get it. When I think about a national championship, it means more than you can put into words.

Tom:
They all sacrificed so I could do something I loved. Especially my wife. We took a plane back to Pittsburgh that night, and everybody went to Mario Lemieux’s house to celebrate. But I took a pass. I wanted to be with my family. The next morning, my youngest son Brendan got up early, so we walked from my hotel to Mellon Arena to buy Stanley Cup Champions T-shirts. For whatever reason, that sticks out as such a cool moment.

Casey:
When we got our day with the Cup, dad was able to take it down to the docks in Boston where our grandfather worked for so many years. That meant a lot to our whole family. It was an incredible moment.

Tom:
My dad just loved hockey so much. He was the boys’ no. 1 fan. Unfortunately, he passed away before Christmas. It’s bittersweet, because the boys are playing in the Frozen Four this week, and he’s not around to see it. But at the same time, I think about how incredibly proud he is looking down on these guys, and it makes me smile. My kids are best friends, and that makes me really happy. That’s how I know I didn’t screw them up too bad.

Born in the USA

We were known as the Hockey Family. You have to remember, at that time, girls did not play hockey. It was just unheard of. My mom assumed I’d be a figure skater like my older sister. My brothers had other plans.

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