“Jane, I’m really nervous about Johnny. I’m worried about him.”
It was a regular Wednesday afternoon and my dad had called my mom at work. There was a lot of concern in his voice.
“I just don’t think he has it. He’s not going make it as a hockey player. I don’t think he has it in him.”
My mom was silent on the other end of the line for a beat before responding.
“Guy, he’s only three years old. Give it some time.”
I know the saying “I was born to become a hockey player” is a little cliché, but I don’t know how else to put it. My dad owns a hockey rink and he was sharpening my first pair of skates while I was still in the womb.
He tried to wait out my infancy, but it must have been frustrating for him. When I turned two, he started trying to teach me how to skate. It didn’t go so well, given that I was still getting a handle on walking. But he’d put me out there and hope for the best. So there’d I’d be in the middle of the ice, floundering around, while I imagine my dad was off to the side, shaking his head.
I guess he decided the reason I wasn’t doing double axels was because I needed motivation, so as a new teaching strategy he began throwing Skittles on the ice and getting me to chase after them. Out of necessity, I’d crawl towards each individual Skittle, desperately reaching. After a while, I guess my desire for sugar coaxed me to get up and start skating a few strides between them. In general, it’s not recommended you throw debris on the ice, but I guess there are some perks to owning your own rink.
My father grew up in Vermont, where he was raised on a dairy farm. He didn’t have much money growing up, but he did have a pair of skates. So for fun, he would glide on the ponds around the farm during the winter, stick-handling around rocks and branches. He didn’t have the grades for D-1, but he did play Division-III hockey at Norwich University. Had a great career there, ended up making the school’s Hall of Fame in hockey as well as soccer.
After that, he moved to New Jersey, about 20 minutes outside of Philly, and built an ice rink. It’s two large sheets of ice, with bleachers to hold a few hundred folks and a snack bar. Whenever you walk in, you’re hit with that smell of perfectly brisk ice with just a faint hint of smelly gear. It’s … heaven.
So yeah, I was going to be a hockey player.
As a kid I had the ice available to me whenever I wanted. I definitely abused that privilege. During my formative years, I probably spent more time in skates than I did shoes. I had 10 or 15 close buddies, and we’d spend every possible hour we could playing shinny. I’ve played on plenty of teams and been to more practices than I can remember, but I learned how to play the game during those hours upon hours when I was laughing and goofing around on the ice. When you’re among friends, you don’t worry about screwing up when you’re trying out moves. But I think once you get those reps in and aren’t self-conscious about screwing up, the difficult parts of the game become second nature. The flow of things seems natural. And you get to figure out on your own what you love about hockey.
For me, it was scoring goals. Always has been.
As a kid, I was pretty shameless about it. I’d spend entire games cherry-picking along the blue line, waiting for the puck to pop out so I could go for a breakaway. My dad would give me a hard time about it, but he never lectured me — probably because I kept scoring. As I got older, yes, I got more skilled, but my desire to score also grew. I just … thought about it a lot. Daydreaming about what move I’d do if the goalie did this or that. It excited me.
When I was a teenager, there was this festival team for my area that I would try out for every year. A festival team is basically an all-star team for a particular district. All the different districts compile a team of their best players, then meet up at a big event to play one another in front of a bunch of scouts and college coaches. For a kid like myself, it meant everything.
You had four years to make the team between the ages of 13 and 16. I made it my first year and was really excited, but the next two years I got cut. It was pretty simple: other kids were getting bigger and I wasn’t. That reality really brought me down. I didn’t think I was getting any worse at hockey, but those are the ages where you’re supposed to start showing long-term potential. It’s the time when the herd gradually starts to thin, and a lot of kids lose interest in the sport after getting cut a few times.
I took not being included on those teams pretty hard. I’d looked up to smaller guys when I was younger. I’d watch players like Danny Briere and Martin St. Louis, and quietly think to myself, “Why not me?”
But when I was 15 and cut from that team, I thought I might be reaching the end of the road. Ultimately, it was my dad who really lifted me up when I lost hope. He refused to let me believe that I wasn’t good enough. “They don’t like you because you’re small, John. That’s it.” He’d always plant that seed in the back of my mind that I was going to prove everybody wrong. I was going to force people to ignore my size because of my production.
The final year I was eligible to try out for the festival team, I didn’t even want to go. I was too scared of failure. I didn’t know if I could take getting cut again. But my dad wasn’t hearing it. He told me I’d been playing hockey my whole life, and it was time to go out there and prove I could play with these guys.
He was right. I ended up making the team, and went to the tournament where I proved I belonged. Next thing you know, I’m getting invited to play for USA Hockey in a U-17 tournament. My performance there led to more college opportunities, and then everything kind of took off.
My focus was never squarely on making it to the NHL. I always just tried to advance to the next level, one rung at a time. It’s important to take it slow, because if you immediately try to compare your game to the guys playing in the league, you’re going to get down on yourself pretty quick.
I’ll never forget my first development camp with the Flames. I was just a college kid in every sense. And I saw these NHL players out there on the ice, and all I could think was, “What am I doing here?” I was so wide-eyed, I almost wanted to ask for autographs. Then the next development camp a year later, my attitude shifted to, “I think I know what I’m doing here.” Until finally I got to the point where I was on the ice with NHL players and felt okay telling myself, “I know what I’m doing here.”
Through it all, I learned a few things that I think might be useful to smaller guys hoping to make it to the next level.
The first thing is that you have to get a thick skin. I’ve heard my fair share of chirps throughout the years. Different things about my size, said in so many ways … including plenty of stuff I’m not so comfortable repeating here. Get used to it, because it’ll come. Everyone handles it differently, but I’ve never been a big chirper myself because the sound of the goal horn is loud enough.
You’re always going to have people on you about your size, so do what you can to be in on the joke. Last All-Star weekend, Ryan Johansen brought out a little kid during the penalty shootout and scored a goal with him. So as a gag, Jakub Voracek came up to me and asked if he could use me as a prop for his shot.
I thought it was hilarious.
Hockey players can give each other a hard time, but ultimately this is a family. It’s really a big community of people connected by a common passion. I think that’s why we’re able to do this kind of stuff and not worry about people thinking less of us. Even at the highest level, we’re out there having fun.
Next piece of advice, keep your head up. Always. You’re not built to take heavy shots, so you have to be twice as careful out there. This one I learned the hard way.
We were playing against the Detroit Red Wings my rookie year, and during one play I was the last man back. I had the puck on my stick and looked up to see who else but Pavel Datsyuk — coming right for me.
Every hockey fan knows what can go wrong here: Magic Man pokes the puck off of your stick, goes for a breakaway and you’re left in the background while he uses some kind of sorcery on the goalie.
So I knew I had to make a smart play. I faked one way, then passed the puck the other direction up the ice. Crisis averted.
… I thought.
Yeah, that one hurt.
Datsyuk went right through my chest and I just went flying. That was probably the hardest hit I’ve ever taken, and it was by one of the most skilled players I’ll ever face. That’s just not fair. Eventually I got back to the bench and sat there winded for a few shifts, reflecting on what it’s like to be run over by a Russian locomotive. The boys let me hear about that one after the game.
It was definitely a lesson. We associate a lot of players with their offensive prowess most of the time. It’s easy to forget that these guys are the best in the world defensively as well. If you leave yourself open for a hit, you’re going to get hit.
Finally, and most importantly, my advice to the little kids out there who quietly have that dream inside of them to play in the NHL: have fun right now. If you do pursue this career, you’ll have plenty of opportunities to take hockey very, very seriously. But right now, just appreciate and build on whatever you love about the game. Enjoy hanging out with your buddies on the ice. No matter how big you make it, you’ll miss that time when it’s gone. Try that move out, look silly, and get better. As long as you’re smaller, your best skill needs to be your effort. It doesn’t matter where you’re playing or if you’re getting cut from teams. If you have the talent, the right person will find you.
It took a lot of work at every level, but I think now people finally understand what I’ve always known. I’m not a grinder. I’m not a gimmick. And, in general, I’m just not a big guy.
But I don’t need to be. I’m a hockey player.