One of the hallmarks of the annual IIHF World Junior Championships is the chance to see the next generation of NHL stars en route to achieving their dreams of playing professional hockey.
The majority of these players can only dream of the life that awaits and will learn the ins and outs of professional sports as the experiences come their way. The lucky few who have parents with professional sports experience have long found that wealth of knowledge sits on the other side of the dinner table.
“It’s huge to have someone who’s been through it all right there at your disposal,” said Tyler Biggs, whose father Don played for the Minnesota North Stars and Philadelphia Flyers.
“You really can’t have a better situation. Especially going to the next levels where there are things you aren’t used to. To have someone you know, and can be so honest with you, is the biggest thing.”
The gold-medal winning 2013 U.S. National Junior Team featured six players whose parents played professional sports. Biggs, Connor Murphy, Jim Vesey and Riley Barber have fathers who played in the NHL, Jon Gillies’ father played in the International Hockey League and Seth Jones’ father Popeye Jones played 11 seasons in the NBA.
Head coach Phil Housley said the group showed elements of game preparation and maturity that he feels comes from early exposure to the life of a professional athlete.
“You can see the professionalism by the people you hang around with and the way they approach the game and prepare,” said Housley, himself a 21-year NHL star. “I think that rubs off on the [child of a professional athlete].”
Murphy described visits to the NHL arenas where he would see his favorite players in a way the typical fan could never experience.
“I remember going to Christmas skates for the NHL teams my dad was a part of and going to skate in the same rinks where I watched them play,” said Murphy, whose father Gord played 14 seasons in the NHL and now coaches with the Florida Panthers.
“When I got older in Columbus my dad would take me into the rink on off days and let me skate with a couple of the injured guys who were coming back. … I was just in awe of how big and good they were.”
Murphy said the close proximity to the life of professional hockey players lit a fire in him to pursue his goal.
“It kind of fueled the dream, I’d say,” he added. “It’s your dream to become [a professional athlete], but when you’re around it, it becomes even a bigger dream because you know what it can be like.”
Jones said growing up with access to elite level athletes and opportunities to see them prepare set a positive example that he emulates as he ascends up the hockey ladder.
“I was able to see a lot of their practices and certain players like Dirk Nowitzki staying late and shooting baskets,” said Jones of his time in Texas while his father was with the NBA’s Dallas Mavericks.
“Jason Terry kind of worked with Dirk a lot and they worked so hard behind the scenes. No one knew about it, but it showed on the court that they were among the best players.”
Jones also had a close-up view of the extremely competitive nature of the business. As Jones put it, he had a behind the scenes look at an ever-dwindling pyramid of roster spots.
“The pyramid gets smaller. Each level you get to, there are [more] great players and you have to keep working until you get to the top of the pyramid where you’re in the .1 percent of those players that get a career in the NHL,” Jones said. “That’s motivation for me and [my dad] taught me a lot about that.”
Housley said parents who played sports professionally, in general, put less pressure on their children. A parent who has been on either side of a roster cut or a late season call-up knows that it’s incredibly difficult to become and establish a career as a pro athlete.
“They let the person or the child evolve,” he said. “They don’t put too much pressure on them. They understand that in any sport you play you have to have fun, that’s what keeps you coming back and what motivates you.”
“They see what kind of kids make it and what kind of parents they have. They say you can over coach, but I think you can over parent and over control things,” he said.
Biggs said while his father ultimately coached him in hockey, there wasn’t a parental directive to play the same sport.
“My dad didn’t just push me to hockey,” Biggs said. “I had the opportunity to play whatever sport I wanted to. I had the opportunity to play football, basketball, soccer and lacrosse. I was fortunate, and I think it helped me along the way.”
Although Jones’ father played a different sport, he can answer his sons’ questions about being drafted, signing contracts, dealing with training camps and so many more topics that cross the boundary between the court and the ice.
“It’s great being able to ask him about anything. [It’s a] different sport but the same background, and it’s still difficult in both sports,” Jones said.
“My mom has been through all of that, and she’s doing the same thing for me. Whenever I have a question about anything I can go to them and they are a great help to me.”
Cameron Eickmeyer is the manager of Internet Content and Development for USAHockey.com.
Photos By Images on Ice (4); Getty Images (4)