NHL Prospects Learn Skills, Develop Passion On Backyard Rinks

These days, professional hockey prospects have the greatest training in the world at their disposal.  Once a young player is tabbed as a potential draft pick, there is no limit to the amount of on-ice instruction, off-ice training, and nutritional expertise that is available to them.  College hockey teams, major junior organizations, and national development programs all focus on the success of the NHL’s future superstars, helping usher them to the bright lights and big dollars of hockey’s big leagues.  On draft day, many will thank their former coaches and trainers for their newfound fortune.  But many of today’s young guns’ skills and passion for the game were developed in a much simpler setting: their backyards.

This phenomenon is nothing new.  Everyone knows about Walter Gretzky’s sprinkler-fueled rink that spawned The Great One, and you can’t turn on an NHL game without seeing a Staal brother, whose careers all began on a bit of frozen backyard water in Thunder Bay.  But even though the Pond Hockey documentary alluded to the fact that today’s youth are more likely to play hockey video games indoors than they are to play on outdoor ice, there is a subset of prospects who owe much of their success to plywood, plastic liner, and of course, their backyard rinkmasters.  Most call them “dad”.

“The number-one thing we never talk about is how it developed their love for the game,” says Dave Gagner, rinkbuilder, dad, and former NHLer.  The “it” he speaks of is the backyard rink he built behind his Ontario home.  The “they” includes his son, Sam, the inspiration for the rink, the most frequent user of it, and a 2007 NHL draft pick (6th overall, by Edmonton).  The younger Gagner can thank more than his genealogy for his hockey success — he can also thank his dad’s business sense.  After hanging up his professional skates in 1999, the elder Gagner started Custom Ice, Inc, a company devoted to building outdoor rinks for families and communities.  His first customer?  Himself.

Gagner (second from left), Tavares (third), and their teammates at a charity street hockey tournament, 2008

The 50′ x 90′ backyard slab went beyond your typical plywood-and-liner setup to include full underground refrigeration.  That, coupled with the chilly Toronto-area winter weather, meant that Sam and the neighborhood kids could skate for five months out of the year.  Now, one could assume that a future NHL player would demolish whatever backyard competition he found in his local neighborhood.  But in Gagner’s case, one of those “neighborhood kids” turned out to be John Tavares, the first overall pick in the 2009 NHL draft who played center this year for the New York Islanders.

“They would play 20, 30 hours a week on it,” Dave Gagner says. “Just the two of them.  Or they would have friends over and play three-on-three — all day Saturday, all day Sunday.”

“We’d get pretty intense back there,” Sam Gagner says. “Those were one-goal games, and maybe it doesn’t go your way. Especially with [Tavares], he would get pretty upset, maybe throw a right hook at me or something.  It was a lot of fun.”

Says Tavares of the times on Gagner’s rink: “I think that made both of us better. We used to play for hours, and we went really hard . . . it was just for bragging rights going to the rink the next day for practice with all our teammates. It made us really compete and really battle . . . made us stronger on the puck. [Sam] always used to complain that I’d go after him and give him some cheap shots. He just wouldn’t get out of the way when I was trying to put the puck in the net. He could do some amazing things and I’d try to get any kind of edge I could. He’d usually beat me.”

T.J. Galiardi knows plenty about backyard rink fun.  Growing up in Calgary, he had a neighborhood pal whose rink was home to many an all-day game.  Leveraging the skills he learned during those cold Alberta weekends, Galiardi was selected by the Colorado Avalanche in the second round of the 2007 NHL draft.  That neighborhood pal with the rink was Windsor Spitfires star and consensus top-two pick in the upcoming NHL draft, Taylor Hall.

Taylor Hall concentrates before a Spitfires game, 2008

Steve Hall, Taylor’s dad, built a rink at their Calgary home that wrapped around the side and back of the house.  They nicknamed the side of the house “Lindros Lane” and the tree in the middle of the rink’s backyard portion “Scott Stevens” — explanation unnecessary.  The Halls later moved to Ontario, where father Hall built another backyard rink, this one abutting a set of railroad tracks.  Whenever the kids were out there playing, the game would be keepaway as long as the train cars roared past.

Hall had fun with his friends on those backyard rinks, but little did he know at the time that he was training himself into NHL potential too. Hall read Ken Dryden’s book The Game, and took an important lesson from it: “When people aren’t watching and you have all the time in the world, that’s really when you become the player you can be. You [release your] creativity, you do things you didn’t know you could do and, all of a sudden, you’re doing it in the game, no problem.”

“It’s got to be part of the reason why I’m the player I am today, for sure,” says Hall, who will find out if he’ll become an Edmonton Oiler or a Boston Bruin on June 25th. “You get a sense of what you can do when no one’s watching — that’s when you develop your skills.”

What Hall has done in those games is nothing short of exceptional, and is the reason why he’ll be chosen either first or second overall in June.  With 356 points in 227 games in the Ontario Hockey League, Hall has reason to be cocky.  But he isn’t taking the bait.

“I haven’t made the NHL yet,” he says.  “I haven’t done a single thing in the NHL yet.”

That’s not to say he’s never won a Stanley Cup.  Everyone who grew up on a backyard rink has won at least a few hundred imaginary Cups.  But while NHL superstars like Sam Gagner, John Tavares, T.J. Galiardi, and Taylor Hall have yet to lift the actual silver chalice, what is certain is that their time spent playing, learning, and competing on backyard rinks contributed greatly to their very real chance to do so.

Tap on the pads to the Star Phoenix, Custom Ice Rinks, NHL.com, and HockeysFuture.com for the content. Pat on the helmet to The Alex Corrance Memorial Fund and faceoff.com for the images.

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