EDMONTON – When 5-year-old Ryan Hartman skated on his grandparents’ backyard pond in the Chicago suburbs, his dad Craig supervised from the shoreline.
But that wasn’t the only precaution Craig took.
He also tied a 100-foot rope around his son’s waist.
This way, if the ice ever cracked under Hartman’s skates, Craig would be able to pull him out without them both falling into the water.
Hartman, however, never had to be rescued.
“I don’t even know if the pond was deep enough to keep me under,” he said.
Nowadays, the support Craig provides Hartman and his on-ice pursuits isn’t quite so literal. Most of the time, they don’t even talk hockey.
Instead — like other father-son bonds on the Wild that have been on display this week during the team’s dads and mentors trip that wraps up Friday at Edmonton — the two tend to share what else is going on in each other’s life rather than constantly holding strategy sessions over the phone.
That type of rapport might be more beneficial to the players at this stage of their careers, where they’ve established themselves as NHL players and have the resources at the rink to improve.
And although they have plenty of confidantes nearby — teammates, coaches, significant others — they keep calling dad.
“It’s something you just don’t stop doing,” goalie Devan Dubnyk said.
Making of a mentor
Whether they introduced them to the sport or coached them as kids, Wild players’ dads were essential to the start of their child’s hockey careers.
Mike Soucy was behind the bench for son Carson until the defenseman was 15. That’s also around the time when Barry Dubnyk noticed son Devan exceed the player he once was when he used to play in net.
Barry Dubnyk used to tell Devan, “Stay up and out” – a reminder to remain on his feet and out of his crease. But he stopped dispensing goaltending advice once he realized his son knew more than him.
“I don’t have any tactical discussions with him anymore, and we haven’t for years,” Barry Dubnyk said.
Henry Staal left the game planning to the coaches, trying not to inundate son Eric with different messages. Marcus Foligno was still getting instruction from his dad, former NHLer Mike Foligno, when he was in his teens. The motivation behind Mike Foligno’s musings were to ensue his son was working hard and pushing himself.
“He wanted to see us love the game and respect the game right,” Foligno said. “He didn’t want us to shortcut things.”
Eventually, though, Mike Foligno became more of an observer than a teacher.
“Now that he’s a pro, I can’t interfere,” Mike Foligno said. “He’s got coaches. He’s got guys in the trenches that are trying to make him the best player that he can be, working really hard to give him all the tactical information that he can help his teammates with. So I can’t interfere with that.”
Still, the players will ask what their dads think of their performance or how the team plays.
Usually after every game, Henry Staal texts his sons his thoughts of what just happened. Staal responds, and the two will go back and forth.
“If it’s something where something’s really going south,” Henry Staal said, “when he gets in the vehicle, he’ll call on the way home.”
In those moments, Staal isn’t just picking his dad’s brain. He’s also speaking to someone who’s watched him play his whole life — a sounding board who might know his game better than anyone else.
“I’m 35,” Staal said. “But I still like to hear the feedback of what my dad thinks.”
Craig Hartman doesn’t bring up hockey much when he’s catching up with his son.
“When I come home from work, I don’t want to talk about my job, so he doesn’t really want to talk about his job,” Craig Hartman said. “So, we talk about life, being a kid, music, whatever.”
But earlier this season, when the Wild was off to a horrendous start, Hartman asked his dad what he saw.
“It’s hard to watch,” Craig Hartman told him.
And that’s the other reality of these chats with their dads: The players will always get the truth.
“We never masked anything,” Craig Hartman said.
These check-ins, however, don’t always focus on hockey.
Before nearly every game, Dubnyk will call his dad. Rarely, though, do they talk shop — even in a season such as this one where Dubnyk has struggled and missed action to be with his wife, Jenn, while she dealt with a medical situation.
“There’s times when you feel you want to reach out more,” Barry Dubnyk said. “This year hasn’t been a great year, so you feel you want to talk a little bit more.”
Making sure his son’s not worried is how the relationship among the Folignos has evolved.
“He wants to hear how’s Aunt Rosie or his grandmother and what’s the latest story with friends,” Mike Foligno said. “So I think that keeps him in touch more and it kind of helps keep him rooted as well. I think part of that allows him to then go out and do his job even better.”
It’s important to be accessible, Foligno explained, because parents never know when their child will need them the most. But when they do, they’ll be ready.
“They’re still your kids,” Barry Dubnyk said. “… You’re there when they need you. Lots of days they don’t need you as much. But lots of days they need you more.”
Getting older doesn’t change that.
Actually, it’s the time spent together that seems to make this connection between father and son even stronger.
“The passion that I have for the game was because of his passion for the game,” Eric Staal said. “… Anytime I go through an up or a down, an accomplishment or a tough moment, he’s for sure the person I think about and lean on and want to share it with because of past experiences and all the stuff you go through.”