From North Buffalo to the OHL

April 12, 2018 - 11:21 am

So my son, Owen Parker, was drafted into the Ontario Hockey League this past Saturday by the Soo Greyhounds. 10th round, #200 overall. He’s a goalie and turned 16 in January. Many of you who would be interested in reading this have already reached out via Twitter to congratulate him and our family. My wife, Giant Goalie Son, his not so little brother Leo and I thank you.

Seriously, there’s been so much support it’s almost been overwhelming. For you, I’m going to follow up by giving you as thorough a timeline of what I consider to be the signposts on the way to this very cool moment.

Giant Goalie Son wasn’t always a goalie. His first five years of youth hockey were spent as a defenseman playing MOHL, or house league hockey with the Buffalo Bisons. These were fun years. We made friends that will last a lifetime. What I’ll remember most about these years is the fun I had being an assistant coach and arguing about power skating. "Big O" did not like power skating. We argued about it, eventually realizing that I could not make him want to do it. He needed to want to. This is important later.

Owen’s final year at the Squirt level is where things turned and the goalie track begins. We had a new head coach who would become a great friend, Eric Bradshaw. I was still helping out as an assistant. We got together in September and had no goalies. Owen, at age 10, was already really big. I’m not sure how big, maybe we’ve got it written down somewhere, but I can’t find it. I just remember thinking he’d probably fit into a set of gear belonging to a guy I played with, John Visco, a grown man. John had a set of pads and gloves in the garage he was happy to pass on to us and a goalie was born. Another boy on the team, Alex Mech, also decided to try his hand at goalie so they took turns. The Mechs nor I barely knew how to put the gear on our kids. Being a coach, I searched YouTube for beginner goalie drills and we were off.

The following year, Owen moved up to Pee Wee MOHL and was our team’s only goalie. He grew out Visco’s gear, but luckily my wife ran into Leo’s baseball coach at the grocery store. Bruce Naughton had a goalie son of his own who’d just finished his high school career. So, of course, the gear was a perfect fit for our 11-year-old son. Fun times, still with Bradshaw as our head coach. The thing I’ll remember most fondly about this season has nothing to do with Owen. Bradshaw, who is a teacher, wrote a poem about forechecking that he read to the team in the locker room before a game in Jamestown. This is my favorite coaching memory. A poem. About forechecking. It was glorious.

As that season came to a close, our friend Jim Jarvis approached us about trying out for the City Honors Modified team. Jarvis had recently taken on the role of coach, and even though Owen wasn’t a student at City Honors, as long as he wasn’t taking the spot from someone who was, he was eligible. Bottom line, our friend needed a goalie for a spring team and in desperation came looking for the big sixth grader who still could barely get up and down. The talent level in this Modified league is all over the place. There’s AAA eight graders and house league sixth graders. Owen, despite his lack of technical prowess and still not being in any kind of serious athletic condition (translation, he was kind of pudgy) held his own at the tryout.

It was on the way home from this tryout that I first suggested that Owen tryout for a Bisons travel team. Coach Bradshaw had told me we should consider it weeks earlier but I hadn’t really taken it to heart. Owen was mildly reluctant, citing how he just liked to have fun playing hockey and wasn’t sure he’d enjoy it as a more serious endeavor. In the end, he agreed to tryout for the Bisons Pee Wee Mixed A team.

The night of tryouts, Owen was offered a spot on the AA team by Rob Kneer, who was very honest in telling us Owen would need a lot of work and might not play that much but that he had a lot of potential. Owen listened to what this coach had to say, we consulted for a few minutes and Owen told coach Kneer he didn’t feel ready to jump from MOHL to AA and felt the Mixed A team would be a better fit.

Fortunately the Mixed A coaches, Sean Corrigan, David Wasserman, Mike Daley and eventually our old buddy from Mites, Alan Kegler chose Owen for their team. Corrigan was very direct at the first meeting about off ice workouts and the level of commitment expected. It was jarring. To Owen’s credit, he immediately started getting up earlier for school every day so he could do core strengthening exercises. I helped and often joined him.

When this first season of travel hockey began it became apparent right away that the Bisons Pee Wee Mixed A team was pretty stacked. They ended up losing only one league game all season. To start the year, Owen was clearly the back up goalie to Cole Guzda. Cole was small, cat quick and just flat out better than Owen. Cole played all the tougher games and Owen got in the games the Bisons would win 10-1. He’d stand there doing mostly nothing while all his buddies were celebrating goals they scored.

After about six weeks of this, we had one of my favorite moments. On a Sunday morning, our 12-year-old son got into bed with me and his mom and broke the news to us. He didn’t think he wanted to be a goalie anymore. He wasn’t having any fun and wanted to go back to being a defenseman. I explained to him that he’d made a commitment for the season and he quickly made sure we knew he was talking about next year. I said, "Ok, we’ve got a long ways to go, but when this season is over if you want to switch back then that’s what we’ll do." I added that I didn’t know whether he’d make a travel team as a skater and his response blew me away.

“It doesn’t really matter dad, I’m not gonna make the NHL anyways."

I couldn’t believe my 12-year-old son was even thinking something like that. Maybe it’s not that uncommon, kids dream when they play sports. It just was so far out there that it took me by surprise. My wife left the room and we concluded our talk with me reinforcing that there still was a lot of hockey to be played and making sure he knew that I’d heard him and if he wanted to give up goalie after the season then that’s what he would do. I also felt compelled to tell him one other thing.

“I know it’s a long ways off and you don’t think you’re going to make the NHL, but somebody has to.”

He gave me a sure dad, whatever sort of response and I just said, “it’s true” and left the room.

A week later, our Bisons played an exhibition against a AA team. A step up. They put Owen in and he played great. The Bisons won the game and the coaches concurred that Owen had made the difference in a game they had been badly outplayed in. From here, things escalated pretty quickly.

Owen started splitting the tougher games. He attended clinics with Bob Janosz and got stronger. He grew out of his pudgy little boy body and was almost 6’ 3” by the time the next season rolled around. Playing Bantam AA with the same group of coaches, he started to move like a goalie, really for the first time. More clinics, including the Academy Of Hockey with Martin Biron and John Daigneau. He was feeding off the limited success he’d had and was driven to do more.

Still raw, still growing, Owen held his own on the ice with players far more experienced at these clinics. Still with the Bisons, some opportunities to play at a higher level were beginning to present themselves. Rather than leap at those, we chose to stay with the Bisons for one more year. In large part, this decision was made because Rob Kneer, who Owen had turned down two years earlier, introduced us to goalie coach Brett Bennett before tryouts for the next season even started. Bennett would be available to Owen once a week with the Bisons Bantam Major AA team. Brett played at Wisconsin, Boston University and was drafted by Arizona in the 2006 NHL Draft. He has been a tremendous resource and was the biggest reason Owen stuck with Kneer and the Bisons rather than chase the letters up the ladder to AAA.

Photo: Chris Parker
This choice freed Owen up to just keep working on his game and just flat out work out. He asked me if he could join a gym, something I had been waiting for him to do but hadn’t suggested. By now, I had told him he was in charge of his future. However hard you want to go, I’ll get you where you need to be, support you emotionally and write the checks, but the rest is up to you. That was my message.

Clinics with Bennett. Clinics with Biron. Clinics with David Leggio. Driving and writing checks, so many checks. Custom ordered pads because they don’t retail your size when you’re 6’ 6” at age 14. Check, check, checkity check.

All this leads up to tryouts last April. Owen was ready to tryout for a AAA team in Wheatfield. I had talked to the coach and Owen felt good about the opportunity. Then about four hours before tryouts the Regals called. A goalie they’d been counting on bailed and they wanted Owen. While feeling bad about a last minute change, the opportunity to play with the Regals in the SCTA, an all Canadian league, was too good to pass up. It would be a bigger step up than he’d been planning, but after some quick deliberations and few quick phone calls to poll in the know friends, we were off.

Well, needless to say, the year went well enough that the Soo Greyhounds drafted him on Saturday. To say a year ago I was thinking about this outcome for my son would be nuts. He had played exactly zero games at the AAA level. You could see people watching the games all season that appeared to be paying more attention than the average parent. Scouts, presumably. This reached a high-point on a January weekend in St. Catharines when there were multiple scouts from multiple OHL teams, the jackets they wore gave them away, standing behind the net Owen was in watching his every move. He played very well that weekend. Maybe that cinched it for him, I don’t know. But I know I had a brief conversation with a scout for the Soo in between games.

So now we’re off to Regals 16U for next year. There will be some spring and summer tournaments and a trip to a rookie camp with the Soo at some point, and then we’ll see from there. Clinics and the gym, more miles driven and checks written.

Know that I love it all. The miles, the time spent. One of my sons loves the game, more than even I ever did as a kid. He’s worked extremely hard and he’s pretty good. And I get a front row seat. I can’t wait to see what’s next.

My goal in writing this isn’t to brag about Owen, though I am supremely proud of him and what he has accomplished so far and his desire to keep pushing to see how far he can take all this.

My goal is to let you have a look at the path we chose to take and consider letting your child drive the decisions. I firmly believe that if we’d pushed at the wrong times or climbed to a level sooner than Owen was ready for, this could’ve all turned out differently.

It’s funny the things you remember. The last time I chose to write about Owen here was a couple of years ago. I was wasting a perfectly gorgeous spring Sunday watching Owen practice butterfly slides while holding a medicine ball. Bennett loves that one. Anyways, I wrote about Owen’s commitment and wondered where it was all going. The feedback was mostly positive, but a few people felt the need to heckle me and I guess him. “Too late, if he’s not playing AAA hockey already you’re toast” was the vibe.

Now I’m not Baker Mayfield, so I didn’t copy the tweets into my phone. I never even told Owen about it and I don’t bring it up to say “look at him now.” I bring it up because lots of people will try to tell you what you should be doing with your kids and sports. Where they should be playing and by when they should be at a certain level. Maybe I’m fortunate that I’m in a business where I’ve got access to people who’ve been through it.

The thing is, so do you. Bennett is coaching dozens of goalies every year. So are Biron and Daigneau at HarborCenter. So is a David Leggio every spring at the rink on Tacoma in North Buffalo. Bob Janosz does clinics year-round. These people are resources here that have been invaluable to us. Talk to them about goaltending if you’ve got a goalie. Talk to your coaches. Trust your judgement in deciding what’s best for your child. I can’t recommend the Bisons highly enough. I wouldn’t give back our years there for anything.

Above all else. Let your child drive how hard they go after it. Sure, sometimes they need a push and you’ll wrestle with how hard and long to fight about power skating. But my experience is that letting them drive it is going to work better in the end.

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