The life athletic with Ryan Getzlaf

DAN TOTH -- Calgary Sun

, Last Updated: 11:36 AM ET

Ryan Getzlaf -- the affable captain of the Calgary Hitmen -- has an incredible weight on his shoulders, tasked with leading his club on an extended playoff run. As the Sun's Dan Toth found out, the natural athlete has been ready for this moment for years.

Although Ryan Getzlaf is poised to step into the NHL -- whenever its doors re-open -- the Calgary Hitmen captain could have wound up in the big leagues of any number of sports had fate and circumstance been different.

The rangy centre possesses all the tools to make it in the NHL, of course: Soft hands, speed and a punishing shot. And at 6-ft. 4-in., 210 lb., he could have parlayed those same attributes into a future in baseball, football or even volleyball.

The 2003 first-round draft choice of the Anaheim Mighty Ducks was a young star on the diamonds, gridiron and courts before choosing to focus solely on hockey.

"I really enjoyed football. It was a blast and I used to love playing baseball, too, but hockey was always the one passion I had," says the 19-year-old Regina native, captaining the Hitmen in their WHL first-round playoff series against Lethbridge.

"Everything else I played was to pass the time and keep myself in shape for hockey."

And he has older brother Chris Getzlaf -- two and a half years his senior -- to thank for providing a target to shoot for, encouraging his kid brother just enough to make it happen.

"I played hockey two years up with my brother and his group and that pushed me when I was younger," recalls Ryan Getzlaf.

"I was the little brother who wanted to be as good as my big brother and he helped me develop when I was younger and helped me pick up things a bit quicker."

Not that the developmental process was without a hitch. The two Getzlaf boys, like most brothers, waged their personal battles before growing even closer when the dust settled.

As Ryan's fourth year of junior hockey is winding down in Calgary, Chris remains in Regina, attending university and playing junior football. Despite the distance, the siblings have never been closer, staying in touch via regular phone calls and Internet chats.

While Ryan, who started skating at the age of four, was developing into a young hockey star with NHL dreams and the skills to match, Chris was growing into a football receiver with sure hands and elusive speed.

Now playing with the Prairie Thunder back home in the Queen City, Chris has ambitions of one day pulling on CFL colours. He'll have his kid brother to thank should the dream come true.

"We battled a lot when we were younger because we're so competitive but, obviously, as you grow up, you grow into those situations, too," says Ryan, who excelled as a tailback in minor football, while Chris stood out as a receiver.

"Any two kids, when they're younger, they always want to be the best and that helped push us," Ryan said. "Same thing in football, too. I was pretty talented playing football, too, and he kind of excelled in that and I think I helped him there."

Ryan represented Saskatchewan in peewee baseball nationals in P.E.I. in 1998, the only summer he took off from hockey. Taking up residence behind home plate, Ryan showed off a rifle arm in setting a record for throwing out base runners at second, en route to several game MVP awards.

Mom Susan Getzlaf proudly points out her two boys filled a whole room of their home with trophies, plaques and ribbons from the many sports in which both boys excelled.

Over the Christmas break, Ryan Getzlaf continued demonstrating his immense promise as a key ingredient in Team Canada's gold-medal run at the world juniors, finishing second in team scoring with three goals and nine assists.

If NHL labour wranglings continue through the fall, Ryan will likely wind up playing for Cincinnati of the AHL, the Ducks' farm club, but all sports have a way of throwing curve balls.

Getzlaf was sidelined a month this season with a concussion suffered in a collision with Red Deer Rebels defenceman and future Calgary Flames blueliner Dion Phaneuf.

The talented centre's injury frightened his parents more than himself, although the concussion jolted the entire Getzlaf clan into a new perspective on life and Ryan's hockey career.

"It was hard for them because I'd never been through a serious injury before," Ryan says. "I had little minor ones before but the concussion scared my parents more than it did me."

Now fully recovered, Getzlaf spent part of this season discussing concussions with Calgary Flames forward Matthew Lombardi. He, too, suffered a much more serious head injury playing against Detroit in last spring's Stanley Cup playoffs. Lombardi has since recovered and returned to the ice with the Flames' affiliate in Lowell but Getzlaf remains affected emotionally by the injuries.

"I talked with Matt quite a bit and he was dealing with a lot the last little while and he's just started to get back now," says Getzlaf.

"He skated with our team quite a bit at the start of the year when he was still in Calgary. I still talk to him from time to time to see how he's doing.

"It opens your eyes a little bit to realize that serious injuries are out there.

"I'd never really been through a serious injury before but it shakes you a bit."

Danger off the ice has also been front and centre. Getzlaf used a portion of his signing bonus to get behind the wheel of a spanking new Hummer SUV, a safe choice that relieved his father Steve in light of the tragic car crash involving Calgary product Dany Heatley, that killed Atlanta Thrashers forward Dan Snyder.

Heatley's Ferrari was an unrecognizable pile of tangled metal after the accident, a tragic warning for other young athletes with untold wealth and the sudden urge to invest in a sports car.

"Oh yeah," sighs Steve Getzlaf.

"We talked a lot about it and his agent talked about it, too. About not buying a sports car and that if he were to buy something, to get something relatively safe to drive. That is a worry.

"I thought about that and Ryan did, too. We talked a little bit about how damaged that car was and how there wasn't much left of it."

Responsible choices off and on the ice have been an issue this season.

Getzlaf wore the captain's 'C' until stripped of it briefly last fall.

After regaining the letter and the leadership it implied, Getzlaf has raised expectations he'll lead the Hitmen to playoff success after three straight seasons without a series win.

"That's why you're appointed that," Getzlaf says of the leadership role.

"It's been that way for a couple of years. I've always been one of the leaders on the team and it's pretty clear this year that they expect big things out of me and it's got to happen."

Endless questions about the NHL lockout remain, postponing his pro career but for now, Getzlaf's solitary goal is fuelling a Hitmen playoff drive.

"I think you tend to think about the future a little bit but right now my main focus is facing Lethbridge and if the season ends up ending early, then I'll take it from there," Getzlaf suggests.

"At the start of the year, obviously, it was difficult with all the stuff that was going on and all the uncertainties with the NHL but I'm past that point now and we're just focusing on the playoffs."

And no matter how much success Ryan Getzlaf enjoys on the ice, brother Chris has earned an assist.


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