TORONTO - For three years, between the ages of 13 and 16, Tyler Seguin would wake up at 5:30 in the morning and catch a series of buses that would take him from his home in Brampton to school at St. Michael’s College in midtown Toronto.
Before he ever went on the road as a hockey player, the kid was taking daily road trips by himself.
His father, Paul, tells the story, in trying to relate where Seguin has been, as child prodigy and as professional hockey player, and almost certainly where he is going. The kid was born with immense talent, his skating pushing beyond players of his age for most of his minor hockey years. His father, the former U.S. collegiate hockey player, saw that from an early age. He didn’t want it to be too easy for his son. He kept placing challenges before him.
“I think a lot of what was done, made Tyler stronger,” said Paul Seguin, the relieved father who watched his frustrated son walk out of the press box and into Stanley Cup stardom like no one before him. “We knew there were going to be challenges in his life and in hockey. And I believe he was used to the challenges. But there were a few times when he had to have mom or dad pick up the phone or go down and see him. I think every kid needs that. But he has this amazing ability to overcome challenges, whatever they are.”
At the age of 16, still such a tender age for most developing boys, Seguin left home for junior hockey. It wasn’t just leaving home. He left the country. He changed school systems, left his friends behind. He went to live in Plymouth, Mich., which may be only slightly further away than driving from Brampton to St. Mike’s in rush hour, And there, his coach, Mike Vellucci, realized what talent he had and rather than do the normal junior thing and exploit it absolutely, he built structure around Seguin. He moved him from centre to the wing on occasion. He told him if he was going to make it in the NHL, he’d have to learn to play on third and fourth lines, play stop and start hockey rather than free flow, before he could move to his eventual spot leading a team’s offence.
“Ever since he was young, he’s been knocked down a few times, and we thought that was good,” said Paul. “I kept telling him, the way to evolve and grow is to keep being challenged. I kept doing that because when things got easy for him, I kept telling him, ‘You’ve got to find ways to get better.’ I know as a kid, he always wanted to play on the winning teams like the Marlies or Junior Canadiens. He wanted all those cups the other kids were winning. We kept him on the same team (Young Nationals) that was never as good a team. I told him ‘You’re going to get better playing on a lesser team, not the kind of teams that wins by blowout scores in every game.’”
Why does all this matter now? Because Seguin didn’t simply dress for the Boston Bruins in his first games of the Stanley Cup playoffs — Games 1 and 2 of the Eastern Conference final. He leapt off the page. For those who have doubted his selection as the second player in the draft, the key Boston acquisition in the controversial Phil Kessel trade, his four-point performance in a single playoff period ostensibly saved his team’s playoff season with one fell swoop. In breathtaking fashion. If there were doubts last week about Seguin, there are almost none now. And more than anyone, Paul Seguin, who has been waiting for one of those breakthrough nights, understood how it had come to be.
This season has been one long test for Seguin. Any rookie playing for Claude Julien understands that. He didn’t get much of a chance to show his wares. He didn’t get a lot of power play time or first line treatment. And when he did get some ice — not that often — he didn’t show all that much. It has not been an easy road at all, and Paul Seguin admits that a few times throughout the season, either he or his wife had to get on the phone, listen to him, occasionally make the trip to Boston, just to make certain he was keeping his focus.
“What happens with kids like this is, you’ve been the best player at every level and then you get to a level when you’re not the best player and you get told you’re not ready to play at that level,” said Gary Roberts, the former NHL stalwart who now trains players in North York and works for the Dallas Stars. “Some kids mentally aren’t prepared to do it. That’s where the family comes in. That’s where the upbringing comes in. If you’ve been brought up with good standards and morals and work ethic that matters. You just can’t show up and play. Some kids aren’t willing to do what they have to do and they squander their talents.”
Roberts is impressed by what he’s seen of Seguin.
“I’d say Tyler Seguin’s figured it out,” said Roberts. “Whatever he’s been doing away from the ice and on the ice, it’s all starting to click for him. What he did the other night was impressive to watch. As a player, you have to be prepared to fight through the hard times. He’s obviously done that and put in the work to do so.”
And while he had some doubts if he would emerge this soon, his father knew it was only a matter of time and opportunity.
“You just have to keep working and working, that’s what we’ve talked about,” he said. “The best players are those who develop and get stronger and better when nobody’s watching. You keep doing stuff to make yourself better. We have lots of conversations about that.”
Then came Tuesday night and not even a father or a son, optimistic at best, could have imagined what occurred. Seguin had scored a picturesque first playoff goal in Game 1 of the series, despite limited ice time. Then, in the rapid-fire, un-playoff-like Game 2 between Seguin’s Boston Bruins and the Tampa Bay Lightning, a game of pond hockey broke out and Seguin was startling. He scored his second highlight reel goal in two games, again announcing his arrival.
“It’s tough to have gone through what he’s gone through,” said his dad. “You may have teammates and you may have some help, but really, you have to go through this on your own. His teammates have been unbelievable to him. He’s very close to Brad Marchand, who’s gone through it himself. He’s close to Michael Ryder, too. And he’s gotten some support from older players like (Tim) Thomas and (Zdeno) Chara too. The players have really helped keep his spirits up.
“I just feel good for Tyler. He’s had to hear things all year long. At first, it was Tyler and Taylor (Hall). Then he sees his ex-teammate, Jeffrey Skinner, who’s a great player, doing what he was doing, probably winning rookie of the year. And you hear Seguin only has 11 and 11 (goals and assists). What nobody says is, he’s playing under eight minutes a night. You can’t compare apples and oranges. But to see him get the ice time (in Game 2) and make a few things happen, that just felt really good for him. He deserved it.
“I talked to him after the game and I told him ‘I’m proud of you.’ Not that we weren’t proud before. But I know how hard it’s been for him. It’s just nice for him, for the year he’s had, for something to happen. Now, let’s keep it going.”