RALEIGH, N.C. --Despite being the middle of summer, the Carolina Hurricanes locker room is buzzing with an unusual kind of hockey energy. The players there, for the most part, are not ready for the NHL, draft picks and camp invitees finishing their first day of prospect development camp. They are wide-eyed and enthusiastic, hustling to get ready for a team dinner.
But just outside the dressing area two players clearly are on another wavelength. They are holding court with Hurricanes general manager Ron Francis, who gives the two young men his undivided attention. The scene looks a bit unusual: Two development-camp players driving the conversation with a member of the Hockey Hall of Fame.
The two up-and-comers are brothers Mike Chiasson and Ryan Chiasson. They earned their invitations to camp, just as they did their audience with Francis. Yet if there is the sense Francis is giving extra care to these two players in particular, it's because he is.
Mike and Ryan are the sons of Steve Chiasson, a Hurricanes defenseman who died on May 3, 1999 in a single-car accident hours after the Hurricanes lost their first round Stanley Cup Playoffs series against the Boston Bruins. Chiasson and Francis were teammates then; Mike was 8 years old at the time of the accident, Ryan was 4.
Today, Mike is a 23-year old defenseman ready to start his senior season at the University of Michigan. Ryan, 20, plays junior hockey for the Dubuque Fighting Saints of the United States Hockey League, where he recently switched from defense to forward.
"Michael has earned the opportunity having been at Michigan," Francis said. "Ryan is still trying to catch his break and find a college that will give him an opportunity. But when you bring kids into a camp like this, it gives them that education that maybe puts them over the hump."
Playing together in a Hurricanes camp means a great deal to the Chiassons. It is here where they both have memories of their father.
"If he was off on Saturday or Sunday, he would just hang out with us, being a regular dad," Mike said. "Or midday during the week, he would find time to come into school and talk to the kids or read a book."
The memories are fewer for Ryan, but they are indelible.
"I have little tidbits of remembering, like coming to the rink and hanging out before and after the game," he said, remembering the two years the Hurricanes played in Greensboro, N.C., before settling in Raleigh in October of 1999. "I do remember skating on family days out at the rink. So there are little things I do remember."
Mike and Ryan each possess remarkable confidence and poise. It starts with their handshakes and personal greetings. But it is most evident in the way they cope with their loss.
"There are times I would like to ask him questions about my game, things he could help me with on the ice and off the ice," Ryan said. "It is tough not having him help me in those situations."
Even today the brothers take comfort in what they learn about their father. Responding to a stranger who remembers him fondly, they each express their gratitude warmly.
"The great thing about the hockey community is so many people had an interaction with my father at some point in his career," Mike said. "The stories I hear reflect everything my mom has told me about him and everything I remember about him, how he was a family man first and how he treated my mom. I'm very thankful I had a dad like that, such a good role model [even] for a short time."
Steve Chiasson played 13 seasons with the Detroit Red Wings, Calgary Flames and the Hartford/Carolina franchise. His best season came in 1992-93 when he had 62 points for the Red Wings. The longevity and the numbers will be difficult for his sons to duplicate, but like most young players, Mike and Ryan plan to take their shot.
"I'm going to try to play professionally at some point, whether it's here in North America or it's overseas," said Mike, who said he would like to work in an NHL front office someday. "I have no desire to give up on it. It's been a huge part of my life. An environment like this is where I feel at home and where I belong."
Ryan hopes the switch to forward, made at the request of his coach in January, will give him the chance to play four years at a Division I university. The Fighting Saints are counting on him to play a rugged brand of hockey. That thought makes him smile.
"They want me to play physical and tough up front," Ryan said. "My dad did that a little bit in his early years."
For a week the brothers are together, wearing the red and white sweater their father wore. It's a chance to add another chapter to the family's hockey history. And before the week is out Francis said he might share another story about Mike and Ryan's father.
"I loved him as a person and I loved him as a teammate," Francis said of Steve Chiasson. "When it came time to play, he played hard. I loved his sense of humor, kind of dry and sarcastic.
"He was just a good all-around person. It's great to see some of those traits in his boys as they grow up. I know he would be extremely proud of the fine young men they have turned out to be."
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