Brady Vail understands exactly what kind of sacrifice it's taken for him to get to where he is.
The Windsor Spitfires center, No. 38 on NHL Central Scouting's final ranking of North American skaters for the 2012 NHL Draft, has traveled a long way on his hockey journey, but having most of his family by his side the whole time has made that trip a lot easier.
The next step on that road will be the draft in Pittsburgh, where the family will enjoy some rare quality time together.
"It's been a long road for a broken-up family," Vail told NHL.com. "So whenever we can all get together, we make the most of it."
2012 NHL DRAFT
Draft high in dramaBy Mike G. Morreale - NHL.com Staff Writer
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They haven't had much time together in the last five years as Vail's hockey dreams have taken him far from the family's home in Palm City, Fla.
Vail began his hockey career almost as a last-ditch option.
"He was always a big kid," Bob Vail, Brady's father, told NHL.com. "He hit a baseball in tee ball and he hit a kid with a ball and the kid started crying and Brady was upset. So we thought we had to find something else. So we got him into an 8-and-under [inline] hockey league."
Brady turned 5 during that first season, and by the time he turned 6, he was the league's leading goal scorer. Brady's name started growing around hockey circles in Florida, and he started to get invited to tournaments all around the southeast.
At age 7, Brady switched from inline skates to ice skates with little difficulty.
"A bunch of my buddies started playing ice hockey," Brady said. "I would watch it on TV all the time and it caught my eye and interest and I wanted to try it out. Once I tried it, I couldn't get enough."
Brady excelled on youth teams around Florida, but it was obvious he was a big fish in a small pond.
"When you play in Florida you play about 30 games," Bob Vail said. "And if you're on a good team … Brady already played up [a year in competition], the year before he left he played up on a peewee major team, [former Florida Panther] Ray Sheppard was his coach, we went to USA Hockey Nationals representing the southeast. Then we said what do we do now? We had 35 games and most of them were against kids 2-3 years older. It was just kind of a struggle. My wife drove, it was a three-hour round trip to the practice rink, we looked at the cost … we said maybe there's a better way to do this."
The family made the decision to accept an offer for Brady, then 13, to play with the Detroit-based Compuware hockey organization. To make sure Brady was well taken care of, the family decided that mom Susan and younger sister Katie would move to Michigan with Brady, while Bob would stay home in Florida, where he works for a construction and development company.
"Suffice it to say when we made the decision to do it, I don't think we really understood how long and how difficult it would be," Bob Vail said. "I always tell people … it's been a lot of great moments, we're super-proud of him. He's my favorite subject to talk about. There's also been a lot of separation anxiety along the way."
The time apart has been difficult on the family, but it allowed Brady's hockey career to take off. After two seasons with Compuware, he played for the Waterloo Black Hawks of the United States Hockey League as a 15-year-old. He had four goals in 48 games, but he drew the attention of the Spitfires, who selected him in the fourth round of the 2010 OHL draft.
His mother and sister have been by his side the whole way, with his father visiting a few times a month.
"It was the biggest sacrifice any family could do," Brady said. "For them to do that, I owe all this to them. For my mom and my sister to move with me, I say thanks. They've always been there for me, and my dad, always pushing me to work harder. I owe a lot of that to them."
Last season, he had three goals and 10 points in 61 games, but brought his game up another level in 2011-12, finishing third on the team with 22 goals and 52 points in 62 games.
"He's a player that I can use in a lot of different situations," Windsor coach Bob Boughner told NHL.com. "He's a player I have a lot of trust in. He can play top-end minutes, he's in very good shape and a great skater. That allows him to play heavy minutes. I think he's responsible in his own end and plays against top lines in a shut-down role. He also has offense to his game."
"He's the kind of kid that's working hard on every shift," Central Scouting's Chris Edwards told NHL.com. "Blocking shots, doing what it takes to win. Aggressive on the forecheck, finishes his checks. He's not the biggest guy around but he's around the puck all the time."
Vail credits his improvement this past season to spending the offseason working out with some Windsor alums who spent the summer at the team's facilities, among them New Jersey Devils center and Calder Trophy finalist Adam Henrique.
"Henny [Henrique] is a great guy," Vail said. "He was with us last summer a lot. Just to work out with guys like that, Zack Kassian, [Eric] Wellwood … it makes you want to push yourself to keep up with them. You keep pushing and pushing until you're almost there, and they keep pushing themselves to be better. It's just a big competition, everyone together. That's what makes everyone better.
"We're all in one little gym and you can just watch them and see it, how high they jump or how much weight they're throwing up. It's all different. You can watch them and see how hard they're working and how tired they are at the end. You want to be that tired at the end so you can be like them."
Boughner said staying in Windsor last summer and seeing those Windsor alums in action off the ice was just what Vail needed.
"He realized that sticking around here would be the best thing for him," Boughner said. "I think that he went through a whole summer here where he was surrounded by these NHL guys and how hard they worked. He knew that was a big thing he was missing. From working out side by side, it naturally helped him compete and helped him, and it really related into a good hockey season for him."
The payoff for all the hard work and sacrifice will come at the draft in Pittsburgh, with the entire family on hand to celebrate together.
"There's no question that we make the most of our time together because we just appreciate the time together so much," Bob Vail said. "Some families get bored with each other. When we get together, we're together. It might be something stupid, but we're doing it together."
Contact Adam Kimelman at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter: @NHLAdamK