Hockey's always been front and centre for Taylor Pyatt. Well, not quite. It was behind him mostly...in the back yard, to be precise.
His father Nelson flooded the back yard every winter up in Thunder Bay, ON, where the freezing winds off Lake Superior ensured a crisp, clean sheet. That meant plenty of ice time for Taylor and his two brothers, Tom and Jesse. In a town where windshields need scraping well into March, hockey is more than a game.
"It's a huge part of the community," says Pyatt. "It's pretty cold up there so there's not a lot to do there in the winter but skate."
He did plenty of that. Hockey was in Taylor's blood from birth, and long days chopping around in the backyard only helped it take a firmer hold.
"My dad played," says the soft-spoken Pyatt. "And I have two brothers that both play hockey as well. It's kind of a way of life."
His dad logged 296 games between Washington, Detroit, and Colorado in the 70's and early 80's before winding up his career in Germany. Older brother Jesse is a centre with the Reading Royals in the LA Kings' farm system. The youngest, Tom, was drafted 107th overall by the Rangers in 2005 and plays wing with the Saginaw Spirit of the OHL. SIBLING RIVALRY
"[Tom] will probably be on the World Junior team again and he's off to a really good start," says Pyatt, tugging at the laces of mammoth size 13 skates after a morning practice. "My older brother [Jesse] had a concussion. He's playing in the East Coast league. I don't know if he's going to be able to come back this year. He's still got a few symptoms so it's tough for him."
"We still keep in touch, call once in a while, text message things like that, just to see how each other's doing."
With two brothers, and a NHL dad in charge of ice, Pyatt never had to shout too loud to wrangle up a game of shinny.
Whether it was a heated battle among the three brothers waged until the glow from the porch light grew too dim, or the whole neighbourhood clashing behind the Pyatt house on weekends, competition was always tough.
"Taylor would pretend to fight with me once in a while," says 19-year-old brother Tom. "He'd drop the gloves and have a pretend fight. He was always so much bigger than me and sometimes his punches were a little harder than he thought. I was just a little one so I'd go inside and cry and tell my mom. He'd tell me to go back outside and I'd go and swing my stick. We always had fun times back there."
At 6'4", 220-pounds, Pyatt's punch still smarts, though these days he's more likely to skin his knuckles taping a stick than throwing a fist. As the new 'brother' on the Sedin's line, Pyatt's already proving he's as good at working the puck across the goal line as he is working opponents over in the corner. By mid-November, he was neck-and-neck with Markus Naslund and Daniel Sedin
for the team goal-scoring lead.
With a little less competition as a kid, Pyatt might just as easily be battling Roberto Luongo
"I remember one Christmas, we got goalie pads," says Taylor. "That was definitely one of the best Christmas gifts we ever had. We got a lot of use out of those in the backyard rink."
Thankfully for the Canucks, stiff competition meant the Pyatt boys rotated in goal and Taylor never spent enough time between the pipes to sidetrack his power-forward game. Injuries were a different story.
"I think when I was about 14 years old, I kind of caught a rut in the ice," says Pyatt. "The ice was kind of chewed up because everyone was skating on it all day. I caught a rut skating backwards, and I slammed back and broke my elbow. That was definitely not a good moment."
The cracked elbow, the bone-chilling wind that could bring a bare-knuckle brawler to tears, and Tom's retaliatory slashing didn't dissuade Taylor from spending as much time on the ice as his parents would allow. And with Nelson watching, that was plenty. LIKE FATHER-LIKE SON
Pyatt doesn't remember his dad's playing days. His father was nearing the end of his career when Pyatt was born. He still carries a stash of his dad's pictures and old hockey cards with him, though Nelson's hockey legacy runs much deeper than some closely guarded memorabilia.
Nelson spent hours out on the backyard tutoring five-year-old Taylor, the budding power forward with the tree-trunk legs. He taught Taylor how to skate, where to find the open ice, and how to hold it.
"That's when I was first starting out," he says. "It was great to have him there through all the experiences and all the tough times."
Like the first few lean years in Buffalo where eight goals and 20 points in a third-line role was considered a disappointment for a Canadian boy with lofty expectations.
Five years into his NHL career, Pyatt's peak was a 14-goal, 28-point season in 2002-03, though the former eighth overall pick in 1999 appears destined for bigger things in Vancouver. Pyatt's already bested last season's total when he scored six goals in an injury-shortened, 41-game campaign. Nobody's as excited about Pyatt's promising start as his dad.
"He's got to stay up pretty late to watch the games (it's a 3 hour difference), but he's pretty excited for me," says Pyatt. "He's soaking it up."
His dad watches the game from a Thunder Bay firehall, which, with all the hoses and pumps, explains the glass-smooth ice-sheet in the back yard.
"Actually he just went to captain so he's pretty excited about that," says Pyatt. "But I'm not even sure what it really means."
Judging by the way things are going, it looks like there will be plenty of time to ask. Pyatt seems to have found a home with the Canucks, planted at the top of the crease with Daniel and Henrik circling.
His parents recently visited Vancouver and fell in love with the city. They hope to visit again soon and of course, to watch their son in action. It's a big change for everyone, Pyatt included, but certainly a welcome one. Even the torrential Vancouver downpours aren't all that bad.
"It's a lot better than the minus 30 and three feet of snow everyday," says Pyatt. "I'm definitely enjoying it. I just have to get used to the rain."
Unforunately, there are not too many frozen back yards in Vancouver, and, thankfully, it rarely gets cold enough to freeze all that rain. But one gets the impression Pyatt wouldn't mind the odd cold snap...just for old time's sake.