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Father Figures

To some little ones at home, the Caps players are known just as dads

by Ben Raby @benraby31 / WashingtonCaps.com

By NHL standards, John Carlson was still just a kid. Skating for a 2009-10 Capitals team that was led by 'Young Guns' Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and Mike Green, the 20-year-old Carlson was the youngest of the bunch.

Occasionally during his rookie season, though, Carlson wasn't the only 'kid' in the Capitals dressing room. At times, there were actual children sitting at locker stalls with their legs dangling over the bench, not yet long enough to touch the floor. Their dads would tie their skates, while they chewed bubble gum and threw hockey tape to anyone within reach.

"I remember in my first year or two, some of the older guys would bring their kids into the room," Carlson recalls nearly a decade later. "It looked so cool, that special bond that they had together with hockey."

Carlson can still remember veterans Mike Knuble and Brendan Morrison bringing their sons to the Capitals' practice facility and watching as their boys ran around like they owned the place.

"They were here all the time," Carlson says. "It was like 'Bring Your Kid to Work Day' every week."

By the time Knuble's three-year tenure with the Capitals was complete, his oldest son, Cam, was 12; his youngest, Cole, was 8.

"They'd always come to skate after practice on the weekends," Carlson says. "It didn't bother anybody. Those are special moments and it's a way for them to get to experience some of the life that we get every day."

It's also an experience that Carlson hopes to someday share with his two boys- Lucca, 3, and Rudy, who turns one in May.

"That would be great bonding time for us," he says.

Carlson is one of 10 current Capitals with little ones at home. They range in age from Braden Holtby's 6-year-old-son Benjamin to Alex Ovechkin's 6-month-old boy Sergei Aleksandrovich.

And while the 'Caps Dads,' all appreciate their NHL careers, they say that sharing the experiences with their sons and daughters provides them with a unique perspective.

"I'd be lying if I said it's not cool to be that dad," says Travis Boyd, who has a 4-year-old daughter, Hayden. "It gives you something to play for. It gives you something to come home to."

When Boyd was still playing for the AHL's Hershey Bears last season, Hayden spent nearly a week in the hospital due to an infection in her throat that required emergency surgery. When Boyd eventually returned to the ice, he said he'd dedicate his next game to Hayden and score a goal for her. He wound up scoring four.

"For sure, you're not just playing for yourself," Boyd says. "You play for your family; you play for your kids. It's great having that support."

In most cases, the children are still too young to fully grasp what their fathers do for a living. Defenseman Matt Niskanen says he's enjoyed seeing his son Charlie, 3, start to get it.

"He knows who Ovechkin is," Niskanen says. "I think Ovechkin is his favorite player, so he's got that going for him. But he's shown an interest in hockey and that makes me happy. It's cool that he should have some memories of me playing. It's pretty special that he's a part of everything."

Niskanen says he looks forward to skating alongside his little guy and perhaps watching him develop a knack for the game. After a few failed attempts to get Charlie skating last season, it was a different story earlier this year.

"He didn't want to come off the ice," Niskanen says. "But for a kid to be able to step into an NHL dressing room and to be able to say hi to the guys and they know his name, that's pretty cool. He's pretty shy around everybody, but every time he comes here he warms up a little bit more and it's a special thing that the Capitals are pretty family friendly around here."

As far as making hockey memories with his son, nothing tops last season's Stanley Cup triumph.

"I've been around hockey a long time and I had seen the Stanley Cup once and that was in a glass case," Niskanen says. "Meanwhile, he got to eat ice cream out of it. So he's a pretty lucky kid. It sure meant a lot to me to spend a day with him and the Cup and to go for a boat ride and eat ice cream out of it. He's three so I think there's a chance he'll remember parts of it. We've got a million photos of it too, so we'll always have that."

Niskanen wasn't the only Capitals player to enjoy the spoils with his children after the Stanley Cup. Days after Lars Eller scored the series-clinching game-winning goal, he rode in the Stanley Cup parade along Constitution Avenue with his daughter, Sophia, along for the ride.

"She was a part of that whole parade and soaked in that whole experience on the bus," Eller says. "Those things, even when you're just five years old, those will stick with you forever.

"She was very excited last year when we won. She was telling people about it all summer- everybody she randomly met, she told them about the Stanley Cup. She likes to come to the games and to watch and she's starting to show more interest. She's starting to learn all the guys' names and asking questions and just showing more interest. It's fun."

Eller has brought Sophia, now 6, to the MedStar Capitals Iceplex for a few post-practice skates on weekends this season. He's also brought her to a few practices before the team heads out for an extended road trip. NHL travel, which can have its perks with charter flights and five-star hotels, still means time away from home. And regardless of the profession, going on the road and leaving young kids behind can be tough on any parent. Hockey players are no exception.

"It's tougher to go on the road now," says Niskanen, a 12-year NHL veteran. "You're walking out the door to head to the airport and my kid is begging me not to go. That makes it a little tougher. But, thank God for technology."

Most players agree that access to FaceTime helps on the lengthy road trips. That is, when their little ones cooperate.

"I try to FaceTime but my son usually hangs up on me," Carlson says. "He just presses all the buttons. But if we're away for a while [as the Capitals were in February for 12 days], I know my youngest son will certainly be different and be doing different things and he'll be bigger. So it's tough sometimes to miss those things."

Holtby, who has a 6-year-old son and a 4-year-old daughter, agrees that the travel can be difficult but notes that NHL players do get to spend most of the summer with their families.

Holtby also says that it's important for NHL players to separate their work life from their home life and that raising young children puts things in perspective.

"You have more important things to do when you leave the rink," he says. "That's the number one job now- to raise kids that you'll be proud of and who will be good citizens. You don't want your work to ever affect how you are around your kids, because they don't get it at that age. They need support more than you do. So you have to put that away and be there for them."

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