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Jankowski carries on rich tradition with the game of hockey

by GEORGE JOHNSON @GJohnsonFlames /

The spry 90-year-old carrot-topped Hall-of-Famer is keeping tabs on his great-nephew.

"I'll bet his dad's walking on air right now,'' laughs Red Kelly, a characteristic Irish twinkle in his voice. "I think that's great.

"I know he's proud. We all are.

"Mark came over a few times to the house with his mom and dad when they were in town. Big boy even then but I bet he's put on some weight and is much stronger now.

"My son" - Conn, who operates a hockey school in Newport Beach, R.I., a 45-minute drive from Providence, where Mark Jankowski played collegiate hockey - "saw him play many times and thought he was a heckuva player. So we'd hear periodically what was happening.

"I heard about his first goal for the Flames the other night. Didn't see it, unfortunately. But I sure did hear about it.

"And two goals Monday, you say? Good for him.

"Talking to Lou Lamoriello of the Leafs, I know he's pretty high on the young man, too."

Yes, Mark Jankowski's trending in all sorts of hockey circles, a very hot commodity right at the moment.

Over and above the size, the appetite to achieve and obvious skill, this is someone whose hockey roots run deep and strong.

Kelly, of course, hoisted the Stanley Cup aloft on eight different occasions (four each with Detroit and Toronto), was a four-time First Team All-Star, a four-time Lady Byng Trophy winner and honoured in the NHL's Top-100 All-Time Players list during the league's centenary celebrations.

Jankowski's grandfather, the late Lou Jankowski, split 130 NHL games between Chicago and Detroit as well as spending five seasons in Calgary, 1958 through '63, as a centre-winger for the Western Hockey League Stampeders.

He also worked as a scout for St. Louis, Washington, the NY Rangers and the NHL's Central Scouting Bureau while based here in the city.

Dad Len played three seasons on the wing for the ECAC's Cornell Big Red, only a couple of years before a certain Joe Nieuwendyk arrived on campus. And uncle Ryan has worked as assistant GM for the NY Islanders, a scout for the Montreal Canadiens, in the Hockey Canada program and now serves as the Buffalo Sabres' Director of Amateur Scouting.

Quite the lineage.

"It's pretty cool, having the bloodlines I do,'' agrees the Flames' freshman centre. "Those Calgary ties from the days my grandpa played for the Stampeders are really special to me. And obviously, my great-uncle Red.

"My dad, my mom (Rosemary), all those people you mentioned, they're the reason I'm here right now. My parents, I owe them so much. Just their belief in me, that I could play at this level someday, meant so much to actually achieving that dream.

"The support of my whole family, the calming presence, the patience … such a big part of everything I do."

Everyone hereabouts is by now acutely familiar with the Mark Jankowski story, of how the Flames' GM at the time, Jay Feaster, wandered way off the form chart to nab a beanpole high-schooler from Quebec's Stanstead College with the 21st pick in the 2012 draft in Pittsburgh.

Of the wait for maturation as the unproven, unpolished prospect first committed to Providence College, helping the Friars collect the illustrious Frozen Four title in 2015, up to his eye-catching rookie pro season at Stockton in 2016-17.

Of the five-year wait between selection and validation.

"We knew the process of the draft,'' says his dad now. "You come to realize that players, more often than not, don't step right in. You've got Sean (Monahan) and Sam Bennett there, who jumped right in from Day 1. But that's the exception, not the rule.

"Being drafted just means someone thinks you have some talent, that's all.

"I remember the Flames put him through a number of questions at the time. There must've been 50 people in the room. They grilled him, trying to figure out if this kid really had the necessary desire. They did all kinds of research. It was unbelievable, the things they checked on.

"And they came to the conclusion that this kid wants it. He really does."

Family and hockey family. Those are the things that matter most to Jankowski. This current road trip, his first extended one as an NHLer, started off on a sombre note Tuesday in Michigan, when he attended the funeral of former Providence teammate Drew Brown, just 25. Brown died Saturday of a rare form of bone cancer which was discovered after he was injured during the 2014 Hockey East semifinal.

The game and its people have been a part of his life virtually the entirety of his life.

The Jankowskis were actually Buffalo Sabres season-ticket holders back in the day.

"Mark went with me to games all the time,'' recalls his dad, who gave up hockey to pursue a career in engineering. "Initially, the noise and the lights and the smoke when the players skated onto the ice fascinated him.

"He really wanted to do that.

"And I remember his first game as a Mite, on a Saturday morning, he bust out of there onto the ice, the way the NHL players, his heroes, did, but something caught him and tripped him up. He fell. And he was not happy.

"As a player, he was always … good. His very first game, he went out and scored five goals and I'm kind of like 'Hmmmm … Maybe this kid has some talent.'"

Growing up, young Jankowski idolized shifty Buffalo winger Maxim Afinogenov.

"He was a member of the Sabres Club, too, at some point,'' recalls Len.

"Mark and I were actually there when they lost the Cup (to Dallas) on that Brett Hull goal. We were at the other end of the ice, though. He was small enough that he could sit on my knee at that point."

Jankowski's journey to the NHL has resonated here, and back home.

Uncle Ryan credits his half-brother Len - Lou Jankowski remarrying after divorcing Len's mom - with being the stabilizing influence in the gradual cultivation of a talent.

"It's beyond-belief exciting,'' enthuses Ryan, from a bird-dogging trip in Sweden on behalf of the Sabres. "I grew up in the game, with dad scouting, assessing players, then got into it myself. So that part of the business is familiar to me.

"What I saw with Mark early on was a kid passionate about the game of hockey. To be an under-the-radar player, even in his draft year, and to be selected by the team that wound up taking him - given his grandfather's legacy in Calgary - and to carry the Jankowski name the way he has, the way he continues to … that's what's so exciting for our family.

"Mark was a late bloomer. The family understood that being patient was going to be the right route, that it included college and some time in the American league. But throughout this process, what's important, what should never be underestimated, is that Len knew

"He knew Mark had the heart, the guts, the instincts, to be a player. I think Len's the one that took things in stride, set the tone.

"That group of people - Len, Mark, his agent, Wade Arnott - handled everything right. And credit to the Calgary Flames, too. They allowed him to develop properly. They didn't rush him along. It was time-consuming for a lot of people but that's what development is."

The wait has been long.

But, indications are, well worth it. For everyone involved.

The night Jankowski notched his first NHL goal, Nov. 9, that carom of a Jaromir Jagr shot glancing off his leg and behind Detroit netminder Petr Mrazek, Ryan's mom, Rosanne, was in the stands at the Scotiabank Saddledome.

"You know,'' says Ryan, "I've drafted a few players in my time. I drafted Travis Hamonic, a lot of guys playing in the NHL. And there's always something special whenever they score.

"But there's nothing to compare to when a family member first plays in the NHL, and then scores his first goal. Nothing.

"And to have my mom there, well, it brought a tear to my eye. It really did. But Mark, as you know, is such a great kid."

Jankowski's parents were at home by themselves watching on television when their boy notched No. 1.

One daughter, Natalie, is in Michigan. Another, Nicole, at optometry school in Waterloo. And young David was busy playing hockey in the Central Ottawa League at Oxford.

"We just couldn't be prouder of where he's come from to where he's at now,'' says Len. "My dad, he'd be so pleased, I know.

"On the TV we couldn't quite see what happened on that first goal. I thought he batted it with his stick because the camera angle was behind him. Then the controversy about whether it was good or not.

"When the announcers said 'No. no kicking motion. None of that', the first time I realized he hadn't actually shot the puck.

"When it was declared in, my wife and I both kinda jumped in the air and screamed. Just a 'Wow!' moment."

There promises to be many more of those Wow! moments to come in the years ahead. For both the Jankowski family, the Flames and their faithful. 

"We always said, after Mark was drafted, that it was gIong to be a journey to reach the NHL,'' says his dad. "Well, he's finally there now.

"So another journey begins."

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