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Doing it for the Dads

by Cory Wright / New York Islanders

Anders Lee has told his father all about the perks of life as a pro hockey player: the pristine equipment, the chartered flights, the gourmet meals.

Tom Lee thought his son was kidding that there would be a steak on the plane for him; some things just don’t feel real until you actually cut into the tenderloin.

“I could tell him as much as I could, but until he saw the menu on the plane, I don’t think he had any idea of how it really is,” Lee said. “He asked if it was a special thing for the dads and I said, ‘no, they treat us well.’”

“If I ever hear any complaining about a long road trip,” Tom said, his fatherly authority coming to the forefront, “I’m going to remind him how he’s living.”

The Islanders had a chance to bring fathers, mentors and brothers on their three-game trip to Philadelphia, Boston and Buffalo this past week. The dads got a first-hand NHL experience, jetting in the team plane, staying at first-class hotels, going to practices, games as well as excursions to breweries and ball parks.

This was the first dad’s/mentor’s trip for the Lees. It’s a chance for Anders and his teammates to say ‘thank you’ for all the tied skates and early morning practices.

“He and my mom were the cornerstones and foundation of my career,” Lee said. “They were there every day, making sure that I had the opportunities and getting me the skates and all that stuff. He always kept a level head with me and continued to make the game fun. Now he’s soaking it up and I’m enjoying it with him.”

Ask the veteran dads and they’ll tell you the experience never gets old. The cities change, the characters change slightly, but the mentors never tire of watching the team alongside like-minded, beer-drinking hockey dads.

“It’s perfect as always. It’s always fantastic to be with those guys,” Frits Nielsen said. “There are three things that make the dads happy. An Islanders victory, as we normally have during the dads the trip, peace and a cold beer.”

Or beers.

Ballpark tours – the dad’s visited Fenway Park in Boston, Citizens Bank Park and Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia – and pub crawls keep them busy during team workouts and naps, but the real attraction is watching their sons take the ice.

Watch a game with the dad’s/mentors and you’re embedded with some of the biggest die-hard Islanders fans around. They’re clad in team-issued blue jackets with their son’s number printed over the chest.

Everyone is relaxed and loose during the play stoppages, slapping backs, eating and drinking, but during play, an intense focus comes over the suite. The room is oddly quiet; it’s not that they aren’t talking, they just aren’t talking to each other. Instead their remarks are directed at their sons, urging, encouraging and sometimes pleading.

It’s exactly what they would be doing if they were in their living rooms.

The highs are high – this group isn’t afraid to Yes! Yes! Yes! in hostile Philadelphia or Boston – but the lows do feel low, as long faces are the last thing any of them want to see after the game. There are misplays in any game, but just as the Islanders pick each other up, the dad do the same, forming their own team at suite level.

They even named a captain.

“The camaraderie among the fathers shows exactly what they are doing on the ice,” Chris Bailey, the “captain” said. “All the guys are tight like this, the dads are tight like this. This is the best group of dads I’ve seen in seven years.”

Bailey is a veteran of these trips, so he speaks from a position of authority when he said it is the best group he’s seen. He’s also a positive, supportive and engaged hockey dad and these trips are helping him work towards a personal goal. Bailey is on a mission to see his son play in all 30 NHL cities. TD Garden was rink 19. By the end of the season, he expects to be at 21.

“He did it in the OHL too,” Josh Bailey said. “For all the dads to be here together is something special too. It’s something they all enjoy, as players we all enjoy it too. It’s some added motivation for everyone and it’s always nice to get a win in front of it.”

The Islanders didn’t disappoint – not that they likely could – winning two of three on the road. Watching their sons win is important to the dads, but losses are not the end of the world. The supportive environment fostered by the dads is part of the reason these players have made it this far and why they are enjoying the ride together.

And after a decisive 3-2 win Sunday night to conclude the trip, the Lees, Baileys and the rest of the duos celebrated with steaks at 30,000 feet.

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