If the front door was locked when Johnny Boychuk
came home from school, he knew the drill.
Grab a bucket of pucks, a wood stick and head to the driveway. Take 100 shots and the door would open.
“There were a couple of times [my brothers] locked me out and made me shoot,” Boychuk said. “That’s alright. I’d always shoot pucks all the time anyways, but I’d have to shoot a bucket of pucks, probably about 100 [to get inside].”
It’s worth noting that the average temperature in Edmonton, (Alberta) in January averages around 10 degrees Fahrenheit and that originally the nets and buckets were in the backyard. But after breaking a few neighbors’ windows, they moved the nets to the driveway. Sometimes his brother David – the middle brother and a WHL veteran – would shoot alongside him.
That driveway – and the Boychuk house – was in the Newton-Beverly Heights district of Edmonton, not far from where the Islanders will play the Oilers on Sunday night. For Boychuk, approaching the arena, or making a pit stop at Coliseum Steak and Pizza across the street, invokes a host of childhood hockey memories.
“Everything was centered around hockey,” Boychuk said. “Either watching or playing hockey, it’s just the way it was back home.”
Edmonton has harsh winters, but the climate makes the game very accessible. Forget renting ice at the Oilers arena; there was more than enough within walking distance of the Boychuk family home.
“We had a pretty good neighborhood because the rink was pretty much a block-and-a-half away from us,” Boychuk said. “Everybody in the community played hockey right after school. You’d play for a bit, go home, eat dinner, do homework and go back to the rink. Everybody had their set time where you could go and play shinny and get together and play hockey after your school work.”
Boychuk spent a lot of time at the rink and a lot of time with his brothers, an upbringing that shaped who he is as a hockey player and a person today. David said that Boychuk-now is just like Boychuk-then.
“You see his happy-go-lucky attitude, he’s always been like that,” David Boychuk said. “He’s a kid who’d hug his teachers. Even today, if he sees his old teachers, he’s hugging them.”
“He’s just one of those kids that’s very down to earth,” he said. “He’s always joking around and it’s never going to change, which is why everybody likes him.”
David Boychuk said that being in the NHL, winning a Stanley Cup in 2011 and signing a seven-year contract with the Islanders hasn’t gone to his [brother’s] head. Boychuk knows his parents had to make sacrifices to support his and his brother’s hockey careers, such as using their vacation time for travel hockey tournaments, and that he wouldn’t be here without his family.
“We’re very close as a family and as brothers,” Johnny Boychuk said. “If it were reversed, it’d be the same no matter what. We’re all close and we’re always going to be close.”
Despite playing for teams far from home, he’s stayed close to his roots during his whole NHL career. When Boychuk signed his first contract with the Colorado Avalanche, he bought his childhood home from his parents. They moved to a nicer part of the city, while Johnny and his oldest brother Sam moved back in after renovating the place. (There’s no word on whether he made Sam shoot pucks before he let him into the house.)
It was both a “thank you” to his parents, who were supportive of his hockey career, and a way to stay connected to his roots. Boychuk still exudes a wealth of civic pride and tries to extend his stays in Edmonton when he can. While the Islanders enjoyed an off-day in Calgary on Friday, Boychuk drove two-and-a-half hours north after the game to spend an extra day with his family, including his wife and twin daughters who flew in from Long Island.
He sold his childhood home two years ago, moving to a neighborhood near his brothers, but they still drive down the street every now and then, just to see how the old place looks. When Boychuk laces up his skates at Rexall Place on Sunday night he’ll know that he’s come a long way since the days in the driveway, but that it’s also – and always – just a few blocks away.