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Leaving home to pursue hockey tough on families

by Brian Hedger
Jonathan Toews still remembers the conversation with his mother well.

Just a few weeks after leaving home at the age of 15 to attend school and play hockey at prestigious Shattuck St. Mary's in Minneapolis, she wanted him to come back home to Winnipeg. Her son wasn't even old enough to drive, yet he was already living on his own in a dormitory hours away.

"She was getting pretty emotional on the phone," said Toews, the 23-year old captain of the Chicago Blackhawks who was dubbed "Captain Serious" by his teammates. "She wanted me to come home and I said, 'No, I've got to stick with this decision. There's no going back now.'"

Toews thinks about that decision now and feels like it was great for his career. Not long after, his younger brother David made the same decision to leave home for Shattuck St. Mary's. Both wound up being selected in the NHL Draft, so you could say the decision paid off in the long run.

However, it wasn't easy and Toews understands that a lot of parents probably struggle with the idea of sending their sons off to play a higher level of hockey elsewhere. For those considering it, he advises making a sound decision and taking as much time to debate it as necessary.

"(Parents) definitely have to take a lot of time to think about it and weigh the pros and cons of what they want and what their son wants. I was the one who made that decision. I wanted to go and I was ready to stick with it." -- Hawks captain, Jonathan Toews

"(Parents) definitely have to take a lot of time to think about it and weigh the pros and cons of what they want and what their son wants," Toews said. "I was the one who made that decision. I wanted to go and I was ready to stick with it."

He's not alone among his NHL peers.

There are plenty of pros in the League who never had to live with a host family or in a dorm to play elite travel hockey, but there are also a lot who did, including Blackhawks star forward Patrick Sharp.

He left his home in Thunder Bay, Ont., at 15 to play in the Ottawa Junior League with his older brother. They stayed with a host family, the Webers, whom Sharp still stays in touch with today, and it worked out well.

Still, he said, there were rough patches to get through.

"It takes a pretty big sacrifice," said Sharp, who remembers using calling cards and arena pay phones after games to call home. "I was upset about moving away. I was excited to play junior hockey and it was always my goal to get to that next level, but you miss out on a lot of things at that age … 14, 15 and 16. Your friends (back home) are in high school and you're calling home and checking in to see how things are going. It's tough, but I was fortunate because I had a great host family and my brother was with me."

For those who don't have the option of living in a dorm, Sharp said fining a good host family is a must if a youngster opts to leave home. Concerns on the ice are secondary, he said.

"As a parent, I would want my son or daughter to be with a good family and in a good situation," he said. "It can be kind of easy to forget about a person. When they're living away, you're just assuming they're living in good hands. Most hockey programs are similar. There's good ones and bad ones, but the lifestyle off the ice is what I'd watch for."

That's exactly what Detroit Red Wings captain Nicklas Lidstrom did two summers ago, when his oldest son Kevin, who's now 17, pushed the idea of attending school and playing in the family's native Sweden for the same club his dad played for -- Vasteras HK.


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Before giving the green light, Lidstrom and his wife Annika wanted to make sure their son had the right living arrangements. In fact, the decision process even had a little to do with Lidstrom's delay in affirming his return to the NHL for the 2010-11 season, when he ultimately won his seventh Norris Trophy as the League's top defenseman.

"Kevin wanted to go play hockey in Sweden and you know, at first we didn't think it was a good idea at all -- him moving away from home and living in Sweden while we were over here," said Lidstrom, whose son now lives there with one of his sisters. "We thought it would be tough, but once we looked at the situation and figured out where he'd be staying and everything around that, we decided that if he really wants to do it we're going to allow him to do it. But it took us awhile to be convinced."

It took Lidstrom's wife the longest, mainly because Lidstrom himself did a similar thing when he was the same age.

"I moved away from home when I was 16, so I was in the same boat as Kevin," the Red Wings captain and certain future Hall of Famer said. "I think that's why it was harder to say 'No,' because I did the same thing."

Unlike his son, however, Lidstrom didn't live with extended family.

"I actually rented a basement from an old couple, so it was kind of my own space in the basement," he said. "It was hard at the beginning, moving away from home and taking care of yourself and cooking meals for yourself and making sure you're eating right. You had to take care of the studies, as well."

It's a scenario that San Jose Sharks star forward Patrick Marleau can also relate to after moving in with his grandmother in Swift Current, SK at the age of 14 to play in the Saskatchewan Midget AAA Hockey League. Like most early-teens who make that kind of leap, Marleau had visions of the NHL dancing in his head.

Now that he's a parent himself, his opinion has changed a little.

"I can't imagine it," Marleau told "My son's 5 and to think about him leaving home at 14? What would that be, nine years from now? Wow."

Indeed, it's a tough call for parents.

That's why those who've gone through it often advise parents to really think it through before giving the go-ahead.

"I think it really depends on their situation," said Blackhawks goalie Corey Crawford, who lived with a billet family for a season of Midget AAA in the Montreal area when he was 15. "Do they really need to move that far to play for a team? How far are they moving? Who are they staying with? It all really depends, but for me it was a good experience."
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