The Dads’ Trip ended last night with the Penguins’ 2-1 shootout loss to Florida on Monday in Sunrise. It was a phenomenal five days with the dads, starting when they flew out with the team to Raleigh on Thursday before Pittsburgh’s 2-1 shootout win over Carolina on Friday.
With the boys grabbing three of a possible four points in front of their fathers, head coach Mike Sullivan said the dads are always welcome back.
“It’s just fantastic,” said Marvin Kunitz, who watched his son score the tying goal late in regulation against the Panthers. “We love it, we thank the organization for putting it on and we really, really appreciate it. It’s great.”
As a few of the dads have told me they read my 3 Impressions after games, I figured I’d do one for the Dads’ Trip in their honor.
1. CAMARADERIE What a great group this was. You could tell how happy the guys were to have their dads around, who couldn’t be more thrilled to have quality time with their sons. Plus the camaraderie between the fathers and the players – even the ones who didn’t have a parent there – was fantastic to see. The beach bocce and horseshoe tournament on Saturday at the beach was optional and informal; yet mostly everybody stopped down and participated, which I thought said a lot about the closeness of the group. The dads told me that day was definitely the highlight of the trip – what could be better than spending quality time with your kid, his teammates and the fellow fathers with your feet in the sand and a couple of cold ones in hand? “The day was perfect and it was a super time,” Marvin Kunitz said. 2. EVERYBODY LOVES ANDRE Everybody on the team loves Marc-Andre Fleury, as the goaltender is always smiling and laughing and is friendly to everybody. The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree in that regard, as both the players and their dads all adore his father Andre, who’s just as funny and mischievous as his son. When I went up to the dads’ suite for Monday’s game and hung out for a while, they all agreed that Andre was by far the best horseshoes player of them all. Eric Fehr’s dad Frank said they teased him that he must play three times a week, as he seemed to be throwing ringers every time (where the horseshoe completely encircles the stake). Andre paired up with Sidney Crosby’s dad Troy, and everyone agreed they were the team to beat – until Marc and Chris Kunitz finally defeated them. When we asked Andre about his skills, he just smiled and asked Troy to grab him another drink. As Sidney pointed out to me with a laugh during the trip, “It’s amazing to see the subtle things everybody does like their dads.”
(Sidenote: I did hear a few dads jokingly grumble that the rules were made up as they went along, the playing field wasn’t level and the stakes were too low. I definitely can see where the guys get their competitive nature from).
3. IT’S A SMALL WORLD This wasn’t the first time a few of these dads have sat in the stands and watched their kids play. And I don’t mean at this level – I mean dating back to when they were kids. For example, I got to talking with Kevin Porter’s dad John, who’s got three other sons that all played hockey growing up in Michigan. And he told me that his youngest boy, Chris, played a year for Little Caesars, a AAA hockey club, with Jeff Zatkoff – and their team went up against Phil Kessel’s Madison Capitals in nationals one year. It was so cool to hear the stories from those days. And for first-time Dads’ Trip attendee Pete Dumoulin, he said it felt like nothing changed between then and now. “It’s just like a youth hockey trip. It’s the same old dads,” he laughed.
BONUS: It was AWESOME seeing how proud the dads are of their sons. I obviously knew that going in, but it was another thing entirely to hear them talk about it. As Kevin Sheary told me, “I’ve probably said about five times how proud we are of Conor,” while Pete Dumoulin said, “It’s been outstanding watching Brian grow up. He’s done everything a dad could want.” This group of Pens players are all such great guys who have been a pleasure to cover, and after this trip, my respect for them has grown even more getting to know their dads, hearing about their roots and learning more about them as people.
THIS N’AT… - It was cool to see how close the players still are with their fathers. Matt Cullen, while sitting alongside his dad Terry – who was his high school hockey coach growing up in Minnesota – said “When you’re sitting on the bus after a game and you look around the bus, most guys are texting their dad or talking to their dad still, which is kind of funny when you think about where we’re at – playing NHL hockey and guys are still texting their dads.”
- Ben Lovejoy joked before the trip about how bad the dads’ snoring was, and how earplugs (plus some headphones, and maybe even a pillow on top of that, as Ian Cole laughed) were necessary if they wanted to get some sleep. They weren’t kidding. One of the funniest parts of the trip was seeing the dads wander around the hotel during the afternoon on game days because their sons had kicked them out of the room so they could take their pregame naps in peace.
- I had a blast talking with Ian Cole’s dad Doug, a dentist who has an office in the town over from where I grew up. Doug is just as hilarious, outgoing and personable as his son. One of the funniest stories of the trip was the two of them telling us about what it’s like when Ian comes and plays for Doug’s beer league team when he’s home. From what we hear, Doug has just a little bit of trouble catching Ian’s passes.
- Kevin Sheary also still plays hockey, and told us that when Conor comes to watch him play, he coaches him. "He tells everything I did wrong or didn’t do right, so that was awesome," said Kevin, who was behind the bench for Conor's teams growing up in Boston. "That’s pretty much Conor in a nutshell. He’s real quiet, but he’s really funny and has a few good chirps for everyone."
- Jeff Zatkoff’s father, Jeff Sr., was the tallest person on the trip at 6-foot-11. He was drafted by the NBA’s Indiana Pacers after playing college basketball at Eastern Michigan University. However, he played hockey as well at one point so he said he encouraged Jeff Jr. onto the ice. “I tried to get him into basketball a little bit, but he didn’t get all the hype that Dad got,” Jeff Sr. laughed. “I was a little surprised. But Jeffrey’s always been a dedicated player and loved it. Much more dedication than I have.”