Another memorable Dads' Trip ended when the players and fathers flew back to Pittsburgh on Sunday. It was a fantastic few days with the dads, starting with a 4-1 win over Colorado on Thursday and finishing with a 4-3 overtime loss to Arizona on Saturday.
Thoughts, musings and observations from this year's trip…
- The phrase I hear repeated every year during the Dads' Trip is that the apple doesn't fall far from the tree, and it's so true for the majority of the fathers and their sons. Marc-Andre Fleury, Ian Cole and Nick Bonino are a few of the funnier personalities on the team, and their dads are the same.
- I thought Steve Bonino was the breakout star of this year's trip. He has a great sense of humor, just like Nick, and is just a super nice, friendly guy. Steve even jokingly said he was going to mess with ROOT SPORTS' Dan Potash, just like his son does. Him and his wife Joanne love the relationship between those two and whenever they hear that Nick is going to be interviewed by him, they make sure they're in front of the TV.
- It's always a treat to hear the dads talk about what their sons were like as kids. Steve said that Nick was always ready to go and had a terrific work ethic. He never had to shake him out of bed to go to practice in the morning because Nick hated to miss practice. "That impressed me because I think he had every intention of advancing," Steve said. "One time we were at Avon Old Farms and he was just a mite. That's where he ended up playing (high school hockey) later on. Joanne and him were there and the varsity team was walking by, and Nick goes, 'you know what Mom? I'm going to play for them.' And he did. Those are the little things you remember."
- What Nick remembers is that his parents never forced him to get out of bed in the morning to go to practice. "From a young age, any time I wanted to go play hockey they took me," Nick said. "I think that was the key. They didn't force me; they didn't burn me out. They let me make my decisions and I wanted to play hockey a lot, so they were the ones who had to drive me everywhere."
- On game days in the past, I'd see dads wandering around the hotels we were staying in so they wouldn't disturb their sons during their pregame naps. But this year, with Colorado being called 'the Napa Valley of beers,' it was the perfect opportunity to take the fathers for a tour of Coors Brewery on Thursday afternoon to give them something to do. We all know how hockey dads love their beers.
- The tour was a blast. The guides did a tremendous job of providing lots of detailed history and the dads enjoyed it. Doug Cole wore Snapchat spectacles for us, and he got some pretty funny footage. One highlight was him calling Steve Bonino 'Vito Bonino' because of the Jimmy John's sub he had for lunch. Mike Sullivan likes to use the term 'cerebral' to describe Nick, and the same term could apply to Steve for the tour as he asked lots of questions throughout the day.
- The hockey world is a small one. Jake Guentzel's dad Mike is a longtime associate coach for the University of Minnesota men's hockey team, and actually coached Phil Kessel during his one season with the Gophers in 2005-06. Mike also knew Phil's sister Amanda from her time playing for the women's hockey team there, so he goes back with their parents. Phil's father even called him 'Coach.'
- Mike Guentzel also spent a lot of time talking with Terry Cullen, a longtime varsity head coach at Moorhead High School, where he coached Matt. "Terry Cullen is a guy I thought was one of the great high school coaches in the state of Minnesota during his time coaching Matt," Mike said. "We were obviously looking at his players and recruiting them over the course of time. Seeing him now and kind of reflecting on the days of Minnesota hockey and talking about the current days of the way it's at in high school now, it's pretty special."
- It's also very special for Mike to see Jake playing on the same NHL team as Matt and Phil. "I recruited Matt Cullen, so to speak, and recruited Phil, and now he's playing on the same team," Mr. Guentzel said. "It was nice, I think when Jake walked in the locker room there was a name recognition and certainly those guys knew him and looked after him, and that was great too."
- As Mike Guentzel is still in the middle of his season with the Gophers, he was only able to stay for the Colorado portion of the trip. He left on Friday morning to travel with the team for their series in Columbus against Ohio State this weekend.
- While Phil Kessel Sr. was with Phil Jr. on this road trip, Amanda - who is one of the best female hockey players in the world - was in Pittsburgh for the 2017 NWHL All-Star Weekend at the UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex. "It's nice for them because of the exposure the women get when they're doing it in some different city other than the four areas that they're playing right now," Phil Sr. said. "That market will be nice for them. For her, it's been a trial because any time you have a new league, a situation like that, it's kind of up and down and it's never perfect. But the weekend will be fun. It's too bad the Penguins weren't in town so we could have done a little more family stuff."
- With all three of his kids still playing - Phil Jr., Amanda and Blake - Phil Sr. is still a very busy hockey dad. "Most weekends we watch games on TV and the computers," Phil Sr. said. "We get to see most of them. It's nice. I think the best thing for me, for a lot of parents when their kids get to that high school age they're done and they're looking for something to do. I've been fortunate to be able to get another 10 or 12 years out of this where I have some activity to pass my time in the wintertime. It's been good for us."
- Another example of the hockey world being small is that Cole and Bryan Rust are both from Michigan and each played at the University of Notre Dame. While they missed each other there, Ian actually played against Bryan's older brother Matt, both growing up and in college as Matt played with Carl Hagelin at the University of Michigan. It was fun to hear Doug Cole and Steve Rust reminisce about the battles those two had over the years. "Getting to talk to some of the dads here and realizing they were in the stands when you were back in the old days but they were on the other side, it's fun," Steve said.
- Matt Murray was telling me how his dad likes to walk around the concourse during his games because he gets nervous, and Jim Murray said that it's not easy being the parent of a goalie. "I have always had a hard time sitting down and watching the game," he admitted. "However, I try to get better at it because there's nothing I can do about it at this point. I just sit back and try to enjoy the game. Being a goalie's parent is a little different. I'm trying to get used to it now that he's done so well, but for a while there it was very intense as the parent. Always sit by myself, usually. Often walk around the upper level there. But I'm getting better at it. So is he."
- Matt couldn't be more grateful for the support his parents gave him growing up. Even though Jim never played competitively, he made sure Matt was able to. Which wasn't easy, considering that Matt had to play for a tournament team in Thunder Bay because there were no nearby opponents. "Every game would be in a tournament either in Minneapolis or Winnipeg or Toronto, and then all the big tournaments were in Toronto," Matt said. "It's super expensive to play for that team. They sacrificed a lot of money and got me new equipment whenever I needed to. Now I'm lucky enough to have it taken care of, it's a huge burden financially. I didn't realize that growing up.
"And they always made sure I was at the rink. Not even on time, I like to be there a couple hours early so no matter what they had to do, they always brought me to the rink a couple hours early. I'm forever grateful for both of them."
- Both Rust and Murray appreciated how even-keeled their fathers were as hockey dads. "He's never really been a dad who's been too hard on me," Bryan said of Steve. "He is just like, 'alright, keep going. The next one's got to be better.' He's just helped me stay even keeled because that's the type of guy he is."
"He never tried to coach me or tell me what to do," Matt said of Jim. "He asked me if I had fun and he would ask me what I learned that day, how I got better, stuff like that. But he never yelled at me or anything like that. I was appreciative that he never yelled at me or never tried to coach me."
- That's what Sullivan was hoping for on this trip. He joked before the first game that a lot of the other dads were the players' first coaches, which presented a little bit of a challenge for the coaching staff because they had close to 25 coaches on the trip. "Hopefully they'll listen to the coaches that are in the room and we'll go from there," Sullivan laughed. "But certainly it's a great thrill to have these guys with us." It most certainly was.