Often, hockey fans see their heroes as something more than human, but the players they watch on the ice every night are people too, and nothing helps illustrate that more than the realization that they have the same struggle most of us have in balancing family life with their jobs.
After two different Dallas Stars players briefly left the team over the past month in order to attend to the birth of a baby, it underscores just how much the personal aspect of players’ lives impact them, even if you can’t see a difference in their performance on the ice.
First it was leading scorer Loui Eriksson
, who remained behind in Dallas back on Feb. 20 while the rest of his teammates traveled up to Montreal for a game against the Canadiens on the 21st. Eriksson was there by his wife Micaela’s side as she gave birth to the couple’s second child, a 7.1-pound, 19-inch-long baby girl named Blanca.
Eriksson then flew up to Montreal the afternoon of the 21st and played that night in the Stars’ 3-0 win over the Canadiens, firing two shots on goal and logging over 20 minutes of ice time.
“It’s another girl, she was born the 20th,” the 26-year-old Eriksson said, who also has a 2 1/2-year-old daughter named Elle. “We’ve been winning after she was born, so that’s good.”
Not only did the club begin its outstanding 10-0-1 hot streak right after Blanca’s arrival, Eriksson himself has continued to produce impressively, piling up seven goals and 15 points over the 13 games since his daughter’s birth.
Then it was Toby Petersen
’s turn, as the 32-year-old fourth-line forward left the club in the midst of its Western Canada road trip on March 3, returning to Dallas for the birth of his and wife Alexa’s third child, a girl they named Nola.
“It’s not a family name or anything,” Petersen explained. “We both really liked it, wanted to keep it simple but kind of different, so that’s what we landed on.”
So now these guys, in the middle of a dogfight chase for the playoffs, have a whole lot more on their minds than just hockey, but both Petersen and Eriksson indicate it just comes with the territory.
“It just puts a big smile on my face,” said Petersen, whose sons Bjorn and Elliott are five and three. “I’ve got some practice with babies during the season, I’ve had two kids basically during hockey season before her. It’s obviously hard to wake up with a new baby, because you’re often a little more tired than usual because you get a few sleepless nights.”
“Of course, when you go on the road, you miss being with them, but that’s something about your job you have to just admit that you have,” shrugged Eriksson, whose 65 points (25 goals, 40 assists) in 72 games tops the squad and, as of Sunday morning, ranked 19th overall in the NHL. “Of course, it was nice when I got home (from the last road trip), it was good to see the kids again, and say hi to them and spend some time with them, it’s always nice, too. But we know where we’re at in the standings, so you try to focus on the game when you come down to the rink, but when you go home, you don’t really focus that much on it.”
Both players are quick to point out how fortunate they are to have such understanding wives - and some relatives in town to help them - to not nag about getting up with them in the middle of the night or for being away a lot.
“My wife is taking the brunt of that right now, having to get up in the night,” Petersen said of his wife Alexa. “She’s been really good about it, allowing me to sleep and allowing me to do whatever it is I have to prepare for to play hockey. Her mom is in town, so she’s got quite a bit of help watching the two, so she can mostly focus on the care of the newborn.”
“It’s kind of tough for me to do that right now,” Eriksson said of helping out Micaela with late-night feedings, “but she’s doing a heck of a job back home taking care of both my kids, so that helps - and she’s got her mom here too, so that definitely helps her, too.”
One teammate who understands well what they’re going through is defenseman Stephane Robidas
, who has two school-age children (son Justin and daughter Lexie) and acknowledges it can be a bit difficult having to leave on road trips when they’re really young.
“Especially when they’re little, they start doing a lot of stuff, and that’s the stuff you miss,” said Robidas. “Obviously for (Eriksson and Petersen), their kids are still too young to walk or anything like that, but sometimes you can miss their first couple of steps or their first ‘Daddy’ or their first ‘Mommy’ - it’s little things like that you might be away and don’t get to experience it. But it’s part of being a hockey player. It’s a tough grind during the season, but we get the summertime. Once the season is over and the playoffs are over, then that’s all we have to do is worry about our family and spend time with them. There’s good and bad, there’s no perfect situation.”
All of the dads agree that road trips can be tough, especially when a newborn is in the house.
“Especially during the season, it’s a little tougher because you go on the road and you play so many games,” Eriksson concurred. “But you get some extra time during the summers to spend some time with them, so that’s always good, too.”
“Whether it’s a newborn or my three- and five-year-olds, it’s always tough leaving them,” Petersen confirmed. “The three-year-old, I don’t think knows where I’m going, the five-year-old knows where I am and it’s tough on him. Obviously, it’s tough leaving a newborn baby because you want to get to know her and spend as much time as you can with her. So for various reasons, it’s always tough to go on the road, but that’s part of the job. I’ll tell you this much, it makes it a lot more easier and a lot more fun when the team’s winning, like it has been lately, so that cures a lot of the ills.”
And if things aren’t going so well, like after the Stars’ last two games, which they’ve lost by a combined 9-3 margin, that followed a stunning 10-0-1 hot streak, then any negativity from the rink quickly dissipates once they step through the door and see their kids. The whole process hones the skill of being able to deftly shift gears from being dad to a hockey player and back again.
“It’s refreshing when you get home and you see them smiling and you play with them,” said Robidas. “Sometimes it’s good for your mind to get away and sometimes the kids help you, because the kids, they’re happy and they’re fun. It’s a good thing.”
“One thing that’s a little different, the intensity and the mental focus that you need to be ready and prepare for a playoff drive, and then you get home, and it’s all soft and cuddly with the newborn,” added Petersen, who has registered two goals and five points in 38 games played so far this season. “It’s a little different. Everyone who has kids knows that when you come to work, you’ve just got to be able to flip the switch and be ready to play when called upon.”
Just like the rest of us, no matter what our jobs are.