ST. PAUL -- Jon Merrill has a wife and four daughters under the age of seven, yet most days, the only time he sees his family is through the screen on his iPhone.
Circumstances over the past couple of seasons have been hard for most people, but especially so for Merrill, who admits he doesn't spend much time away from the rink thinking about hockey.
Under normal conditions, he'd be chasing his kids around the house. But since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, one thing or another has kept his family hundreds of miles away, in this case, at their full-time home in Colorado.
But all of that is about to change.
Armed with the security of a three-year contract extension from the Wild that was agreed to at the Winter Classic and signed on Tuesday, the entire Merrill clan will soon be under one roof again in Minnesota.
"First and foremost, to be able to bring my family here and for them to join me in Minnesota is really important for me and something I've been working for for years now to give my family some sort of stability," Merrill said on Wednesday. "And I'm just really thankful that it's worked out here."
The instability began in the summer of 2020, when the NHL went back to play, with the Western Conference headed to the Edmonton bubble. Then a member of the Vegas Golden Knights, Merrill and the Knights departed for Edmonton in late July and made it all the way to the Western Conference Finals, a series that didn't end until mid-September, before finally returning home for an emotional reunion with his girls.
He signed a one-year contract with the Detroit Red Wings that abbreviated offseason and played just 36 games there before he was traded to the Montreal Canadiens at the deadline.
But because of border restrictions, they couldn't join him in Canada. The Canadiens would go on a lengthy run to the Stanley Cup Final, delaying another permanent reunion with his family.
Merrill signed a one-year deal with the Wild last summer, but with the uncertainty of the single year, he and his wife, Jess, chose to keep the "Merrill Monsters," as Jess has coined them, permanently stationed in their offseason home outside Denver in order to keep some stability in their lives.
But with a long-term deal now signed, sealed and delivered, Jess, along with daughters Olive, Lennon, Jolie and baby Sonny will move to Minnesota soon, at a time when it makes sense in the girls' school schedules.
"It's been really challenging," Merrill said. "To leave them for as long as they had to with Vegas and then getting traded to Montreal last year ... I was away from them again for a really long time. It was a lot of the unknown with COVID and how things kind of went the last two years. It's been really hard and for them to be able to join me, it means the world to me."
And while Merrill devotes much of his time away from the rink to his family, he's able to balance that out by devoting everything he has to his teammates when he is there.
That has quickly made him a favorite in the Wild dressing room this season, where, among other things, Merrill has become the team's go-to lineup card reader before games.
Video: Jon Merrill Wednesday practice update
"I try and be someone that guys can talk to and be there for my teammates and anyone that needs me," Merrill said, "and just be somebody that puts a smile on guys faces and just makes people comfortable and happy to be around."
When he inked his original one-year pact with the Wild, the belief was that he'd compete for time on the team's third defensive pairing with fellow veteran Jordie Benn.
Merrill earned the Opening Night assignment with a strong training camp and preseason and hasn't ceded that spot in the lineup, playing in all 33 games this season.
Not known for his offense, Merrill has already tied his career high with three goals and has chipped in eight assists and is a plus-8. He leads the club in blocked shots, and has been instrumental in keeping the Wild afloat during a first third of the season where the team has been without mainstays Jared Spurgeon and Jonas Brodin at times because of injury and illness.
"I just think the way that he's conducted himself, not only on the ice but what we've seen and witnessed off the ice within the dressing room and just the teammate that he is. He's just a solid pro," said Wild coach Dean Evason. "Clearly, you guys have seen the way that he plays the game on the ice but the way he conducts himself away and team first and he's got a lot of leadership qualities.
"He's got a lot of grit, a lot of determination in him and fits in real well with what we're trying to do as an organization. I'm excited to have him here for three more years."
Regarding his extension, Wild GM Bill Guerin had been in contact with Merrill's agent prior to the Winter Classic. The final details were hammered out and during the Wild's family skate on the ice at Target Field the day before the game, Guerin approached Merrill and asked him what he thought.
While the deal wasn't signed there, that's where it sort of came together and a partnership between player and organization was extended three more seasons,
"It just made sense for me and my family and that was the first time Billy and I had a chance to talk," Merrill said. "And it just kind of made for a pretty cool setting and a memory for sure."
With the contract squared away and a game schedule expected to pick up in the coming weeks, Merrill can put the focus squarely on his family and hockey ... not like it would have been anywhere else.
"My daughters and my wife are my main concern. They're my everything, my whole world, and so when I leave the rink, there's enough of them to go around to occupy all my time," Merrill said. "But when I'm here, I'm focused, and I'm committed, and I'm all for the boys and for whatever it takes to win."
Main photo from @JesMolina Twitter