BY BOB DUFF
Hockey’s next sensation figures that he could’ve been equally sensational shining on the diamond.
“Growing up, I was a pretty good baseball player,” noted forward Alexis Lafreniere, the first overall pick in the 2020 NHL entry draft by the New York Rangers. “I was probably as good as I was at hockey at the time.
“I was playing shortstop. Yeah, baseball was pretty big in my life when I was growing up.”
All those parents gnashing their teeth over how COVID-19 kept their kids away from summer hockey and endangering their chances to be the next Sidney Crosby or Connor McDavid ought to heed the advice of the guy most NHL scouts are anointing as the next Crosby or McDavid.
Lafreniere offers living proof that you don’t need to be immersed in all hockey, all the time from a young age in order to emerge at the end of your development years as a hockey superstar.
And he’s not the only one among the NHL’s class of 2020 who shows this to be true.
“I’m definitely an athlete and like playing other sports,” suggested Sudbury Wolves forward Quinton Byfield, selected second overall in the 2020 draft by the Los Angeles Kings. “I think if hockey wasn’t my main sport at the time, I think I’d try to maybe pursue basketball or something like that.
“I always play around with my buddies. We always go to L.A. Fitness or something, that’s our gym here and we play basketball there. Always just pick-up games like that, which is a lot of fun. I think I’d be okay at basketball, so I think that’s what I’d do.”
Across the pond in Europe, German forward Tim Stutzle was also originally drawn toward his country’s most popular sport as a youngster, a pursuit he continued well into his teenage years.
“I played soccer, so then I had to decide,” recalled Stutzle, hw was taken third overall by the Ottawa Senators. “I think I was pretty good in football — in soccer. It was a tough decision for sure but I think it was the right decision to stay in hockey.”
That’s the point, here — Stutzle ultimately decided to go with hockey over soccer. It was his choice. He wasn’t funneled into the path of one-sport specialization by his parents at a young age.
This is how it used to be. Kids played lots of sports and were given the opportunity to be kids. If they developed an elite skill-level for a sport at a certain age, that sport became the focus of their athletic pursuits. Most professional athletes were still multi-sport athletes during their high school years.
Back in the 1930s, Lionel Conacher won both the Stanley Cup and the Grey Cup. Playing both sports at their highest level didn’t prevent him from earning Hall of Fame induction in both sports.
In 1959-60, Gerry James played in the Stanley Cup final for the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Grey Cup with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers during the same season.
More recently, Cy Young Award and World Series-winning pitcher Tom Glavine was so talented on the ice that he was drafted by the Los Angeles Kings.
“I was fortunate that I got to play baseball and get involved in other sports besides hockey,” remembered former NHL forward Brad Smith, today the Director of Reserve List Scouting for the Colorado Avalanche. “I loved hockey but I also loved baseball.
“I think back then, you made yourself into an all-around athlete. Things are different today. There’s some hockey players who can’t throw a baseball.”
Not every player who makes it to the NHL follows this mantra. St. Louis Blues goaltender Jake Allen was an elite junior golfer in his native New Brunswick, a two-time club champion at his home course. He didn’t put his focus solely on hockey until he was 17.
Goaltender Carter Gylander, a 2019 Detroit Red Wings draftee, is also an avid golfer. One of the reasons he was attracted to accept a hockey scholarship to Colgate was because there’s a golf course on the school grounds. He finds that the benefits he’s drawn from sometimes choosing the links over the rink are making him a better netminder.
“I think you have to have a lot of mental toughness for lots of sports, and especially with the position of goalie,” Gylander explained. “One bad goal, or a slow start to a game, you’ve got to be able to shake that off and just worry about the next save, the next shot. So being able to have a short memory is pretty important.
“That ties in with golf as well. If you’re having a couple of stretches of holes where you bogeyed or triple-bogeyed, then you’ve got to kind of recuperate and get back at it.”
If parents still aren’t convinced that some time away from the ice can actually afford their kid a better chance of becoming a star on the ice, then they need to consider the career choices of Arizona Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray.
The top player chosen in the 2019 NFL Draft, Murray was a Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback at Oklahoma. He was also a star on the Sooners’ baseball team, and a first-round choice of the Oakland Athletics in the MLB Draft. Murray was offered multi-million contracts to play both sports.
He didn’t need to specialize to become a special player in multiple sports.