Every season, NHL teams offer promising rookies a chance to make the big club. Those that come from North America often share a common road – standout players who start the sport young, excel among their peers and pave their way to Juniors or Colleges until effort, a growing maturity and talent intersect to merit the attention of scouts, agents and ultimately teams at the National Hockey League entry draft. First or last round, it is here that players take the first big step toward the ultimate prize. Those are the common stories. The one Surly & I share today is uncommon and extraordinary. We don’t ask you to become a fan of Jake Muzzin, the hockey player, as a result of what you read. If you are not that already, you may find yourself there soon enough through his talent on the ice. Rather, we offer you the exceptional person, the boy who overcame odds that would crush the hopes of most through an enduring spirit that didn’t understand quit and refused to accept anything less than the dream. We offer you this through a mother’s eyes.
Take me though the first two games. What did you think of your son’s performance?
“I have seen him play more relaxed than he did in Vancouver. By the second game in Calgary, I thought he was finding his space. My husband went to Vancouver to catch his very first game. He was nervous as well. We thoroughly enjoyed it. We were proud. Typical parents.”
What sort of things raced through your mind as you watched your son skate on NHL ice in his first two NHL games?
“It was really surreal…that was going through my mind. I think he belonged there. He didn’t look out of place to me. That it happened after all these years, and the OHL and minor hockey and everything else he had been through. I have a poem he wrote on the fridge when he was 13 about how much he loves hockey and playing in the NHL and I thought, well, there it is…his dream come true.”
Did you remind him of that poem when the times were getting tough?
“Last time he was home I showed it to him and he smiled. This is before he was going to go to L.A. to train for two or three months. Sometimes you would rather stay at home when you are training or go to the Soo [Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds aka Soo Greyhounds] which is where his trainer was. It was a sacrifice for him to go training in the summer but he definitely benefited from it and he saw the benefits of training in L.A.”
Did he call home after his first game?
“He always calls home after every game.”
How long has that been a tradition?
“Since he left for the Soo when he was sixteen years old and I would say it was a habit. After his injury, then it would be more us calling, and we would ask ‘are you ok?’ It was such a worry for us so he started calling then…and when you leave at sixteen, the Soo is six hours away from us and they live in Billet homes [Billet Homes or families, as they are called, open their homes to Junior players so they have a place to live while away from home and, in Jake’s case, playing at the Soo]. They are wonderful people and they are like parents to these players.”
Without divulging mother-son confidentiality of communications because those are sacred, can you tell us the emotions he shared with you, how he thought he did and what was going through his mind during the game?
“He said he was nervous as shit [both of us laugh]. That is what he said about the Vancouver game. I think by the third period, he was trying to get his groove.
We Skype. One of the funny things he said yesterday was, I asked him, ‘what were you thinking’, and he said, ‘don’t put me out there against those twins’ [laughs]. When I am watching him, I am thinking, oh no, not the twins, but every now and then you are out there because you can’t get off the ice.
He was also trying to show that he belongs there. You know Jake a little bit, right? He is calm.”
We joked at camp why he doesn’t look more nervous out there.
“Yeah. I think you printed it. He is a very controlled player. He is controlled about his emotions even when he is nervous.”
Were you surprised he made the team out of camp?
“My husband wasn’t but he has a better handle because he views hockey from a less emotional stand point unlike a mother…he asked what role was the team looking to fill, right? Hickey and Jake are different types of players but the same too. Jake is more physical, maybe he is bigger, I don’t know Hickey that well so we felt that Jake was good at fulfilling the role they were looking for. It could have gone either way and we would have been thrilled either way. This is more thrilling but Jake was ready for both events. He has dealt with this. When he played in Juniors, he dealt with this kind of thing. Getting ice time. Getting to that first line. It is a big fish bowl in Ontario – Junior Hockey is – it is like NHL hockey for you in L.A. with the writing, blogs and newspapers. It is the same in Ontario. They have already dealt with the pressures of being in the public eye.”
Was he surprised that he made the team?
“I can honestly say he was. All things being equal Hickey is a first rounder so we are all thinking that perhaps that would give Hickey an edge. My husband always maintained the team would pick the player best suited for the role that was required by the team. I think he was right.”
Was he always going to be a defenseman?
“Always from the get-go, from when he was five years old. He was a bigger kid and in minor hockey, when you are the bigger kid, you end up taking the defensive role and it grew from there. He loves getting points and assists but he has always been a defenseman.”
What were some of the players that he looked up to or idolized? I will be very forgiving if there are no Kings in there.
“I will read interviews when he will say what player he wants to emulate but he never shared with me that. He is very respectful of all the players. I think its safe to say he is pretty impressed with who is playing with right now the LA Kings.”
I am going to ask you a tough question…
[takes a deep breath, Judy knew what was coming, mothers always do]
It’s been quite a road with his injuries when he was sixteen years old, rehabilitation, not playing hockey at age sixteen and part of seventeen, going through the draft twice, not getting drafted a second time, and finally getting out to New Hampshire and playing last season in Manchester, all culminating up to this point. Take us through what Jake went through from Jake’s perspective from then to now?
Well, the injury was two herniated discs and the rehab did not work at all. The Soo tried to rehab him for about a year. He was their first overall, eleventh that year in the OHL. They were bound and determined not to have a bust in the first round. They were going to try and rehab him and get him into playing condition and that did not happen.
When he came home, that whole process, medically, it happens in the States as well, you go to see different doctors…in Canada we are fortunate because our healthcare is covered, but the timing and the waiting that you have to do, it is unbelievable. An MRI can take two months. Through all this, time is slipping by as far as hockey goes. He is missing games and missing games. He had a great surgeon who looked after him really well…there is no rehab after Jake’s surgery, it is nerve surgery.
How did Jake feel? I remember after surgery Ed and I going, ‘really, you don’t have to go back to the Soo.’ We are talking about pain that shoots down his legs. He could not put on his own socks sometimes. We are thinking, ‘it’s good you can walk. Go to high school and we will just forget this.’ He said, ‘mom, when I am eighteen I can find my own way to the Soo, I am going to play.’”
So he was very clear with you that he was not going to stop playing hockey?
“That is right. As parents, you want their health to be first. That is what you are thinking about. He is seventeen, he should be able to walk without pain and go to school and everything else. You are not thinking about going back to a very physical game which is why training is very important for someone like Jake and he respects it to no end. The better condition you are in, the less injury you might receive…and being a smart player. He changed his style of play. Before he went to the Soo, he hit everything in sight, after injury you play smarter.
So, not getting picked up by Pittsburgh…he went into Pittsburgh camp not in the best condition but I don’t know at seventeen or eighteen years old, how committed they are to being in that top condition that the NHL is looking for. That commitment level they require. So here you are, you have been drafted, you have to be in topnotch physical condition and they have come off their season a month before they start training. They are eighteen and they are tired, they have played 80 games which is a Junior season here so with Pittsburgh, he was not in the best condition and he said that in a few interviews.
So, you have that let down. You wait and wait and wait. Nobody really tells you they are not going to sign you. I don’t know what L.A. does but all of a sudden, the time just lapses and you are back in the draft. The Soo came off a horrible year. They were in the bottom of the league. He came back that summer and he decided to go to the Soo for training and the Soo fully supported him to train there in every way you can think of, he could live with his Billets, he had a trainer. They made him a captain and he helped the Soo with a half decent season where they made the first round of the playoffs.
Jake then redefined himself within the OHL, becoming a top scoring defenseman and won some awards. He was OHL defenseman of the year, which was unbelievable, he received this award at the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto. By Christmas, teams would come to look at the other players and also see Jake. The different scouts would contact him after the games when he played for Soo Saint Marie and at the hotel and started talking to him…and there you have it. By then he was L.A. property.”
Tell us about L.A.’s pursuit.
“L.A. was most persistent. Explained everything as well. Jake was looking for someone that had a good development league in case…lots of defensemen aren’t playing in the NHL at twenty or twenty-one, as you know, Drew is an exception to that. The team went through his agent, he has an excellent agent. He knew that Manchester was part of the development so that he had some place to play when he was done with his OHL career. Either L.A. or Manchester.”
He won the best defensive defenseman award in the OHL but he was right there at the top as the best offensive defenseman as well.
“Yeah. I think he was second.”
Does Jake enjoy one aspect of being a defenseman more than another? If he had his dream, does he want to be that highlight film offensive defenseman or that stay at home guy?
“I see the smile on his face when he gets a goal or helps with an assist, he wants to step in and contribute point wise. He will always look after his end first but given the opportunity, when you watch him and the more comfortable he gets, he will move into the play…and the more confidence the team has in him and they already have by giving him an opportunity to play on the second power play, the more he will be comfortable to find the lane, and take a shot. He has a good wrist shot. For me, it is a comfort thing. When I watched him at the Soo this past season, when he was getting more and more comfortable, that is where the points started coming up. When he knew his partner, after they got know each other, he would then jump into the play on offense.”
When did it occur to you and your husband that your son had what it takes to play in the NHL?
“I think when he was drafted in the first round of the OHL. When you are approached by agents rather than us seeking one out, that was a clue that you have someone talented.”
Who was it from the Kings that was pursuing Jake? Ron, Dean or both?
“Both Ron Hextall and I believe Dean talked with Jake. Hextall…that is who we saw when he was in New Hampshire at the end of the season and really had fun there and those guys had a lot of faith in him. Put him in the game. That started everything again, ‘maybe you should train in L.A. for the summer.’ He seemed to fit right in and contribute right away. Those were all great things from his standpoint as he was moving through the organization [pronounced of course as organ-eye-zation] trying to let everyone know, ‘I am here, I am ready, I can do it for you.’”
Was Jake groomed to become an NHL player or was it his dream that he chased?
“In Ontario, in general, when you are five or six and you can afford it, you lace up some skates. I believe in the U.S., Football or baseball might be the case. Hockey becomes part of your life style , you grow up with it….winter is a long season here so hockey is a great way to stay active and involved. There is social networking. You are going to tournaments, you are hanging out with other parents, having great fun. Jake always played for good competitive teams so of course it was fun. So, he really took this by the horns. He played travel soccer and hockey until he was 13 years old. At 13, we were traveling all the time. We have two other children and they were entering high school and we thought, you have to pick one and we will go crazy with it with you. He said ‘I am picking hockey.’ I said ok.”
What are Jake’s interests other than hockey…and girls? What does Jake like to do?
“He loves to golf and he has found in L.A. some great golf course. He likes gaming. He misses his XBox, he left it at home but you are talking about a lot of downtime when they played in the OHL between weekends. They traveled a lot. They game over the net, meet other players. Tennis, training, he doesn’t sit down very long. He would go to the track with his sister. Anything with a game.”
I imagine a tall, good-looking boy like him had a lot of suitors. How did Jake balance those types of things and life in general with the pursuit of his hockey dream?
“Jacob could always separate…when it was ice time or playing time, that was it, no matter what was going on in his personal life, it didn’t matter. Hockey takes precedence over the relationship…unfortunately for the female. But he is a very caring person. He managed to balance it.”
Does he have someone special in his life?
“Not really. Of course, these guys at this point in their lives don’t have time for a serious relationship. You have to be a special girl to date a hockey player, right? You have to understand their travel schedule, commitments to making it and keeping it, you have to be one special girl to handle all of that.”
What motherly advice did you give him before he went off to training camp this summer?
“He had it pretty much figured out. What we always tell him is ‘you can do it, we know you can. All you have to do is take that next step and we are always there for you no matter what.’”
Did he ever talk to you about playing with Drew Doughty and Jack Johnson?
“Yeah, I think there is a little awe there. Drew, he kind of knew and played against in the OHL. Sometimes, during the summer, Drew would rent ice in London, Ontario and Jake would come to that ice. He thought they were both great guys. I would say he is in respectful awe of playing with them.”
Have you been to L.A.?
How is he adjusting to life here because it is dramatically different than life in Ontario?
“You think? [laughs]. His first phone calls were about cars like most players and most guys at that age. So at first, it was all the different cars he would see. Land Rovers, this and that. There was so much of that after a while, it became the norm. So, after a while, the only cool car he would see would be a Bentley. The bar kept getting raised on what he expected to see outside of his hotel room.
I think he likes the ocean, we have the Great Lakes here but nothing like the ocean. The lifestyle. The weather. I think it is a cool place to be for him.”
Our general manager Dean Lombardi is known for valuing the family dynamic of his young players. He has stressed the importance of getting to know the parents, and claimed that if a kid has good parents, you can feel more confident that his head is screwed on straight. Did Dean reach out to you before signing Jake?
“Dean told us always and so did Ron Hextall, that they were looking for a character player, someone who brought leadership as well as skill to their organization and I firmly believe if you look at how many previous captains L.A. has on their team, captains for their Junior team, right? I think there were six or seven, in Juniors and in high school or wherever they were. It shows that they do value that, someone with good morals who is a fine upstanding young man that can represent the team wherever they are.”
What do you foresee for Jake this season?
“I think he can do it. I think his confidence level will keep growing. The team has faith in him and they have shown that. That confidence will continue to grow and you will see a more confident player on the ice and he will be able to do things for L.A. like he did for the Soo.”
Anything you want to tell the number of Kings fans out there who are very quickly becoming Jake Muzzin fans?
“Thank you for being fans and supporting. We are a long way away so you have a lot of parents who read blogs and articles. We read Rich, we read you guys. When you don’t have any other communication with the team other than your own son, it gives you kind of a good feeling that, ‘hey, they like him too. They are going to be there for him.’
And give them a break. They are young, they are rookies and they are going to make a few mistakes but they are all there for a reason because I think the Kings select pretty high quality players for their organization.”
Thank you Judy for a great interview. Jake’s success is the Kings’ success. Your family is now part of ours. Let’s win a Cup together. GO KINGS!