August 29, 2012

MC's Ryan Fitzgerald hopes to follow in father's footsteps

By Shawn Hutcheon

Boys decide they want to play hockey at a young age for a variety of reasons, but when one of those boys has a dad who played in the National Hockey League, he usually wants to follow in his father’s footsteps. Brett Hull, Nick Foligno and Gregory Campbell are three of the many sons who have done just that. 

Ryan Fitzgerald helped Malden Catholic win back-to-back state championships in 2011 and 2012. (Dave Arnold Photography)

Presently, there are plenty of others working towards achieving that dream. One such player who dreams of following in his father’s footsteps is Ryan Fitzgerald (North Reading, Mass.).

Ryan’s dad is Tom Fitzgerald (Billerica, Mass.), who had an 18 year career in the National Hockey League. Mr. Fitzgerald scored 139 career goals and 190 assists for a total of 329 points in 1,097 games for seven different NHL teams, including the Boston Bruins. He was a key member of the Panthers when they advanced to the Stanley Cup finals in 1996. Presently, the elder Fitzgerald is the assistant to the general manager with the Pittsburgh Penguins.

“Having a father who played in the NHL gave me a big advantage over the other kids. He always has advice for me,” Ryan proudly said when asked about having a dad who was an NHL star.

“They’re sponges,” said Tom. “When you played street hockey or knee hockey with Ryan and his three brothers, they’d all listen to advice and suggestions, although I made sure not to pressure them. I always told them to just go out and have fun on the ice.”  

Ryan has paid attention every step of the way, though it was not always easy.

“Ryan felt pressure in Toronto because people knew who he was,” Tom said. “He was a target on the ice because of me. Kids on the other teams would take runs at him. They’d do it to the sons of the other Maple Leafs players too. It wasn’t fair.”

Ryan took something away from his experiences of being around his father’s teammates, players like Stu Barnes in Florida, David Legwand and Scott Hartnell in Nashville and a number of Bruins.

“The Bruins always had tips for me,” the youngster explained. “Stu Barnes was a close family friend and Scott Hartnell was 18 when my dad was the captain of the Predators. Scott would come over for Thanksgiving and the holidays and play street hockey with us. I looked up to all of them.”

After Tom retired in 2006 from the NHL, his family decided to stay in the Bay State. Ryan would eventually find himself at Massachusetts high school powerhouse Malden Catholic, where he led his Lancers to two consecutive (2011, 2012) Division 1A state championships.

This season will be an eventful one for the young Fitzgerald. He will remain a student at Malden Catholic but has decided to suit up for the Valley Jr. Warriors of the Eastern Junior Hockey League before heading off to Boston College.

“It was time to do that,” Ryan said. “My coach at MC helped me choose Valley because it was the best fit for me.”

Tom also likes the idea of Ryan playing for the Jr. Warriors. 

“He’ll be multi-tasking,” Tom said. “Ryan will need to drive to MC then make the (40 minute) drive to Haverhill for practice, do his off-ice workout then go home and get his homework done. He’ll eat, go to bed, get up and do it all again the next day. It’s great preparation for college.”

As if that will not be enough, Ryan will be eligible for the 2013 NHL Entry Draft and, because he is, the Fitzgeralds will make the trip to Buffalo, New York on Sept. 29 to watch Ryan play in the CCM/USA Hockey All American Prospects Game.

The game will feature 40 of the best prospects from the United States Under-18 team, United States Hockey League, Eastern Junior Hockey League, college Division I and high school players. 

“It’s a huge honor,” Ryan said. “My dad told me about it just after the NHL Entry Draft last June. The rosters hadn’t been announced yet.”  

Tom Fitzgerald (left) was behind the bench as an assistant coach for the Penguins when they won the Stanley Cup in 2009. (Getty Images)

Tom added, “He’s very humbled by it and we are as a family too. We’ll be at the game. My parents are coming. Ryan will showcase himself. I told him people (scouts) will like him or look for something negative. He has the ability. He’s as good as those guys who are playing in the game. I can help with the jitters he’ll have by telling him to just go out there and play. Don’t think, don’t watch the game, just play it.”

According to an NHL Western Conference scout, the young star was chosen for the game because of his overall skills.

“Ryan Fitzgerald is a skilled player with speed, vision, quick hands and an accurate shot,” the scout said. “He moves the puck well in the offensive zone. He has high-end hockey sense. Despite his lack of size, he is effective physically and not afraid to battle in the corners. He has a feisty side to his game.”

Ironically, when asked to describe his son’s style of play without being informed of the scouting report, Tom said that because Ryan has always been smaller than other players, he’s had to compete harder than most.

“A friend once told me, ‘He never backs down. Don’t ever take that away from him.’ His (Ryan’s) real gift is his hockey intelligence,” Tom said. “He’s not going to outskate or outmuscle many players so he needs to use his smarts. In doing so, he makes other players around him, better.”  

Asked if the Prospects Game will prepare his son for the scrutiny every potential draft pick faces, Tom said, “The reality is someone will be watching him in every game he plays this season. There is nothing for him to do but just go play. I told him, it doesn’t matter what round you’re drafted in, you still have to prove you can play.”

Not only is Ryan looking forward to his upcoming season with Valley, the Prospects Game and the NHL Entry Draft but he is looking ahead to 2013 when he will realize his ultimate dream of pulling the maroon and gold jersey of the Boston College Eagles over his head.

“I chose BC because I’ve always been a fan of theirs,” Ryan said with excitement in his voice. “I’m looking forward to going there. I just want to go there and soak up everything Coach (Jerry) York teaches me and help the team win.”

Of course, Tom preaches the importance of an education.

“He received quite a few offers from colleges but when he heard from BC, that was it,” the proud father said. “It’s his dream to play there so the decision was an easy one for him. He’s committed for four years. He’s there to get an education. BC is one of the top schools, academically, in the country. The hockey program is obviously one of the top ones in the country but the education comes first.”

So what’s the secret to success when it comes to developing a professional hockey prospect?

“As a parent, I didn’t do a thing. The reason for my success and that of my kids is my wife,” Tom said. “There were long stretches when I couldn’t be there and she had to be both mom and dad. She tied the skates and took them to the tournaments. She was the backbone of where they’re at.

“I was just a dad who happened to play hockey. I was fortunate to coach Ryan when I could, but he and his brothers are the ones who put the work in and go that extra mile that’s necessary. If a kid has the passion, self-motivation and the drive, then the sky’s the limit.”

During his childhood, Tom received a few priceless words of wisdom.

“My father (Tom Fitzgerald Sr.) once told me, ‘It’s not hard to work hard,’” said Tom.

Ryan Fitzgerald has heeded the words and advice of his parents and grandfather. His passion for the game along with the support he receives from home has contributed to the realization of his dreams that’s just around the corner.

“We’ll be there supporting him every step of the way,” Tom said.

Shawn Hutcheon can be reached at feedback@hockeyjournal.com. Follow him on Twitter at @ShawnHutcheon.