By Erica Whyte
Throughout the course of any season, hockey players, coaches and staff will spend more time with each other than they will their actual families, which is, in part, why they will sometimes refer to each other as a “family”. And each season, as these “hockey families” form, the players actual families will often assimilate as well.
Long before they were part of the Amerks hockey “family”, assistant coach Gord Dineen, as well as Alexander Nylander, Danny O’Regan, Dalton Smith and Lawrence Pilut, were each born into hockey families of their own, because they all had fathers who played professionally. All five men are part of a unique and rare hockey legacy, where talent, hard work and love of the game is passed down from father to son.
“I had four brothers, so all of us would go to the rink as early as we could get there,” said Dineen of his childhood as one of four sons (three of which, including Gord, would go on to also play in the NHL) to NHL player and legendary coach Bill Dineen. “We knew we had that ice time before the team would practice, and the time after they’d get off the ice. So, we’d want our dad to be there with us at 7:00 in the morning, so we’d have more ice time before the actual practice.”
Although over 35 years separate Dineen’s childhood from that of Nylander’s, their experience as a player’s son hanging out around the rink was remarkably similar.
“I always got to go to my dad’s practice rink,” said Nylander of his memories as Michael Nylander’s youngest son. “My brother and I would get to go on the ice before the players went on the ice, and we thought it was the coolest thing ever. Seeing all the guys and how huge they were, and seeing them playing, it was a lot of fun and such a great experience.”
Michael Nylander appeared in 920 career games for the Hartford Whalers, Calgary Flames, Tampa Bay Lightning, Chicago Blackhawks, Washington Capitals, Boston Bruins and New York Rangers. He Amassed 679 points (209+470) over a 22-year pro career that also included seven games in Rochester during the 2010-11 season, finishing with six points (4+2).
Smith is the son of two-time Stanley Cup-winner Derrick Smith, who played most of his pro career with the Philadelphia Flyers, and the nephew of former NHLers Keith and Wayne Primeau. Wayne began his pro career with the Amerks in 1995-96, help the team win its most recent Calder Cup
Pilut, meanwhile, bears the same name of his father, Larry Pilut, who found his calling playing professionally in Sweden. The younger was Pilut was born in Tingsryds while his father was playing center there. The older Larry is now the team’s current head coach.
“When you’re that little, you want to be just like your dad, so I’d play hockey any chance that I got,” added O’Regan, who was born in Germany because his American dad, Tom O’Regan, who spent previous years in both the NHL and AHL, was playing there. “He’s been my role model since day one. He was so influential, I always wanted to be like him.”
In addition to the extra ice-time, being sons of players has led to some once-in-a-lifetime experiences for each of these Amerks.
“Playing ‘keep-away’ with Gordie Howe, that’s a great memory that I’ll never forget,” said Dineen, whose dad coached Howe from 1973 to 77 while he was with the Houston Aeros of the former World Hockey Association.
“Watching Ovechkin and Backstrom practice and having them talk to me and my brother, that was amazing for me” recalled Nylander of one of his favorite memories of his dad’s playing years. Michael closed out his NHL career with the Washington Capitals in 2008-09.
In addition to being able to witness hockey legends behind-the-scenes, Nylander insists that being in that environment became incentive for him to become like those childhood idols.
“I always loved hockey but being around it like that made me want to play even more. It really motivated me to want to play hockey all the time.”
The other added bonus about being the son of a former player? You always have someone to go to for guidance and advice or just general feedback from someone’s who played the game at the highest level.
“He watches every game and calls me frequently to give me tips and advice,” said Smith. “He tells me, good or bad, what I have to do. He played the game for a while and knows what he’s talking about. It’s nice having a reliable source in my ear telling me and keeping me going, so it’s awesome.”
Just as Dineen, Nylander, O’Regan, Smith and Pilut were at one-point sons of players bustling around the rink, the Amerks locker room has become a second home to its own young gun: Dineen’s 11-year-old son, Finn.
“He loves coming to the rink, just like I did. And he loves going into the room, he knows all the guys,” said Dineen of his son, who insists that he, just like his dad and grandpa before him, will one day play in the NHL.
“I was that kid not too long ago,” said Nylander of seeing Finn shooting pucks before and after the Amerks practices. “It’s important to try to be a positive influence to him and to pump him up when he’s out there. It’s awesome for him to be able to come down here just like I did when I was his age.”
According to Dineen, having a son who is just as eager to get out on the ice as he once was, gives him a mix of pride and nostalgia.
“It’ll sometimes make me take a step back, because what he’s doing now is exactly what I was doing when I was his age, so it’s a lot of fun for me.”
And although Dineen says it doesn’t matter whether his son actually ends up pursuing hockey professionally, all that he cares about now is that Finn is having a good time and creating memories.
“If he gets as much joy out of the game as I have over the years, I’ll be pretty happy. That’s all I want.”
So just as it has for generations, the love of the game, passed down from father to son, continues.