The New Guard

In Buzz, September 2017 by Brett Haensel1 Comment

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Former Hurricane teammates Rod Brind’amour and Cory Stillman have more than a Stanley Cup in common, both have sons on the brink of their NHL debut.

Skyler Brind’amour and Riley Stillman couldn’t sit down. In fact, the 7-year olds hadn’t taken a seat once during the entire game, along with the rest of the stadium.

Craning their necks to see over taller fans, hours into a tense, back-and-forth deciding Game 7, Skyler and Riley watched as Carolina Hurricanes right winger Justin Williams put home the empty-net goal that all but sealed the team’s first Stanley Cup victory in 2006.

After the clock ticked down to zero and the final buzzer sounded, they rushed out onto the ice of the RBC Center, and into the arms of their fathers, team captain Rod Brind’amour and left winger Cory Stillman.

The confetti streamed down, and thousands of Hurricanes fans stayed to watch what was the culmination of a dogged, months-long effort filled with overtime thrillers, play-ers ignoring injuries and countless sacrifices. Young Skyler and Riley got their first glimpse of the reward that endless dedication and training brings and, today, they are on the brink of following in their fathers’ footsteps.

Just months ago, Skyler was drafted into the NHL. To avoid the stress and pressure of waiting to hear his name called, Skyler and his father, Rod, decided to play a round of golf.

“You never know when the draft is going to happen for you and sometimes it doesn’t,” says Rod. “It can be a long day to just sit and wait for your name to be called. I really felt like the best thing to do was kind of get away from it.”

On their way back home, they turned up the radio just in time to hear Skyler’s name. He was drafted by the Edmonton Oilers, in the sixth round. Though it was a proud moment for father and son, both understand that he has a long way to go before Skyler will suit up for his first professional game in the Oilers’ copper and blue.

Last year, the Florida Panthers drafted Riley in the fourth round. His father, Cory, also played for the Panthers at one time, though the management has completely changed since then. The draft was an experience Riley calls “one of the greatest days of my life so far,” a culmination of a life’s worth of sacrifices for the sport, whether it be early morning skates, or life choices such as a restricted diet or passing up on a night out with friends.

“There was the stress and the anxiety leading up to that day, the night before, not sleeping, talking with your agent, having interviews with teams,” Riley says. “But you don’t really know where you want to go, and then finally, when you do get drafted, it’s like this huge weight lifted off your shoulders. There are just really no words to explain what that feels like.”

Being drafted, though an essential part of pursuing NHL dreams, does not guarantee Riley and Skyler a spot on the Panthers’ and Oilers’ starting rosters, though the teams have the rights to them as players, unless they should choose to trade them away to another team in the league. Both will have to prove their worth and earn their playing time, a process that still may take years to come to fruition. But they are closer than they have ever been before.

Riley will report to the Panthers’ training camp this month where he hopes to earn his spot on Florida’s main roster, while Skyler will finish his final year of high school in Canada before heading off to college in the fall of 2018, choosing to temporarily post-pone professional hockey and playing, unpaid, in a Canadian junior league. It seems, though, that it is only a matter of time before the names Stillman and Brind’amour grace the backs of NHL jerseys, just as they did a generation before.

Born to Play

Growing up the sons of NHL players, Riley and Skyler all but slept in the rink. Cory Stillman remembers how the sons of teammates, all around the same age, were play-ing hockey as soon as they could hold a stick.

“When we were done [on the ice], they’d all put their skates on and go,” he says.

Witnessing both the highs and lows of the game, he adds, will help both Riley and Skyler prepare for the arduous road ahead. Cory notes that Riley was not only fortunate to see him win multiple Stanley Cups—with both the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Hurricanes—but also, to see the disappointment of not making the playoffs, or even to witness teams trade him multiple times throughout his career.

Brind’amour with the Stanley Cup in 2006

Rod Brind’amour is quick to point out that Skyler has been fortunate to be around the game, especially at the NHL level, since he was 4 or 5 years old.

“He’s been in the locker room, so he understands what it takes to get to that level, and the work that needs to be put in,” Rod says. Skyler saw firsthand his father’s relentless work ethic and is motivated to work just as hard.

And though Rod and Cory are there to help steer their sons in the right direction, it hasn’t always been easy growing up with NHL players as fathers, especially with the added pressure and expectations of living up to one’s own last name.

There are positives, the boys say, and there are negatives. On the one hand, scouts notice you because they know who your dad is, but on the other, people are quick to explain away your success.

“People put it down to nothing more than ‘you’re only here because your daddy had a nice NHL career,’ or ‘you only got drafted in the NHL because your dad put in a good word for you,’” says Riley.

The thought that your own progress comes only as a result of your fathers’ previous accomplishments can be pervasive, but it has only fueled Riley and Skyler, for the most part. Riley has started to embrace these taunts.

“Now, it’s to the point where it’s a lot of fun to have that sort of name, and pressure makes perfect, so I can use it to my advantage to help me get better,” he says.

Actions speak louder than words, and, famous dads or not, Riley and Skyler have excelled at every step of the way thus far.

Riley’s play earned him a full scholarship to Penn State, which he turned down when he was drafted by the Oshawa Generals, a team in the Ontario Hockey League (OHL).

Skyler caught the eye of several Division I hockey programs, ultimately settling upon Michigan State University, and the Hamilton Bulldogs, another OHL team. Skyler also earned himself a spot on a team in the United States Hockey League, no small feat considering he was just 17 years old at the time.

Though they’re focused on forging their own independent paths and legacies, Skyler and Riley have each followed their fathers’ routes, but in different ways. And, both fathers and sons know that what happens moving forward has nothing to do with a famous name.

“You know the road is there for him,” says Rod Brind’amour. “It’s up to him now to see how far along the path he goes.”

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