by Lindsay Kramer || NHL.com
Hockey greatness was always just a few minutes down the road for Hartford Wolf Pack rookie center Tommy Pyatt.
Pyatt grew up in Thunder Bay, Ontario, just a short car ride away from the dynastic Staal family. He was best friends, teammate and opponent of the middle son, Marc, now a Rangers defenseman.
Hockey greatness was also just down the hallway from Pyatt. His father, Nelson, played 296 games in the NHL. His older brother, Taylor, is a forward on the Vancouver Canucks.
Shadows everywhere, yes sir. To some, they could be a little intimidating, the symbol of impossibly high standards. To Tom, they are an element that makes him work that much harder to find his own place in the sun.
“I don’t feel pressure that I have to have success,” he said. “I feel I can be in the NHL. I’m happy for all the guys around me who have made the NHL. I just tell myself, I’m the next one.”
That opinion is shared by the Rangers, who took Pyatt in the fourth round of the 2005 draft (the same draft in which New York grabbed Marc, a defenseman, No. 12 overall).
First off, Pyatt is a winner in his own regard. For the past two seasons he was a member of the gold-medal winning Canadian team at the World Juniors.
Secondly, he is a player on an up tick. The defensive side to his game has always been there. Last season with Saginaw, for instance, he was a plus-33.
The really encouraging sign on the prospect watch is how Pyatt has applied his outstanding skating ability to the offensive zone. He scored 43 goals for Saginaw last season, after scoring 51 total his first three seasons there.
“Last year I focused on being more of an offensive player,” Pyatt said. “I realized if I’m going to be an NHL player, I’m going to have to improve my offense. I think it was just a mental attitude. I was always hungry on the ice. I shot more. If you have that hungry attitude to score goals, that’s how natural scorers do it. That’s what I’m trying to focus on.”
Some hunger pangs are more easily satisfied than others. At the start of the Wolf Pack season, mom Kathie and dad Nelson made the 24-hour drive from Thunder Bay to Hartford to help Tom unpack.
They hooked up his appliances, got things set up. They eventually had to cut the cord, though, leaving their kitchen-challenged son to figure out how to produce some nourishment.
“I guess this year I’ll have to learn how to cook. I haven’t gotten out a cookbook yet,” Tom said. “I’ll start with easy recipes and go from there.”
If his culinary learning curve is anywhere near as short as it’s been on the ice, Pyatt’s personal fuel supply should be just fine.
Pyatt’s speed has been apparent in early games, the payoff for extensive conditioning and skating drills last summer. That work was the sign of a player who not only has seen close-up what it takes to compete, but knows how to get in the chase himself.
“I think I’m adjusting pretty well,” Pyatt said. “It’s a different level than the junior game. It’s a different speed of the game. It’s fun hockey to play. I came in here with a positive attitude and looked at it as a year to improve.”
Wolf Pack coach Ken Gernander has shown early trust in his rookie, tossing him on a line with potentially productive scorers Hugh Jessiman and Dane Byers. Through his first three games, Pyatt had two assists.
“That’s one of the things that sometimes takes the young player longest to learn, a scoring touch,” Gernander said. “Anybody who thinks the game well, skates well, and moves the puck, there’s going to be opportunities for them. Most players that make it to this level have had some success. They are driven people. I see those attributes in him, just like I do in a lot of our guys.”
Pyatt, 20, had little choice but to pick up on the importance of motivation at an early age. The family, naturally, had a backyard rink, which Taylor often used as much for punishment as pleasure.
“Taylor was much bigger than me,” Tommy said. “He didn’t realize how hard he was punching me in the back.”
Nelson nudged him along more subtly, with tales of “The Show.”
And Marc Staal has always been the competitive measuring stick. He and Pyatt played together and against each other as youths, and were teammates on both World Juniors teams and briefly in Hartford.
“It (his inspiration) was more when I was younger, watching my brother grow up to be an NHL player, seeing his lifestyle. And hearing my dad’s stories about being an NHL player,” Tom said. “It just made me want to be a pro player even more. My dad has so many (stories), back in the old (days). Every time he sees an old guy he played with on TV, he says, ‘I played with that guy.’ I just roll my eyes.”
At least that instilled in Pyatt the importance of sometimes just shutting your mouth and going along with the flow. Two seasons ago, his Saginaw teammates bleached their hair for the playoffs. Yuck! But Pyatt went along anyways.
“It looked pretty stupid,” was Pyatt’s review.
Last season, Mohawks were the postseason fashion. Ugh! But there was Pyatt again, clipping the appropriate parts of his dome.
“I’m not a big Mohawk guy. I keep it simple,” he said.
By comparison, the usual playoff beards of the AHL seem pretty tame – if that’s all the Wolf Pack decides to do should it be faced with that postseason issue.
“I’m not sure what they do in the pros for playoffs,” Pyatt said. “I guess we’ll find out. Whatever the guys say, I’ll do. I don’t really care.”
Lindsay Kramer’s AHL reports appear every Monday and Thursday on NHL.com