When you think of hockey family bloodlines, names like Hull, Esposito and Sutter come to mind.
While the players in the Canadian Women’s Hockey League aren’t as famous as Bobby and his son Brett, or Tony and his brother Phil, or any of the six Sutter siblings, a handful of them are daughters, or sisters, of elite-level athletes. Gillian Apps, Meghan Mikkelson and Hilary Knight – each of whom played in the 2010 Olympic gold medal game – are all grateful for the support they found from their respective parents, brothers and sisters.
Apps of the Brampton Thunder has the most prolific name. Her grandfather Syl won three Stanley Cups with the Maple Leafs in the 40’s and is an honoured member of the Hockey Hall of Fame, while her father Syl Jr. played 727 career NHL games, mostly with the Pittsburgh Penguins.
“My dad’s influence was huge,” says Apps. “Still to this day my dad is such a big support system for me and he coached me when I was younger and helped me getting when I was getting into the game. Just to have him there to ask questions or just to know that he’s at my games, it means a lot.”
Apps’ brother Syl III went undrafted in the NHL, but did sign with the Maple Leafs in 1999, playing two seasons with the club’s AHL affiliate, which was located in St. John’s at the time. Sister Gillian remains appreciative of her sibling who is two years older. “My brother was a great role model for me, he went to the U.S (Princeton) and played hockey and got his education, and I followed in his footsteps (Dartmouth). He paved the way, and I think he’s still a great support network for me,” said Apps.
Mikkelson, one of Apps’ Canadian teammates that captured gold in Vancouver three years ago, also had the benefit of being coached by an NHL dad. Bill Mikkelson played for the Kings, Islanders and Capitals in a career that lasted 147 games.
“Obviously having a dad who played in the NHL – being a hockey player growing up – it’s a huge advantage,” said Mikkelson who patrols the blueline for Team Alberta. “All the skills that he learned, the experiences that he had, he was always there for me growing up if I had any questions, whether it was the tangible skills, stickhandling, skating, shooting, or the intangible skills, being part of a team – what it made to be a good teammate, a great leader and a good person.”
Success has become a trademark for the family with brother Brendan winning a Memorial Cup with the Vancouver Giants in 2007. “I was there when he won the Memorial Cup, which was great,” said Mikkelson. “I had just graduated from university (Wisconsin) and I flew right from Madison to Vancouver for that, which was awesome. He couldn’t be in Vancouver in 2010 because he was playing in the AHL (Toronto Marlies) at the time. Being on an AHL or NHL schedule is tough because you can’t just get up and leave to go to a game. But he was watching on TV, and I knew that he was cheering me on. Even though he wasn’t there physically, he was in my thoughts when we won, because he was such a huge part of my development growing up.”
Knight wasn’t the daughter of an NHL-playing father, but the San Francisco native is the second Olympian in her family. Her cousin Chip Knight competed for the United States in three Olympics: 1998, 2002 and 2006. When faced as a child with having to choose a single sport on which to focus, Knight left the slopes for the rink. “In seventh grade I had to decide whether I wanted to pursue skiing at a more intense level or really go out to the east coast and work on my hockey skills,” said Knight. “I think I made the right decision but we definitely had some purebreds in my family for skiing.”
Few would argue with Knight’s choice as she became the all-time leading scorer at the University of Wisconsin while winning three World Championships with the American team, all before the age of 22.
The leading scorer on the Boston Blades by a wide margin, Knight attributes her competitive spirit to having three younger brothers. “My poor mother, I feel sorry for her but I think she’s happy that we’re all still alive right now!” said Knight. “Whenever we played mini sticks hockey, that was always interesting. My mom would ban us from playing because we would always tear up the hallway so badly. Whenever we had a babysitter, I felt badly for her. They never came back.
“We definitely beat up on each other, but our household just made me stronger and more competitive so I’m very fortunate for my 3 younger brothers,” said Knight of her siblings, who have continued their respective athletic pursuits at Mercyhurst and Wisconsin.
Each of the three women grew up without ever feeling pressure from their families to succeed. The nurturing nature of their respective families has translated into collegiate, international and Olympic excellence.
“My mom and dad were the parents in the corner who kept quiet as we went along,“ said Knight. “Everyone in our family is super supportive of one another’s roles. It just works out for the best, and we make a loving family more competitive obviously on the ice.”
The CWHL Clarkson Cup championship begins on Wednesday. Montreal is the two-time defending champion, with Boston, Brampton and Toronto also in contention.
Some of the players described the mood heading into the tournament:
Hilary Knight – Boston: “Whenever you’re in first you have a target on your back. But, we want the Cup! We want to bring it to Boston!”
Tessa Bonhomme – Toronto: “We’ve got a committed group of girls, we’ve got a lot of young stars this year – Wakefield, Spooner, Johnston –and Kessler in net. We feel that we’re lucky with the 3 goalies that we have. We have Small, Kessler and Vanderveer and I feel like on any given night we can throw any of them in net and we’re going to get a solid performance from them.”
Jayna Hefford – Brampton: “There’s some optimism, we’ve had our ups and downs but I think we all believe that we can be where we need to be.”
Rob Del Mundo is the author of Off The Post, and is a regular columnist at TMLfans.ca
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