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NHL legacies and hockey dads: How Jarome Iginla and Byron Ritchie are preparing for the draft

Byron Ritchie jotted out a quick note on his phone and sent off a text to Jarome Iginla, his former Calgary Flames teammate.

Ritchie’s son Ryder was mired in a goal-scoring slump, and Ritchie asked Iginla if he could watch a few of his son’s shifts. “Just see if you’re seeing something different than I am,” Byron asked.

It was one hockey dad asking another for advice, but in truth, less personal versions of this type of exchange are commonplace for Ritchie and Iginla. The two former NHL forwards played together in Calgary for two seasons nearly 20 years ago. They both made their offseason homes in the Okanagan, a picturesque locale in the interior of British Columbia that’s popular among NHL players.

In August 2006, following their first year as teammates in Calgary, Ritchie’s wife, Maria Johansson, and Jarome’s wife, Kara Iginla, both gave birth to sons. Ryder was born on Aug. 3. Tij Iginla arrived the very next day.

Now the two 17-year-olds are top NHL prospects heading into this weekend’s NHL Draft in Las Vegas and working through the pressures of draft eligibility together at RINK Hockey Academy in Kelowna. Jarome Iginla coaches the academy’s U18 team — including his son Joe, who made his WHL debut as a 15-year-old this season — while Byron Ritchie works with players at all levels as a skills development coach.

So when Iginla watched Ryder’s shifts in late November, he came back with a simple suggestion: Turn off your brain.

“As a guy who loves to score and wants to score, it’s all you think about when you’re not doing it,” Ryder says. “’Oh, I haven’t scored in six games,’ and then, ‘Oh no, it’s been seven now.’

“So I’m sitting at home eating dinner and I can’t stop thinking about getting that goal.”

Then Iginla called and told Ryder to do something to take his mind off hockey. “Don’t think about the game,” he told him. “Read. Go for a movie. Just be a kid. Get away from things for a bit.’”

Though he was a fearsome power forward during his playing days, Iginla takes a patient, measured approach to developing young players — including his sons Joe and Tij, and his daughter, Jade, all high-level hockey prospects.

“It’s hard when you’re in it as a player,” Iginla says. “You want to just work harder, work harder. Just keep pushing, you know, break through. But sometimes the best thing is to find something else. Give your brain a rest.”

Iginla and his family settled in Boston after his Hall of Fame playing career concluded in 2017.

With three young children, all ambitious athletes, sports were the primary factor in their decision. Boston had more options for high-level baseball and hockey with easier travel. And just as his children got more into hockey, Jarome found an outlet that helped him adjust to life after the NHL.

“You’ve heard it lots from retired players, but it’s a big adjustment to go from playing and all that comes with it,” he says. “Having to be everywhere, getting to enjoy the competition, and the energy of the game and the wins and losses and just being around the game. It was a big adjustment that first year, but being able to coach really helped.”

While Jade played prep hockey and eventually headed to Shattuck St. Mary’s in Minnesota, Jarome became a co-coach for Tij and Joe’s hockey teams.

“Every night we had a practice or a game, so that kept me busy and kept me part of it,” Iginla says. “I love the game and it was nice to be able to share that, yes with my own kids, but it was also competitive hockey, so it gave me a chance to share it with other kids that want to get better and are into it.”

Eventually, the lure of moving back to Western Canada took hold. Jade was being recruited to play Division 1 college hockey. His sons were serious about pursuing an NHL path, and Jarome wanted them to play in Canada’s Western Hockey League.

“You know our job as parents is to try and help them,” Iginla says, “but also to make sure they keep their options open with their schooling. We believe, though, that if you want it, you work towards it and give it your best shot.”

The combination of significant ice time for aspiring athletes and the educational side of it in the Western Canadian Academy system appealed to the Iginlas.

“So I spoke with Byron, and we took the opportunity,” Iginla says.

Working together came naturally for the former NHL teammates.

“We go back 30 freaking years,” Ritchie says, noting that they had played U17 hockey together.

“You always have that kind of connection with your teammates. And then you have kids one day apart, right? … We just kept in touch.”

The Iginlas enrolled all three kids at RINK, and Jarome joined the academy as a youth coach and began working with his former teammate. Meanwhile, Tij joined a U18 team and played on a line with Ryder.

“Byron and Jarome are so in tune with trying to develop the modern hockey player,”  says RINK executive director Mako Balkovec. “The fact that they have kids here too gives them a vested interest and I think it’s why they bring a certain joy in working with other players, too.

“Byron is very intense, similar to the type of player he was. He’s into it, very demanding. And it shows in how his teams play. And then for the kids, once they get past the — ‘Oh, wow, that’s Jarome Iginla’ — of it, he’s so invested in working with young players. It’s just an incredible opportunity.”

In the winters, especially when Iginla was still playing in Calgary, he’d come home after games and flood his backyard to maintain a rink for his children.

“It was pretty peaceful,” he recalls. “I’d get back at midnight, coming off the road, the stars are out and it’s so quiet out there. Then once you start putting the water on, you start to take pride in it. Make sure it’s not bumpy, make sure the kids don’t complain. It was actually a good stress reliever.”

In the summers, and to this day, Jarome will rent ice for himself and his three children. They’ll run drills, do some skills work, and then play two-on-two.

The teams are always the same: Jarome and his youngest son, Joe, against Jade and Tij.

“In the winter outdoors, we’d play two-on-two all the time, no goalie, so you have to go bar down, and me and Jade are always a team against Joe and Dad,” Tij recalls.

“Usually me and Jade won,” Tij adds confidently. “Our record was pretty good.”

“For a long time, I was able to manipulate who wins, just try a little harder, try a little less, and share the wins around because the kids would get so mad,” Iginla says.

“Then … Jade and Tij started getting better. Near the end there, Tij was 14 and Jade was 16 and I couldn’t control it anymore. I wasn’t as good in tight spaces anymore. People would say ‘What do you mean, you can’t beat them?’ Well, come on, I couldn’t body check them! And Tij and Jade were just too good in those tight spaces.

“I’d start coming in at the end of the day and Joe would be so mad that we hadn’t won in a while, and now my wife, Kara, is mad at me, like ‘Why aren’t you ever winning?’ and I’d have to tell her ‘I’m trying!’”

What started as a pair of former NHLers and committed hockey dads coaching their own kids has evolved into something more.

Tij and Ryder share a high-octane pace and highly skilled play style. It’s partly why Tij, ranked as the ninth-best North American skater by NHL Central Scouting ahead of the draft, is considered a likely top-10 pick. Ryder should hear his name called late in the first round or early in the second.

“Growing up and as you get older, coaches tighten it up a little,” Tij says, “but my dad and Byron have a good understanding of development. You might make the odd mistake, but what matters is hustling back when you do.

“That’s the thing about my dad. He looks at what’s changed in the game. He’s not stuck in any old-school ways. He’s always on his iPad looking at stuff, looking at new drills and skills.”

That’s another shared trait between the two dads. Their active group chat with RINK staff includes tons of clips from all levels of hockey, a flowing and constant conversation about the game’s evolution, new drills, debating the value of the newest fad in skills development.

Byron, for example, honed his approach as a skills coach in conversation with his CAA colleague Jim Hughes.

“I think small-area games, not just two-on-two cross-ice, but there’s a lot of different small-area games and competitive small-area games where players have to turn their brains on to find open ice,” he says. “Put nets in odd places, crazy things like that, three-on-twos and four-on-threes and the offensive team is outnumbered. Those tweaks, I think, help trigger the brains of skilled players and challenge them to make plays and find space.”

Ultimately the impact of the Iginla-Ritchie partnership at RINK Hockey Academy has expanded beyond the development of their own sons. At this point, some of the most intriguing young players on the continent — including probable 2026 first overall pick Gavin McKenna and Wisconsin-bound offensive defender Chloe Primerano, probably the best women’s hockey prospect to ever come out of Western Canada — are training at RINK and billeting with the Ritchie family.

“He pushes me, and I love it,” says McKenna of the relationship he’s built with Ritchie. “He’s my agent, he’s been my coach, I live here during the summer. He’s been through it all himself, so he’s helped me understand how hard I need to work, even how I have to eat, to get to where I want to go.”

The draft is the culmination of a long-held dream for top hockey players and their families, but it also represents the beginning of the journey.

For Ryder and Tij, and their dads, however, there’s also a sense of relief that will come with the start of a new chapter.

“It’s a lot of pressure in your draft year and I remember it well,” Jarome says. “When you’re getting drafted it’s a unique thing, because you’re constantly getting critiqued and everyone is watching and judging. It’s part of the game, but in your draft year, it just feels like everything is magnified.

“Both Ryder and Tij have done a good job at it, but it’s nice as a parent to know that they’re almost through it.”

(Illustration: Dan Goldfarb / The Athletic; photos: Jonathan Kozub, Dale Preston / Getty Images)

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