Blackhawks’ Riley Stillman following father Cory’s advice while carving his own NHL path
While Cory Stillman won two Stanley Cups and played more than 1,000 games, his son Riley received a one-of-a-kind acclimation into the NHL. Now a 23-year-old Blackhawks defenseman, Riley can appreciate just how special his childhood was.
Cory Stillman, by winning the 2004 and 2006 Stanley Cups with the Lightning and Hurricanes, became the sixth player in NHL history to win consecutive Cups with different teams.
Riley Stillman, all of 6 and 8 years old at the time, thus became one of the first dozen or so kids to watch their fathers win consecutive Cups.
Now 23 and well into his own NHL career, the Blackhawks defenseman can appreciate the memories even more.
‘‘That’s something you took for granted as a little kid,’’ he said. ‘‘As my career has progressed on and moved forward, from a young kid to the position I’m in now, [I’m] realizing how hard it is to win one, let alone two. It was a massive influence to be around the rink and watch Dad grow as he got older.’’
Riley hasn’t enjoyed a Cup run of his own yet, but he’s relishing his first months of career stability. As personable and easy-going off the ice as he is aggressive and intimidating on it, he appeared in 13 of the Hawks’ last 14 games after being acquired in a trade April 8 with the Panthers and signed a three-year contract extension before the end of the season.
With younger brother Chase projected as a second- or third-round pick in the NHL Draft next month, 2021 quickly is becoming a momentous year in the Stillman family. Cory, who retired in 2011 after more than 1,000 career games, soon will be able to celebrate having two sons affiliated with NHL franchises.
Yet it doesn’t feel long ago that Cory was in his mid-20s, starting to establish himself as a significant contributor with the Flames — his first of six NHL teams — and taking Riley out to skate for the first time.
Shortly after Riley’s birth in March 1998, the Stillman family moved into former Flames forward James Patrick’s house, which conveniently bordered a lake that froze in the winter.
‘‘He skated around age 2,’’ Cory said. ‘‘Up in Canada, it’s cold. The best place for kids to be is outside on ponds and backyard rinks. We have a picture of him and I out there — him with his helmet on, skating. . . . It’s a memory I’ll never forget.’’
Riley’s acclimation to hockey soon transitioned from Canadian lakes to NHL rinks. Cory moved on to St. Louis, then Tampa, then Carolina, and Riley spent more and more time tagging along to practices and games.
Riley remembers only ‘‘bits and pieces’’ of the Lightning’s title run, but he was old enough to fully admire the Hurricanes’ championship after the lockout. He made it to every playoff home game (and Game 6 in Edmonton), watching his dad score two postseason overtime game-winners and hoist the Cup after Game 7. He was hooked.
‘‘There’s a big difference between age 6 and 8, going to the rink,’’ Cory said. ‘‘At that time was probably when he started to really think he wanted to be a hockey player because he could see the excitement, the fun that we had winning.’’
‘‘If I didn’t have sports or school, I was at the rink for [Dad’s] practice, whether it was folding towels with the trainers or hanging out with the guys,’’ Riley said. ‘‘The guys my dad played with all took really good care of me and had a lot of fun with me.’’
Riley often would be allowed to join the post-practice antics, shoot on one of the goalies or replicate some of the drills he saw taking place minutes before. And he developed friendships with a star-studded list of Cory’s teammates: Martin St. Louis with the Lightning, Eric Staal with the Hurricanes and Nathan Horton with the Panthers later in Cory’s career.
‘‘That was a really cool experience for me,’’ Riley said. ‘‘You don’t realize how big of superstars they are. Guys like Eric Staal or Martin St. Louis, as a kid, it’s just ‘Eric’ or ‘Martin.’ ’’
The Stillmans moved home to Peterborough, Ontario, after Cory’s retirement. Missing the Calgary pond experience, Cory built a backyard rink for his sons that became a nightly hub of activity.
And as Riley’s own career began taking off, Cory passed on the lessons learned during his 16 years in the league.
‘‘Work hard [and] be seen, not heard,’’ he told his son. ‘‘But you’re being watched all the time. How do you carry yourself? How do you present yourself? Do you work in the gym? Do you work hard in practice? [Those habits are] carried on.’’
Riley had shifted from forward to defenseman at age 12, when his spring tournament team suffered the common problem of a surplus of the former and a lack of the latter.
‘‘I was like, ‘Yeah, sure. More ice? No problem!’ ’’ Riley recalled.
The temporary position change became permanent and allowed him to follow his dad’s advice while carving his own path toward the NHL.
Flashbacks to Cory’s career proved inescapable, though. Riley’s draft day and first 43 NHL games came with the Panthers, where Cory spent most of his final three seasons. Riley’s first NHL goal, on May 6 with the Hawks, came against the Hurricanes in Raleigh — on the ice where Riley stood when Cory won his second Cup.
And Riley chose to wear No. 61 — Cory’s number — with the Panthers, then keep it with the Hawks.
‘‘Not only am I wearing the Blackhawks logo on the front of my jersey, but to be able to wear my dad’s number on a daily basis is something I take a lot of pride in,’’ he said. ‘‘It’s a family number.’’
Chase wears No. 61, too. There is some concern about what would happen if the brothers ever have to compete for it.
‘‘We always said, ‘You can wear whatever number you want,’ ’’ Cory said. ‘‘Both of them have now gone to 61. There would be a fight, I guess, if Chase was drafted by Chicago about who was going to wear it. I don’t know how they would work that one out, but it’d be pretty interesting.’’
The Stillmans missed Riley’s NHL debut in February 2019 because of late notice and Cory’s coaching duties. (He spent three years as the head coach of the Sudbury Wolves, a Canadian junior team, until joining the Coyotes’ staff this past season.) But they’re committed to find a way to attend Riley and Chase’s first game together.
‘‘It’ll be even more special when they play against each other — or with each other,’’ Cory said. ‘‘That first game that they both skate on the ice together will be a special moment that we will definitely be there for.’’
After all, the family might not have gotten even one son to the NHL if not for Cory’s influence.
‘‘As a kid playing hockey, you want to be in the NHL; that’s every kid’s dream,’’ Riley said. ‘‘But to see your dad doing it right in front of your eyes is something incredible.’’