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Sports Saturday

Blossoming on-ice star Alex DeBrincat remains content with off-ice anonymity

DeBrincat scored 41 goals last season, ranking top 10 in the NHL, but the fame has gone to his Shiba Inu’s head more than his own.

Cheerful yet reserved Alex DeBrincat is still growing into the role and lifestyle of a Chicago sports superstar.
Victor Hilitski/For the Sun-Times

Alex DeBrincat is famous for his hockey talent. Ralph DeBrindog, DeBrincat’s beloved Shiba Inu, is famous for his cuteness.

Only one of them gets free biscuits out of it.

“It’s like every week he gets a new toy box [from fans],” DeBrincat jokingly complained from the back seat of a luxury SUV as he was chauffeured across Chicago during the NHL Media Tour this month. “He has so many toys now, but he plays with all of them, so we don’t know which to throw out.

“He’s gotten a little bit cocky.”

The irony is hard to miss: DeBrincat, at 21, is already one of the NHL’s biggest up-and-coming stars. The chauffeur and DeBrincat’s inclusion in the media tour prove it. Yet, unlike Ralph, DeBrincat is the opposite of cocky.

He’s also the opposite of well-recognized. Walking around downtown, there are no screaming fans, no eager autograph-collectors. Only at “Home Depots in the suburbs” does he typically find himself noticed.

During the broadcast of the Packers-Bears game later that night, NBC unintentionally affirmed his facelessness. In a cut to a suite with Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews, DeBrincat is left hilariously unidentified.

Perhaps it’s because Kane and Toews already have claimed all the hockey-stardom real estate in this city. Perhaps it’s because his first two seasons have coincided with the downfall of the Hawks’ playoff streak. One way or another, “the Cat,” as he’s affectionately called, doesn’t even rank as the most popular domestic animal in his household.

It’s undeserved anonymity. DeBrincat is just the 10th player in the last three decades to score more than 68 goals in his first two seasons. His company includes Alex Ovechkin, Sidney Crosby and Steven Stamkos, but not Kane or Toews.

At this rate, he’s due for a new contract next summer with a cap hit pushing $10 million, which would cement his position as a cornerstone for the Hawks’ post-dynasty era.

And yet, he doesn’t carry himself as a cornerstone at all.

“I feel like I’m more quiet in the locker room. I try to stay out of the chirping and stuff,” DeBrincat said. “Those core guys have been there for a long time and are obviously very respected around the league. So especially my first year, I kind of stayed away and kept my mouth shut so I didn’t get in any trouble. I know them pretty well now, and it’s easy to joke around with them, but I had to keep my mouth shut until someone talked to me.”

Despite the lighthearted intentions of the media tour, DeBrincat didn’t stray far from that mouth-shut identity. He seemed amused but rarely delivered the comedy that segment hosts were looking for.

During a GIF-creating film session, his signature reaction was a thumbs-up — because that’s all he had. Matched against Paul Bissonette in an “NHL 20” showdown, he returned none of the trash talk yet effortlessly dominated the video game. Asked about the movie “The Mighty Ducks,” he pointed out that the “flying V” formation would be offside.

The only questions that went anywhere related to dogs.

“The closest I’ve ever been to crying was when I watched ‘A Dog’s Purpose,’” DeBrincat said.

“I’m not a very funny guy, so when they’re trying to get something out of me, it’s a little bit different,” he lamented apologetically. “For example, the [favorite] cartoon question — I’ve watched cartoons in my life, I just can’t think of any in that moment. Obviously, I watched a lot of ‘SpongeBob’ growing up, but I wouldn’t think of, ‘Oh, who’s my favorite cartoon character.’ ”

It’s safe to say, DeBrincat is not a spotlight kind of guy.

But he likes it that way. To some extent, the Hawks do, too.

“He’s pretty low-key, he’s low-maintenance, which is always nice to have,” coach Jeremy Colliton said. “He gives a lot to the group, and I think they appreciate that.”

Still, it would be good for No. 12 to have a little more confidence, if only because when he has the puck, positive outcomes typically follow for the Hawks, and they’d like that to happen more often.

“We have some pretty big personalities in the room, and they want the puck, so it’s important for him to continue to gain that confidence that he can make the play, he can have the puck on his stick,” Colliton said. “It’s only going to benefit the team.”

DeBrincat finished top 10 in the NHL last season with 41 goals, but few around the league seemed aware.
Getty

DeBrincat’s friendships with Kane, Toews and the rest of the Hawks’ veteran core have somewhat blossomed recently, now that his rookie shyness has worn off. Sitting in a Soldier Field suite with the Hawks’ legends two years ago would’ve felt weird, he acknowledged. Now, he at least has the nerve to ask for not one, but two, parking passes.

Even with the social barriers worn down, though, DeBrincat doesn’t see himself on the same planes as Nos. 19 and 88, despite what the career comparisons to date indicate.

He hasn’t won the Stanley Cup. He hasn’t won a playoff series. He hasn’t even experienced the postseason. Those facts gnaw at his core, erode some of that slowly built confidence and leave frustrating asterisks on his tremendous individual success.

“A question you’ve got to ask yourself: Why were [the Hawks] good before I was here and not good now?” he said. “You try not to look too deep into it and try to just go do your thing and try to help us win, but hopefully this season will be a lot better.”

DeBrincat’s biggest goal for 2019-20: Make the pregame walk through the United Center tunnel more than 41 times.
Victor Hilitski/For the Sun-Times

The Michigan native spent the summer in Chicago — his second consecutive year doing so — working with Hawks trainer/guru Paul Goodman on strengthening his legs and lowering his center of gravity, two changes he hopes will improve his speed.

He also is aiming to follow two new personal maxims: No shortcuts on defense, and personal stats don’t matter.

“It sucks not being in the playoffs, and it sucks not being in contention,” he said. “The main focus this year is winning.”

That’s a goal that, if accomplished, will help DeBrincat at last gain much-deserved recognition around Chicago.

And if not? Well, Ralph won’t mind.