Healthy sibling rivalry helped propel John Hayden to the NHL

On Nov. 5, at just 22 years old, John Hayden played in an NHL game between two Original Six teams in front of nearly 22,000 people. And in a group text that night, his family made fun of him for it.

“He ruined the day,” Catherine Hayden said with a laugh.

That’s because earlier in the afternoon, Catherine won the ACC championship with the North Carolina field hockey team. And that morning, older brother Will completed the New York marathon. Meanwhile, Hayden’s Blackhawks lost 2-0 to the Montreal Canadiens.

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John Hayden fights Minnesota's Marcus Foligno during a game on Oct. 12. (Getty Images)

Sports are in Hayden’s blood. And despite reaching the pinnacle of his profession before he even finished up his studies at Yale, Hayden still sometimes takes a back seat to his kid sister.

“She’s probably the best athlete in the family,” Hayden shrugged.

Hayden was born in Chicago, but the family lived in Denver until he was 8. Catherine was skiing before she was walking. She didn’t go to preschool when she was 4 because she was too busy playing hockey every day. The Haydens had a home-made rink in their back yard, and the three siblings spent “days at a time” out there. John grew up idolizing Avalanche stars Joe Sakic and Peter Forsberg, while Catherine was drawn to Mario Lemieux.

Catherine Hayden.

As a freshman in high school in Connecticut, Catherine played varsity field hockey, squash and lacrosse. But she spent her junior and senior years in Kent, England, and ice hockey isn’t a terribly big deal out there, so field hockey became her focus. Now she’s a key player on a team expected to contend for a national championship next season.

The siblings pushed each other relentlessly. They still do, with John occasionally tuning the dressing-room TV to Catherine’s games on the ACC Network, and Catherine using her dad’s NHL.TV log-in to keep tabs on John.

“My brothers definitely toughened me up on the back yard rink,” Catherine said.

That toughness is reflected in Hayden’s bruising style of play. He leads the Hawks in hits, averaging nearly three per game — nobody on the team averaged more than 1.8 last season — and literally broke Marcus Foligno’s face with a devastating punch during a fight on Oct. 12.

That style is a sharp contrast to Hayden’s off-ice demeanor. The 6-3 bruiser is soft-spoken and unfailingly polite.

“That big punch he had, everyone was sending me pictures of it,” Catherine said. “He’s such an animal on the ice, but he’s really such a softy. He’s the nicest guy. He would never hurt anyone on purpose. He just works harder than anyone I’ve ever seen.”

That work ethic has earned Hayden a major promotion, from the fourth line to the top line, playing alongside Jonathan Toews. Hayden has been showing more of an offensive touch lately, with two goals and two assists in November. With just 38 NHL games under his belt, he’s just now starting to settle into the league and his role on the Hawks.

“Good player — really good player,” frequent linemate Tommy Wingels said. “He’s very smart out there, and he’s a guy who can adapt his game to different styles. In the offensive zone, he’s very elite at holding on to pucks and protecting it. And at the same time, he can play more of a depth role where he’s banging, being physical, being good defensively.”

Hayden’s focus always has been on defense, but the Yale grad has a smart way of looking at his role.

“Possession in their zone is really good defense,” he said. “If you have the puck, they don’t.”

It’s something he learned at an early age, in the back yard, against some of the toughest competition he’s ever faced.

“He’s obviously very accomplished and an unbelievable athlete, so I don’t know if I can claim I’m the best,” Catherine said. “But I definitely gave both my brothers a run for their money growing up.”

Follow me on Twitter @MarkLazerus
Email: mlazerus@suntimes.com

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