Teenager Alex DeBrincat makes his way in the grown-up world of the NHL
Subscribe for unlimited digital access.
Try one month for $1!
Subscribe for unlimited digital access. Try one month for $1!
There’s something cruel about being a 19-year-old in Las Vegas — too old to find M&M World exciting, too young to partake in all the sins of Sin City.
So while most of the Blackhawks had a four-night stay at the Bellagio circled on their calendars, rookie Alex DeBrincat was less than enthused when he called his mom.
‘‘He’s like: ‘I can’t do anything. I’m only 19, and everyone else is old enough to do something,’ ’’ Tracey DeBrincat said with a laugh. ‘‘I told him, ‘Oh, you can do some homework then.’ ’’
That’s high school homework, by the way. Like so many other elite hockey players, DeBrincat left high school — Lake Forest Academy, in his case — at 15 to pursue a career in juniors and does his schooling online in between practices, morning skates, games and travel. It’s one of the most glaring examples of the unique situation DeBrincat is in, a kid in a league of grown men.
And while DeBrincat has a grown man’s game on the ice — coach Joel Quenneville moved him up to the top line with Brandon Saad and Jonathan Toews on Thursday — there’s a social adjustment to be made in the room, on the plane and in the hotel. For DeBrincat, it’s nothing new. The hockey wunderkind has been playing on older teams his whole life and gravitated toward his brother Andrew’s friends growing up, even though they were four years older than he was.
‘‘I’m used to playing with older guys,’’ DeBrincat said. ‘‘My whole life, I’ve kind of played up. So not much is new there. Besides, I feel welcomed here. The guys are really nice to me, so it doesn’t make it awkward.’’
It helps that the Hawks had an infusion of youth last season. After a practice Monday in Las Vegas, while other players quickly changed out of their gear, grabbed some catered Chipotle and headed back to the hotel, DeBrincat, 21-year-old Nick Schmaltz and 23-year-old Ryan Hartman sat at their stalls in the back corner, just chatting and laughing, lingering long after the room had cleared out.
Schmaltz, who played with DeBrincat at the world juniors in 2016 and is DeBrincat’s roommate on the road, said it has been an easy transition for DeBrincat. A decade ago, when players regularly descended on bars in every road city in packs of 15 or more, it might have been tougher. But DeBrincat’s not the rager type anyway. Tracey DeBrincat was relieved to hear from Alex’s billet family in Erie, Pennsylvania, that when the other players had a party somewhere, Alex always stayed home.
Besides, in an age in which players worry about social media almost as much as they worry about putting poisons into their bodies, most young players these days just go out for dinner, play some video games and call it a night. There’s no age limit for that.
‘‘You don’t want to have anyone feel left out,’’ Schmaltz said. ‘‘Us younger guys, we have a little bit of experience, so we can kind of help him out and try to hang out with him at home. You want to help him get acclimated as quickly as you can because I know it’s nerve-racking being that young in the league; I did it last year [at age 20]. There are a lot of high-end guys in here that you looked up to growing up, so it’s pretty surreal to be in here. It takes time for that to kind of wear off.’’
At home these days, there’s a natural social split in the dressing room, with the 20-somethings going out for dinner and the 30-somethings going home to their families. But on the road, Toews is well-known for going out of his way to invite new players — young and old — to big group dinners early on to help put them at ease in a locker room that otherwise might be intimidating.
‘‘There’s nothing you do with [DeBrincat] that you don’t do with anyone else,’’ Toews said. ‘‘A lot of the older guys in the room . . . we know what it’s like to be one of those young guys and to be so excited to play here. You might overthink things a bit, so you include him in everything and make sure he’s comfortable socially in the room and that he can be himself. Same thing on the ice — you can’t be afraid to make mistakes.’’
Or, as center Artem Anisimov put it: ‘‘We try to make him feel like part of the family, like this is home.’’
That’s music to the ears of Dave and Tracey DeBrincat. Sure, they’ve gotten used to their son living away from home, though Alex had to do some serious arm-twisting at first to persuade them to allow him to leave Lake Forest for the Ontario Hockey League at age 15. But living with a billet family in Erie is quite different than being a pro hockey player, suddenly flush with cash, looking for a place of his own.
Or, you know, hanging out in Las Vegas with a bunch of grown men.
‘‘It’s weird,’’ Tracey DeBrincat said. ‘‘We don’t worry about him much because he appears to be very much on the straight and narrow. But it’s very weird. All Dave and I keep saying to each other is this is so surreal. So, so exciting, but so surreal.’’
Follow me on Twitter @MarkLazerus.