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Daddy Goes To Work: Capitals Dads Talk Fatherhood, Balancing NHL & Kids

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(Photo courtesy of the Washington Capitals)

WASHINGTON — On New Year’s Eve in 2019, the Washington Capitals took the ice for a home game against the New York Islanders. Nic Dowd, who was listed on the roster, was missing from warmups and on his way to the hospital, where he and his wife, Paige, welcomed their first son, Louie, at 8:18 p.m.

And looking back on that night three years later, Dowd says with certainty that the biggest accomplishment of his life is his son and that seeing him behind the glass at games or in the locker room at practice has changed him both on and off the ice.

“It makes the entire career worth it to that point, you know?” Dowd said. “You’re really proud because of it. I used to see guys bring their kids to the rink when I was a younger kid and younger guy and I was like, ‘Man, how cool is that that you get to bring your kid to the rink and they get to see what you do?’ And now that I get to do it, it’s like the coolest thing ever. I look forward to it every single time I know he’s coming…  how many people get to share that, you know?”

(Photo courtesy of the Washington Capitals)

Dowd is one of several Capitals dads, a growing group that includes teammates Garnet Hathaway, Dylan Strome, Conor Sheary, Alex Ovechkin, Evgeny Kuznetsov, T.J. Oshie and many more, including Anthony Mantha, who just welcomed his first child Naomie. It can be a difficult job, balancing an NHL workload and the demands of the ever-changing league with being a father, but they wouldn’t have it any other way.

“It’s unbelievable,” Hathaway, who’s a father to 17-month-old Luke, said. “When I was younger in the league and seeing guys with their kids come to the game, it’s fun for them. But it’s even more fun for us to be able to share it. Takes a lot of hard work to get in this league, but it’s a lot of support from your family and being able to share that with our wives or girlfriends, family when they come in and the kids too, is great.”

While Luke is still learning what hockey is and doesn’t yet grasp what his father does for a living, Hathaway says that his son loves the experience and that luckily, being away for long periods of time isn’t something they’ve had to deal with too much yet amid COVID-19.

“He’s been picking up hockey sticks now and waving them around and hitting me in the face, so it’s going to be fun… it’s just enjoying this league, enjoying this job and enjoying this team and being able to share that with him. I’ve been able to bring him here and bring him on the ice a few times and he absolutely loves it,” Hathaway said. “You know, he can’t tell me what he loves about it yet, but you can see the excitement on his face and that’s what hockey is about. Just sharing it. He doesn’t know. I don’t think he knows yet when I’m home or not but he enjoys coming to the rink.”

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For other dads like Strome, his 18-month-old daughter Weslie is starting to grasp that her dad is a full-time NHL player, which can make those long road swings and time away a bit challenging. To help her understand Strome’s time away from her and away from home, he made a custom book for her called “Daddy Goes To Work.”

“We have a little book at home that says what I do as a job, and anytime she sees hockey on the TV, she’s saying, ‘Daddy,'” Strome said. “She kind of understands now that when I leave the house, I’m usually at the rink or on an airplane. She likes airplanes, so I tell her about that. It’s great to see.”

“I guess it’s no different than someone who has a normal job that has to travel for work,” Sheary, who has a 20-month-old daughter named Mila and another baby on the way, added. “It’s a hard thing to leave your kid, even when she doesn’t know what’s going on. It’s hard to leave just for practice or games or whatever it is. Letting her know I’m not leaving her, I’m doing a job, is probably the most important thing.”

Matt Irwin, who doesn’t draw into the lineup much but remains a regular when it comes to those long road trips and daily practices, said that the concept is somewhat hard to explain to his children. His son, Beckem, is four and a half, and his daughter, Lennon, is six months old.

“That’s something that we’ve had to work on actually. They don’t really have an idea of how much is 10 days or two nights or anything like that. It just seems like a long time in their heads,” Irwin explained. “You know, most of it lands on my wife. We’re working on it and the more he understands hockey and this is what I do, he is starting to pick it up a little bit more and know that I do come home and I’m on the TV and the guys are playing, so it’s all part of it.

“[Beckem] wants to always come if I don’t drive myself to the airport. He wants to come pick me up and that’s typically way too late. But there’s times where we let it slide,” Irwin explained. “He’ll sleep for a bit and then my wife will pick them up or wake them up and he’ll come. He always wants to do that. Just like hit the ground running the next morning and it’s a day off where we’re buzzing around the house and playing mini sticks or whatever it might be and you bring them right back.”

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Then, of course, the players have to pay a price as well. With a busy schedule and being away from home, players can often miss big milestones or parts of their kids’ days, whether it be a new word learned, a grade on a test or a new talent. That’s where technology comes into play.

“You find some changes. He grow and he’s different and when you see him every day, you don’t see the big difference. But when you on the road like 10 days or whatever, he’s different person, you know?” Dmitry Orlov, who has a three-year-old son named Kirill, said. “He always give you something new… A long time ago you cannot see and you’re gone so long, but it’s a different world. everybody can have phones and easy to connect.”

Erik Gustafsson agreed, saying that talking on the phone gives him something to do on the road while helping keep the family, which consists of him, his wife and his three kids, Jamie, 5, Cecile, 3 and Lusie, 6 months, connected.

“Thank God for FaceTime. You’re trying to talk on the phone as much as you can,” Gustafsson said. “When they have school too, you know, the long road trips are hard. It’s when you have a little one at home and see how they grow; if you’ve gone for 10 days or something like that, it’s something always happening with the baby. It’s always fun to come home to that, too, but it’s to be away for sure.

“It’s harder for my wife, you know? They just want to be with me the whole time, you know? She’s doing all this stuff for the kids, but when I come home. it’s ‘Dad, dad, dad. But when you come home from the road, it’s just the best. Even if you have a bad road trip or a bad game, the kids are always happy.”

At the end of the day, through thick and thin, sharing the game that they love and having number one fans in their kids makes every moment worthwhile. Ovechkin has been teaching his son, Sergei, how to play, and Backstrom and Carlson’s kids also play youth hockey. Irwin’s son Beckem is skating and learning from his father, and No. 52 also said that Beckem is his biggest fan.

“He’s pretty funny with it. My role, I don’t play every night, so he’s excited to watch the games and then he’s looking around. But usually, I tell him before if I’m playing or not, and he’s good about it. He goes, ‘That’s okay dad, next time,’” Irwin laughed. “He’s always pretty good about it. It’s pretty funny, but he loves it. He’s glued to it, he loves watching it, he loves playing it himself. It’s fun to watch.

“He likes coming to the rink in the summer. He skates while I skate. All those things, it’s fun,” Irwin said. “Hopefully he’s a little more skilled [than me]. It doesn’t matter. He’s a righty, so I don’t know if he wants to be defense. He likes scoring goals — or he thinks he does, anyway — so we’ll see.”

Hathaway hasn’t gotten Luke on the ice yet but hinted that some gear his coming his way for Christmas.

“He just seems excited about anything. You know, obviously, hockey is something that I really enjoy and I love, so if he grows up and likes it, then that’s great,” Hathaway said. “But I just want him to find something that he loves as much.”

Orlov also stressed how important it is to let his son live his own life and pursue his own interests, but does get excited when he picks up a hockey stick from time to time.

“When he grow every year, he recognize more life, more experience. And he go already to kindergarten so he’s trying to adapt to life,” Orlov added. “He got some sticks and I think he will try for sure at some point. Just not want to push him for that. Make sure he got kids’ life. He’s got some toys and cars — right now he’s into cars and dinosaurs. It’s his two favorite things right now.”

At the end of the day, Dowd said that being a father has beaten any other milestone, and all of the Capitals’ dads in the dressing room would say the same thing. Hockey is full of memories, moments of heartbreak and more mixed emotions. But for the players, seeing their kids behind the glass wearing “Daddy” jerseys with their numbers on the back, and also reuniting with them after a long road trip, puts the world in perspective and has taught them one lesson: family is everything.

“They talk about being able to get away from the game. And there’s no better feeling than opening that door when you get back from a long road trip the next morning you wake up for the first time and get to see your kid after a long road trip… it makes everything else disappear,” Dowd said. “You just know he’s so excited to see you. That’s the only thing you care about in the whole world. It’s special to have a kid and share this with them.”