Rozner: A father, a son and a love of hockey

  • Recently drafted in the second round by the Blackhawks, 6-foot-6 defenseman Alex Vlasic shares a laugh with his father, John, on the beach in Nova Scotia.

    Recently drafted in the second round by the Blackhawks, 6-foot-6 defenseman Alex Vlasic shares a laugh with his father, John, on the beach in Nova Scotia. Courtesy of John Vlasic

  • Alex Vlasic, who came up through USA Hockey, has a strong hockey pedigree.

    Alex Vlasic, who came up through USA Hockey, has a strong hockey pedigree. Courtesy of USA Hockey

  • John Vlasic, center of top row, coached son Alex, middle row far left, on a state championship team.

    John Vlasic, center of top row, coached son Alex, middle row far left, on a state championship team. Courtesy of John Vlasic

 
 
Updated 7/8/2019 8:49 PM

John Vlasic had NHL ability.

The evidence isn't just in his family, where nephew Marc-Edouard Vlasic will reach 1,000 games for the San Jose Sharks next season, and in son Alex, who was just taken in the second round of the NHL Draft by the Blackhawks.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

It was also in the words of Rob McClanahan, the 1980 Team USA hero and NHL veteran, who once wondered aloud why John Vlasic didn't reach the highest level of hockey.

In the interest of full disclosure and admitting certain bias, I skated with Vlasic for nearly 20 years, and McClanahan spent a few months on the ice with us in the early '90s.

What Vlasic didn't offer up easily in the past was he suffered the ultimate hockey dad, the kind who rode him mercilessly while growing up in Montreal, stealing the joy of the game and the kid's desire to get to where he might have gone.

"My dad hasn't said too much about it," says 6-foot-6 defenseman Alex Vlasic, selected 43rd overall by the Hawks. "But when I've talked to him about it, it sounds like he didn't have the desire to play past juniors and I guess that was probably a factor."

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That's the most compelling aspect of Alex Vlasic's journey through the top tiers of USA Hockey, and at the age of 18 one of 17 teammates taken in the draft from the USA National Team.

John Vlasic was keenly aware of his own nightmare, so he was antithetical in handling his own children, including daughter Emma, who played four years at Yale.

"I was half-decent growing up and my brother (Marc-Edouard's dad) was pretty good, but my father was very harsh," says John Vlasic, no longer reluctant to discuss it. "My dad was from Yugoslavia and he came from nothing, so … "

What had been a promising career in Canada careened off the road in those car rides home after games, when his dad let him know that he didn't do anything right.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

"I never enjoyed the game growing up," John Vlasic says matter-of-factly. "Hockey was never fun. It turned me off and it got me out of the game.

"I never did to my kids what my dad did. I knew how to do it. But both my kids asked questions, like what the keys to the game would be before we even got out of the car before the game.

"I would take the good and the bad from the previous games and try to explain what happened, try to make it a learning experience.

"Every parent is an expert in their kids' endeavors, right? My dad didn't know anything about hockey and it didn't stop him from telling me everything I did wrong.

"But my kids knew my answers would not be caustic, so they weren't afraid to ask questions. I was fortunate also that they were good students of the game.

"I've seen good players with good parents who were selfish with the puck, but I was lucky in that way with my kids. They understood right away it was a team game and they moved the puck even though they were better than the players they were giving it to."

John coached his son at several levels, winning multiple state and national championships, and that experience was nothing but fun for both.

"It was really special," says Alex. "He wasn't one of those coaches -- or parents -- that was overly involved. Those games can get pretty intense, but he was pretty laid-back.

"He did a lot of teaching. He wasn't too vocal. If I did something wrong or it was an on-ice discipline thing, he'd let me know, but for the most part he let me play my game.

"He likes to joke now about how good a coach he was, but actually he was."

The irony is that John never wanted to do it.

"I had no interest. I got roped into it," John laughs. "I always thought coaches had angles and weren't necessarily doing right by the kids.

"I never yelled. I yelled at refs, but never at the players.

"I got out of it because a guy said to me, 'What are you doing? If I had your son, I'd never let him off the ice.' I said, 'Everyone pays and everyone should play.'

"I knew what a lot of parents and coaches didn't, which is that if your kid is good enough, they'll be discovered. At that age, it should just be a great experience for them."

Maybe Alex didn't hear the stories, or really know the details, but he seems to understand what his dad went through based on how John handled all three kids, including his brother Eric, a goaltender for Chicago Blackhawks Special Hockey.

Alex was never coddled, but he was also never throttled.

"Honestly, he's been perfect in every way coaching and parenting hockey," Alex said. "He wanted us to love the game. He didn't want to put any of that stress on us."

For most of that time growing up in Wilmette, the family had many different allegiances. John -- who moved to Chicago from Montreal at age 24 for work -- was always a huge Canadiens fan, but when his nephew reached San Jose, the Sharks were big in the Vlasic household. Meanwhile, Eric wore the Hawks' sweater.

"We were surrounded by brooms at the United Center in Game 4 in 2010," said Tara Vlasic, the mother of the crew. "We heard about it all day."

Only 8 years old when the Hawks' swept San Jose in the conference finals, Alex has at least one vivid recollection.

"I remember sitting pretty high up in the top rows of the United Center, all of us with our Sharks jerseys," Alex said, "and (mascot) Tommy Hawk sprayed me with Silly String. I haven't forgotten that."

Now it's Alex, however, who has a chance to reach the NHL with his hometown team. First, it will be Boston University while he grows into his 198-pound frame and builds his game for the professional level.

"He's a confident boy, but he needs to understand how good he is," John Vlasic said. "He's got more in his game, but every time he's moved up it's taken him a little while to understand he's as good as -- or better than -- anyone he's playing with, and that's because he's humble.

"That's how we brought them up. He needs to strip that away to a certain degree.

"He just has to play his game. Alex always has his head up. If your head is down, the game is very hard. If you have your head up, you have the whole rink at your disposal.

"My brother and I both took pride in defense first and Alex is like that."

At only 18 it's difficult to forecast, but the Hawks are figuring out you can't teach size -- and size is something they need. Vlasic moves his feet well for a defenseman of his length, and the Hawks probably see him as two or three years away.

"Our nephew made it. Nobody makes it. I mean, how many people do you know who make it?" John Vlasic asks. "Lightning struck there and maybe it will happen again.

"When Alex made the USA Development Team, you start to think it's possible. Now this, drafted by the Hawks. This is what he wants. He's not going to Boston to be a brain surgeon."

At the heart of it, this is a relatively simple story of a hockey dad and his son, a father who wanted the son to play and enjoy the game, to let the chips drift however and wherever they might.

It was a man who didn't want to repeat the sins of the father, giving his son the best possible opportunity to accomplish the things he couldn't, not with extra ice time or more coaching, but by ensuring his son did not endure the misery his father heaped on him.

In an appropriate twist of fate, the father -- who only wanted for his three kids to find happiness in playing the greatest sport there is, to instill in them the passion he couldn't feel -- has discovered through his children what he was deprived of as a young man.

All these decades later, John Vlasic has found his love for hockey.

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