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Even in NHL, they're just hockey dads

LOS ANGELES -- Not long after the Washington Capitals came up short against the Los Angeles Kings Saturday, Caps defenseman John Carlson and his father, Richard, could be found chatting casually not far from one of the team buses.

Nicklas Backstrom emerged from the dressing room and found his father, Anders, among a group of the Capitals' fathers, while Marcus Johansson and father Lars talked quietly in Swedish.

And so it went, fathers and their sons standing shoulder-to-shoulder after a hockey game.

Makes you wonder how many times this scene has been repeated over the past 25 years in Sweden, Russia, Saskatchewan and Michigan?

On this night, they are standing in Staples Center next to a fancy mural depicting the Kings' Stanley Cup victories and the Lakers' glory days. They watched the game in a comfortable suite filled with delicious food and tasty drinks. And while the surroundings might be something most of these fathers never expected to experience, the routines of the game -- like the postgame chat -- remain constant and almost universally reassuring.

"Coolest thing in the world. Absolutely coolest thing in the world," Brooks Laich said of the Capitals' annual fathers' trip.

Harold Laich is on his seventh fathers' trip.

"He introduced me to the game, worked with me on the game, still is a constant presence in my hockey life with discussions about postgame or pregame things to do, habits, tendencies, the type of player you want to be, how you can help your team win," the younger Laich explained.

"And just sharing the game. The game has been a platform that's brought us really close; we've shared it for 30-plus years now."

Brooks recalled a time when he was five or six, but his dad figured his son was closer to nine. They were playing a rival town in Saskatchewan and Brooks knew he had to play well and score often for the team to win. At a whistle, his father, who was coaching the team, called for a line change.

"He looked at me and says, 'No.'" Harold Laich said.

The stunned father left the bench while the play was going on, caught up with his son on the ice and dragged him to the bench, where Brooks Laich sat for the rest of the third period.

"We got smoked," Brooks Laich said.

"He was going to quit. He was going to sell his hockey equipment," his father said.

He didn't, of course. And the lesson learned that day still resonates: Have humility, respect for others and respect for the game.

Almost every NHL team now has a fathers' trip -- and in some cases, a moms' trip. But it's believed the concept began with Nashville Predators general manager David Poile and his head coach, Barry Trotz, as they prepared for their first year in the NHL in 1998-99.

Poile read a story in The Hockey News about a couple of Buffalo Sabres players' dads who ended up on a brief road trip with the team. The Predators were destined for hard times in their first season, so Trotz and Poile decided maybe it would be a good idea to invite the dads on a trip before Christmas to the exotic locales of Buffalo and New Jersey.

They won both games, but more than that, the fathers got a chance to understand their sons' lives, to share in their schedules and their triumphs. Seeing the players and their dads in the dressing room, hanging out after a win, well, it just seemed natural, said Poile.

Now in his first season as Washington's head coach, Trotz is still a proponent of the trip and expanded the invitees to the fathers of team staff.

At a welcome dinner on the first night in Santa Monica, the team presented a video tribute to the dads. It started with a picture taken in training camp of the Caps in front of the Iwo Jima Memorial located at the entrance to the Arlington National Cemetery near the team's practice facility.

When the photo was taken, Trotz told his team they needed to redefine themselves as a team, to raise their own flag. It has been a constant theme throughout the season, and reinforcing it via a welcome to the fathers seemed entirely in keeping with the team's newfound personality.

All of the players and most of the staff stood up, introduced their dads and shared a story or described how they are like their fathers.

Some were humorous, like Matt Niskanen explaining how thankful he was that he had not inherited his father Chuck's hairline (or lack thereof) or his body.

Andre Burakovsky noted that his father, Robert (a former Ottawa Senator) is still playing at the ripe old age of 50. Andre recalled wanting to be a goaltender as a child, something of which his father was not in favor.

"We would play street hockey and he would take slap shots at me," Andre said. "He wanted me to be scared so I wouldn't be a goalie."

But along with the good-natured stories were plenty of heartfelt moments.

Evgeny Kuznetsov hadn't seen his father for 10 months. "It's a very emotional moment for me," he said.

Netminder Braden Holtby recalled that his father Greg, a farmer and former junior goaltender himself, often would work so hard on the farm that Braden would have to dress on the way to the rink.

Even though Greg Holtby imagined his son someday taking over the family farm -- Braden Holtby's sister, a veterinarian, and her husband help out on the Holtby farm to this day -- there was unfailingly supportive of Braden dream of being a goaltender.

"Things like that, it's hard to talk about because you can't really put it into words what they've done for us," Braden said. "Like I said, you try and single out certain things from a lifetime of lessons being learned. And obviously that's a huge thing that my dad has taught me is accept who I am and just do it regardless of what other people think.

"I knew I wanted to be a goalie. I knew I liked certain things that may have not coincided with farming or whatever, and he didn't care as long as I was passionate about it and worked hard about it, he didn't care what it was. That's basically how you make yourself happy is doing what you want to do."

It is an interesting dynamic when a bunch of men in their 50s and 60s are unleashed on an unsuspecting NHL city in a warm clime, but the emotion that links the fathers to their sons -- the pride the fathers feel about their sons' successes -- is a constant backdrop.

Greg Holtby was in Saskatchewan when he got a call the day before his son was to start his first NHL game during the 2010-11 season. Greg and a friend scrambled to get to Washington in time for the afternoon game.

At one point, fans were chanting Holtby's name and giving him a standing ovation in the Caps' overtime win.

Even now, there is a tingle to the memory.

"It's pretty surreal," Greg Holtby said. "You're realizing he can be there."

At the heart of these trips is the idea that, regardless of where the journey started, the fact that the end point is the NHL remains a constant source of wonder.

"You never think you're going to make these steps," Marcus Johansson's father, Lars, explained.

Lars Johansson has worked for a Swedish power company for 35 years and is on his fourth fathers' trip. If there are peals of laughter or toasts to be made, count on the perpetually smiling, gregarious man to be in the center of the action. He admits that he will think back on the memories of these trips and laugh for months to come.

"This is very good," he said.

"It's unbelievable," added Marcus. "I think it's something we both cherish a lot.

"He's meant a lot for me in my life, for me as a person and as a hockey player. And he's driven me all around Sweden growing up and it's a really good feeling to get to share this with him and let him be a part of this a little bit for a few days. I know he loves it, so it's a lot of fun."

The second day of the trip started with many of the dads up early, walking along the beach near the hotel or sipping coffee in the lobby. Then, as though magnetized, they gathered at a long table in the lobby.

Some are old friends by virtue of previous fathers' trips or games in Washington or playoff runs. Some, like Steve Oleksy's dad, Andy, are new. But much like teammates rallying to welcome new players or rookies to the fold, the fathers do the same.

Andy Oleksy is an electrician in the Detroit area, and Steve worked for him in the summers for a time. "And I'd quit about two or three times a week," the defenseman recalled.

Steve recalled his father attending his first game in Washington where the hometown crowd "Rocks the Red" with a sea of red Caps gear. The Caps were entertaining the Boston Bruins, and there was Andy sporting a yellow fleece with a black stripe.

Oops.

"So you can see we've stuck to the red and blue on this trip," Steve quipped, pointing to his father's Caps-friendly shirt.

"Obviously a trip like this, the group of guys we have here who have been a big part of the last few years for me, and to introduce my father to them and things like that, it's been great and for him to meet the other parents as well.

"When you're younger, it's take your son to work day ... it's pretty fitting that I get to bring him and show him my job now."

Before the first game of the two-game trip with the fathers and mentors (Troy Brouwer brought his father-in-law, captain Alex Ovechkin brought his brother), everyone crammed into the visitors' locker room at Staples Center for the pregame meetings. There were a couple of light-hearted moments thrown in for the benefit of the fathers.

The next day, though, after the team's disappointing performance against the defending Stanley Cup champions, the fathers got a taste of the importance of preparation and the bottom line, which of course is reflected in the standings.

Trotz opened the proceedings by sharing some harsh thoughts on the team's performance.

"That's not good enough if we want to get to where we want to go," the coach said.

That evening, in a suite at the Honda Center in Anaheim, there was a much different vibe among the fathers, more businesslike and anxious.

Netminder Justin Peters got the start in goal as all the healthy players on the Caps' roster got to play in at least one of the games on the trip -- another nod to Trotz's belief in the power of family and the importance of this trip.

The Caps fell behind 66 seconds into the game and were down 2-1 before the game was six minutes old.

The suite grew quiet.

But with Ovechkin in rare form, scoring twice and adding two assists, the Caps came up with a 5-3 victory. It was a win preserved in part by a splendid save by Peters early in the third period on a Ducks power play. The first man to jump up and high-five Jeff Peters was Greg Holtby.

Peters, who works in the agricultural feed and supply industry in southwestern Ontario, had never been to California, and this was his first trip with the Caps' dads.

Was he feeling the nerves for his son, who hadn't won since Nov. 8?

"Oh 100 percent. Oh yeah. Any time they play it's pretty nerve-wracking," Jeff said.

As the final horn signaled the Capitals' win, cheers, embraces and handshakes were shared throughout the suite.

"But it's all about [Justin] and the team. Just pretty cool to be up three and watch that. That was pretty fun," Jeff said.

In the aftermath of the win, some fathers sat with their sons; others made their way around the locker room to shake the other players' hands. Many posed for pictures, giving it an end-of-school feel with the fathers set to part ways from their sons the next morning.

Over the years, Gunther Alzner, Karl Alzner's father, refinanced the family home three or four times to make sure there was enough money to keep giving his family the opportunities they needed.

Growing up in the Alzner household meant constant competition and game-playing, including ongoing war with Nerf balls.

"We nearly broke so much of [my] wife's crystal," Gunther said with a laugh.

Although his work as a warehouse manager for a tool company means he can't see all of Karl's games, it doesn't stop him from adopting his own superstitions, like taking the same route to work when the team is winning and altering his routine when they are not.

These trips mean the world to him. The way the players embrace the fathers, all of them, as long-lost friends and make them feel welcome is something that still is a source of wonder for the elder Alzner.

"It's like the end of the road for them kind of, it's what they wanted for us was to get here and now they get to see exactly what, not only our hard work, but their hard work has gotten for us," Karl Alzner said. "It's just one of the ways that we can repay them.

"It's fun. He talks about it almost all year long where the next father's trip is going to be. What are the dads doing right now, all this kind of stuff. Just brings joy to his face and lots of joy to mine."

As for Gunther Alzner, the end of one trip simply means you can start thinking about another.

"They really make you feel like you're part of the whole thing," Gunther said. "I just hope it can go on forever."

And Richard Carlson summarized: "It doesn't matter whether you're Canadian or Swedish or American, we've all kind of lived the same life. We've been devoted to hockey almost nonstop."