Why Florida native Jakob Chychrun is hoping for an Olympic spot ... on Team Canada

Kevin Abele/Icon Sportswire

As the Arizona Coyotes fight for a playoff spot -- they're fourth in the West Division, with a one-point lead over the St. Louis Blues -- defenseman Jakob Chychrun has emerged as one of the team's most important players. The 23-year-old leads Arizona in average ice time (23:09), surpassing captain Oliver Ekman-Larsson as the team's No. 1 defenseman. Chychrun is tied for second on the team in goals (13, including three game winners) and is third in points (31).

The Coyotes always knew Chychrun was capable of this, but watching him flourish has been a treat, especially after a series of injuries hampered the start of his career. Chychrun had shoulder surgery in his draft year, "which I kind of struggled to come back from," he said. Then, while training in the summer in 2017 following his first NHL season, he tore the meniscus in his left knee.

"I came back from that, and I was playing some of my best hockey toward the end of the year," Chychrun said. "We had two or three games remaining in the season, and in Calgary I got slew-footed from behind, kind of awkwardly. My other knee, the ACL was torn. So I had back-to-back summers of major knee surgeries where I was just rehabbing. It felt like I was just rehabbing every summer for a number of years, and it was tough to just stick with it. I never lost doubt in myself, and I always knew I'd get back to the player that I knew I could be. And so right now, it's just rewarding to be healthy."

In many ways, Chychrun should be a great American hockey success story. He was born and raised in South Florida, reaping the benefits of the NHL's Sun Belt expansion. "I grew up playing at the Panthers' practice facility," he said. "My first organized skate was a 'learn to skate' [event] with Stanley the Panther, the mascot."

Chychrun then got drafted by Arizona (No. 16 overall) in 2016 and subsequently signed a six-year extension in 2018, committing to a franchise that's been deeply important to commissioner Gary Bettman's goals of expanding hockey's American reach.

Which makes it all the more intriguing that at the 2022 Olympics, Chychrun will be aiming for a roster spot on ... Team Canada.

Wait, what?

"Yeah," he said, laughing. "It's kind of a crazy story."

Chychrun's father, Jeff, played 262 games in the NHL, winning a Stanley Cup in Pittsburgh in 1992. Jeff Chychrun is Canadian but met Nancy Garfield while he was playing for the Flyers. The couple dated long distance for a while. When Jeff retired in 1994, Nancy was living in Florida, so they decided to start a family there.

"I love being a Florida kid," Jakob said. "I could always go to the beach on the weekends. My dad gave me every opportunity to play other sports growing up; I was big into baseball, basketball, soccer, tennis."

But Chychrun gravitated toward hockey. He played for the Junior Panthers until he was 11. Then, he started playing for the Junior Everblades -- a two-hour drive away -- at the ECHL rink on the west side of the state. Chychrun, born in 1998, would skate with the 1997 age group, then the 1996 age group after.

"I would literally be on the ice for six to eight hours every weekend, it was unbelievable," Chychrun said. "My dad and I would stay at a hotel because it was a long drive, and it was just really good memories."

The hockey scene was growing in Florida, and the 1998 group would show up for tournaments all over the country, and often win. "But there comes a point where all the kids feel like they need to leave and go to prep school and whatnot," Chychrun said. "My dad and I always say that if the kids all stuck together, and no one left the state of Florida, we would have had a really good team all the way up."

With his teammates scattering, Chychrun felt pressure to leave, too. Since he was only 13 years old (and playing up an age group), his parents weren't ready for him to leave for a prep school just yet. So they considered some more creative options.

The Little Caesars program in Detroit was the first to call Chychrun. He was in. During the week, he went to school in Florida and for a junior team there, and then every Sunday he would get on a plane to Michigan with his father and play games with the Little Caesars team. Chychrun flew back and forth from Florida, every weekend, for two years -- just to play hockey.

"I really only did it because everyone else was leaving," Chychrun said. "That was a pretty crazy experience for me, but it did help me get exposure, once I left Florida."

He continued: "It's just the way it is, still. It's unfortunate, because there are players coming out of these Southern states now. You look at Auston Matthews in Arizona, and guys from California, Florida, even Texas. The game is growing, but it's still going to take some time to play their whole minor hockey careers in that state.

"That's the goal for the game, right? To continue to grow it in these nontraditional markets and make it possible for these kids to stay home and get good hockey and get good exposure."

When Chychrun was 15, he was drafted to the Youngstown Phantoms of the USHL, in Youngstown, Ohio. "I went to their camp, and within one of the first few days, the team told me they wanted me to play that year, as an underage," Chychrun said. "And they were super excited to have me. I was super excited to play there -- hopefully."

The team assigned Chychrun a billet family, the Hunts, who also housed now-Winnipeg Jets winger Kyle Connor. The two would get to live together. Chychrun was in process of getting enrolled at the local high school. "They told me, 'It shouldn't be a big deal, a number of guys play in the USHL at 15, we just need to get approval from USA Hockey,'" Chychrun said.

The ordeal was drawn out the entire summer. "For whatever reason, USA Hockey wasn't really getting in touch with the team or getting back to us," he said. "It was late in the summer, and guys were already reporting to the team, but I was still at my family's cottage, not sure if I was even allowed to go yet."

Chychrun then received an email from USA Hockey. It was only a couple of sentences long. "It basically said they believe I should play in my own age group, and they weren't going to allow me to play for Youngstown that year," Chychrun said.

At that point, most rosters were already formed and teams had begun practicing. Chychrun was scrambling. The Chychruns were good family friends with the family of current Senators defenseman Victor Mete, and they helped arrange for him to play for the Junior Canadiens in Toronto. It worked because Chychrun spent most of his summers in Ontario anyway -- he even uses the Canadian term "cottage" for the family summer cabin.

That season, Chychrun was recruited by Team Ontario to play for their U17 team as a 15-year-old underage. "From then on out, I just felt like I was going to play for Canada," he said. "Because they gave me the opportunity; they wanted me. It's kind of crazy how it worked out. I was really excited to play in the U.S., hopefully play in the USHL, but it pretty much did a 180 and went the other way."

Chychrun however, can help hockey's growth in America, through success with the Coyotes. In 2020, Arizona made the playoffs for the first time in eight years but lost in five games to the Colorado Avalanche. If the Yotes make it further this year, Chychrun will be a big part of it.

"We're at an exciting time," he said. "We have such a great young core that has been together for a number of years now, and started really young. Each year, I think we've gotten better and better as a group. Obviously, we've had new guys come in, older guys that lead the way for us, but now we're at a point where we feel as a young core, we're starting to take on a more leadership role. It's just exciting to see the development we've had.

We're just scratching the surface as a group. ... Although we are young and growing, we expect to make the playoffs. Ever since last year, getting a taste of it in the bubble, you want to be there every year."

Jump ahead:
Three stars of the week
What we liked this week
What we didn't like
Best games on tap
Social post of the week

Emptying the notebook

The U.S. women's national team is currently in Maine for its pre-IIHF Women's World Championship camp. The tournament begins in Nova Scotia in less than three weeks. Team USA is aiming to win its sixth straight gold and ninth in 10 years. But when the players showed up to camp, something stunning happened: Their coach, Bob Corkum, resigned.

Corkum told The Associated Press he was stepping down because he was "not comfortable with the protocols," without specifying further. According to sources, it was the stringent protocols for the tournament in Nova Scotia with which Corkum took issue. As the AP notes: "Corkum has questioned the value of wearing masks and Canada's coronavirus pandemic support plans in posts made on his LinkedIn account."

Joel Johnson will serve as interim coach at the 2021 Worlds, replacing Corkum. It should be a pretty seamless transition. Johnson, the longtime Minnesota Gophers women's coach, is respected by the players, and has been part of success in the national program, especially as head coach of the under-18 team.

"We are extremely fortunate to have someone like Joel to step in and guide our team," Katie Million said in a statement. "He's been an important part of our program and is well-positioned to help build on the success we've enjoyed."

We'll see if Johnson is given the full-time job going forward, including the 2022 Beijing Olympics. One name to watch is Allison Coomey, who is an assistant on the staff. Coomey is coming off a fantastic season as head coach of Penn State and has risen the ranks of USA Hockey. I know the national team players respect her. It's also worth noting that since women's ice hockey was added to the Olympics in 1998, only one woman (Katey Stone, 2010 Vancouver) has ever served as head coach of the U.S. team.

Three stars of the week

Artemi Panarin, LW, New York Rangers

Four goals, six assists in just four games this week. Since March 17, when their entire coaching staff entered COVID protocols, the Rangers are 12-4-2 with an NHL-best plus-34 goal differential. Panarin leads the NHL with 30 points in that span.

Anthony Stolarz, G, Anaheim Ducks

He won both of his starts this week, allowing just one goal in 74 shots faced. That included a 46-save shutout against the Sharks, which bested Jonas Hiller for the franchise record. It's a feel-good story for the 27-year-old, who has spent the majority of the season on the taxi squad, but keeps earning himself more starts.

Mark Stone, RW, Vegas Golden Knights

The Vegas captain had three goals and five assists for eight points in four games. He's in next-level mode this season, including his defensive prowess. Just watch:

What we liked this week

1. It was a big week for player empowerment in the NHL. Often -- because of "hockey culture," in which one player cannot be bigger than the team -- we see players hesitant to speak out, exercise their freedoms, make the story about themselves. But two occasions during the past week stuck out as running contrary to that trend.

Taylor Hall took advantage of his no-movement clause to basically will a trade to the Boston Bruins in what was the closest thing we've seen to NBA-like player movement in some time. "Definitely, the no-move really helped me become a Bruin. Since I knew I was going to be traded for the last few weeks, it was a team that I really wanted to join," he said after being traded.

And then there was J.T. Miller's media session on Wednesday. Vancouver Canucks players were quietly questioning their return-to-play schedule after a COVID-19 outbreak ran rampant through the roster. The players didn't feel ready to get on the ice and thought the NHL and NHLPA were rushing them back. So Miller said the quiet part out loud: "What we're being asked to do is not going to be too safe, if you're asking me.

"It's kind of frustrating, if I'm being honest with you. We try to talk about the No. 1 priority being the players' health and their families' safety, and it's almost impossible to do what they've asked us to do here on our return."

The result? It bought the players two more days of recovery. Miller's using his voice mattered.

2. Jakub Vrana said he was "kind of shocked" that the Capitals traded him. He was beloved by teammates in Washington, and it never feels great when the team that drafted you gives up on you. With all of that said, look how cathartic his first goal in Detroit was.

3. Speaking of making an impression on your new team, Jani Hakanpaa was a relatively unknown defenseman when the Canes traded for him at the deadline. General manager Don Waddell insisted he was exactly what the team was looking for in a right-shot defenseman. I'd say Canes fans would agree. He's bringing big-time physicality, and even scored a goal on Saturday to break a 1-1 tie with the Predators en route to a Carolina win.

4. Kirill Kaprizov is basically a lock to win the Calder Trophy this season. He tied Marian Gaborik's franchise rookie record of 36 points (in 28 fewer games). Kaprizov leads the team with 17 goals and needs just one more to tie Gaborik's record there, too.

What we didn't like this week

ESPN's Baxter Holmes wrote a story about how NBA personnel see a link between the league's compressed schedule and rash of injuries -- and I'm wondering if we're going to start hearing this from folks in the NHL, too.

Just consider this week alone:

  • The Buffalo Sabres announced that captain Jack Eichel was diagnosed with a herniated disc in his neck, which requires surgery. He's going to miss the rest of this season.

  • Columbus Blue Jackets defenseman Zach Werenski is also out for the rest of the season, and this week underwent surgery to repair an inguinal/sports hernia.

  • Then, the Dallas Stars hit us with a double dagger. Not only will Ben Bishop (who hasn't played all season) not be returning until 2021-22, but Alexander Radulov is going to undergo core muscle surgery. The Stars haven't been healthy all season, trying to play catch-up in the standings due to an early-season COVID-19 outbreak. If they secure a playoff spot -- surpassing the Blackhawks and Predators -- it would require an inspiring run. These latest health setbacks certainly don't help.

Top games on tap this week

Note: All times Eastern.

Tuesday: Toronto Maple Leafs at Vancouver Canucks, 9 p.m.

The Canucks made it past their first game back following their COVID-19 outbreak. After a day's rest on Monday, we'll see how they fare in Game 2. It's a brutal schedule for Vancouver to finish out its slate, including five sets of back-to-backs.

Wednesday: Minnesota Wild at Arizona Coyotes, 9 p.m.

The Yotes are holding on to that last playoff spot in the West, so every game matters down the stretch, especially since the Blues have two games in hand. Minnesota has a thing for fast starts, they've scored 46 first-period goals, second-most in the league.

Thursday: Washington Capitals at New York Islanders, 7 p.m.

The standings atop the East Division are super tight, and it's always a good time when Barry Trotz faces his former team. The Islanders are looking for their groove with Kyle Palmieri and Travis Zajac. In Washington, Anthony Mantha (who has a goal in all four games as a Capital) is making the transition look too easy.

Social media post of the week

Tonight, Patrick Marleau is poised to play in his 1,768th career NHL contest, breaking Gordie Howe's record for most games played in NHL history.

"I want to be looked upon when I'm gone that I gave it my all," the 41-year-old Marleau said last week. "Enjoyed the game, loved the game, loved being around the team, loved winning games. Those are the biggest things."