One day, and it’s coming soon, a hockey player who was born and started playing in Florida won’t be looked at as an oddity.
Guys like Jakob Chychrun will be the reason.
Chychrun will still be treated as an anamoly when the 2016 NHL Draft rolls around next June in Buffalo.
Expected to be one of the top selections in that draft (along with Arizona-born forward Auston Matthews), Chychrun will be sought out by media asking about palm trees and growing up on the beach, trying to find out how a kid from Boca Raton could be so good in a game foreign to many of his neighbors.
Chychrun and Matthews are both in the running to be the first American-born player to be the top pick in an NHL draft since Patrick Kane in 2007.
There’s little doubt Chychrun will be the highest selected South Florida player in history.
Margate's Shayne Gostisbehere became the highest-drafted South Florida product when Philadelphia took the defenseman in the third round of the 2012 draft.
“That’s pretty cool. I just I could have stayed and played in Florida an extra couple of years,” said Chychrun, a 6-2 defenseman who has been favorably compared to Aaron Ekblad, who recently won the NHL’s rookie of the year award with the Panthers.
“When I was 12, everyone else was leaving for prep schools up north so I left too. It’s unfortunate because I think we would have had a really good team here. I enjoyed playing here.”
For Chychrun, whose father Jeff spent part of eight seasons in the NHL before moving to South Florida, hockey is a game he grew up with, although his athletic exploits weren’t limited just to the ice.
Jeff Chychrun, who was on the Penguins’ Stanley Cup championship team in 1992, made sure his son branched out by playing baseball, soccer, tennis and golf as well.
“It was great growing up here because you can play a lot of different sports,” Jakob said. “I played everything here, and I think that made me a better hockey player.”
Had Jakub been born a year earlier, he would have been part of the 2015 draft held at his home arena in Sunrise. Instead, his draft party will come at First Niagara Center in Buffalo.
“I would have loved to have taken batting practice at Marlins Park,” said Jakob, who says he’s a huge fan of all the local pro teams.
“I would have loved to be part of the draft here. It would have been so cool to have my friends and family in the stands. The Panthers are my childhood team and my family has been going to their games since before I was born. The Panthers will always hold a spot in my heart.”
Said Jeff: “It’s kind of a shame, eh? We have to work so hard as hockey parents in Florida because of all the travel, it would have been nice to have our draft in our backyard.”
Jakob Chychrun, whose family has had season tickets to the Panthers since their inaugural season in 1993, started skating at the Panthers’ training facility in Coral Springs when he was just 3.
“The first time he skated was with [mascot] Stanley C. Panther,” Jeff joked. “It just went from there.”
Now 17, Jakob Chychrun has moved on from playing hockey in South Florida — save for taking part in the informal practices held during the summer in Coral Springs with NHL players and other local products who are playing either college, Canadian junior or minor league hockey.
“He looks like he could play in the NHL right now,” said Ottawa Senators goalie Craig Anderson, who continues to make South Florida his home even after leaving the Panthers six years ago.
“There’s a lot of hype surrounding him, but I’ve been 100 percent impressed with him and the way he carries himself. He’s a pretty low-key guy, just does his work and is doing what it takes to be a pro.”
Although he still lives part-time in Boca Raton, like many young hockey players chasing their dream, Chychrun had to leave home and head north to be exposed to better competition.
Chychrun started playing for the Florida Junior Panthers, but at 12, he and his dad would spend their weekends commuting from Florida so he could play major bantam for the famed Little Caesars team based in Detroit.
After being denied a chance to play in the USHL as a 15-year-old, Chychrun — who has duel citizenship — moved to Toronto to play in the minor league there.
In 2014, Chychrun was the first overall pick of the Ontario Hockey League draft, selected by the Sarnia Sting.
And now there’s the possibility he could be the top player taken in the NHL Draft come June.
“Everyone is always surprised to hear I’m from Florida,” Chychrun said, “but I always tell them how much the game is growing here. It’s really cool to see.”