Coming home for the first time to play in front of family and friends is a rite of passage most NHL players born in North America get to enjoy.
That first game on ‘home’ ice usually isn’t in sunny South Florida, however.
For Arizona Coyotes rookie defenseman Jakob Chychrun, Thursday’s game at BB&T Center was indeed a chance to come home and play the team he grew up cheering for as his family watched from their season seats in Section 102.
Chychrun, who grew up in Boca Raton playing, in part, for the Jr. Panthers in Coral Springs, says he asked for 50 visitors passes and expects many more to be in the stands for his South Florida NHL debut.
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Although the Coyotes lost 3-1, Chychrun was named third star of the game.
“It’s awesome, this is the rink I grew up coming to games at and I have a lot of great memories here,” said Chychrun, whose teammate Connor Murphy also played for the Jr. Panthers when his father Gord played in South Florida.
“We had season tickets for many years so it’s real cool to be on the other side of it. It’s going to be hard to not look up there, we have so many good memories here.
“I grew up a Panthers fan; to play against them will be pretty cool.”
Jeff Chychrun, Jakob’s father who played six seasons in the NHL, watched Thursday’s morning skate from the arena stands with a smile on his face.
On Wednesday, Jakob was able to spend some quality time with his family as older sis Taylor came down from Northeastern University in Boston to join Jeff and mom Nancy.
Jacob Chychrun turns 19 next Friday.
“I’ve often said minor hockey is a long journey and it goes by really fast,” said Jeff Chychrun, who was a teammate of current Florida forward Jaromir Jagr on Pittsburgh’s 1992 Stanley Cup championship team.
“I’m a lucky parent whose kid happens to still be playing at 18 — it just happens to be happening here. That makes it more of a thrill. I’m going to sit in my season tickets and see my kid play. The first game we took him him to, when the horn went off, he just stood up and was all eyes. It was pretty neat.”
Jakob Chychrun, the highest drafted South Florida born-and-raised player, was looked at by the Panthers with Tom Rowe saying they figured he would be way out of their range.
Chychrun went 16th to the Coyotes, who traded up to get him; the Panthers selected Finnish center Henrik Borgstrom — now a rising collegiate star at Denver — with the 23rd overall selection at last year’s draft in Buffalo.
“If he was available, we would have been all over him,” Rowe said. “I’m sure he’s going to try and score a hat trick on us with all his buddies up there watching.”
Chychrun wasn’t the only player with South Florida roots playing his first game in Sunrise.
Rookie forward Lawson Crouse, the 12th overall pick by the Panthers in the 2015 draft held in Sunrise, also made his BB&T on-ice debut Thursday.
Florida traded Crouse to the Coyotes last summer as part of a salary cap dump; Arizona took on the final three years and $16.5-million of Dave Bolland’s contract in exchange for a top prospect — in this case, Crouse.
“We got criticized for giving up on a great young prospect but we had to,” Rowe said. “That contract was strangling us, cap-wise. ...
“When we traded him, our scouts were furious. I’m not going to lie. But we had to do something and that was trade Lawson. I’m sure, to this day, he’s still sour about it.”
Said Crouse: “That’s business side of the game. They did what they thought they had to do to make their team better. I got a great opportunity here in Arizona and I’m trying to make the most of it.”
Bolland hasn’t played since December of last season; Crouse came into Thursday with six goals and 11 points in 63 games.
On Thursday, he held court with the media beside a folding chair acting as his locker stall in a crowded visitor’s locker room.
“It’s pretty exciting, it all started for me at this rink,” Crouse said. “Being up on that stage on draft day was a pretty proud moment for me and my family. It brings back some good memories.”
▪ Aaron Ekblad will miss the game Thursday with what Rowe said was a sore neck which is unrelated to the concussion he suffered earlier this month in Tampa.
Ekblad returned Tuesday after missing four games.
▪ Rowe didn’t sugarcoat the disappointment of Florida’s season on Thursday.
The Panthers entered the year on a high of a franchise-record 103 points and an Atlantic Division title; Florida came into Thursday with losses in 11 of 14 and being closer to last place in the east (seven points) than the playoffs (nine back of Boston).
“It has been an awful year, everyone knows that,” Rowe said after explaining a meeting he had with players and staff trying to keep them positive.
“We had expectations to do a lot better than we did ... Everyone can talk about all the changes but I told them that’s behind us and we need to move on, mature as a group.”