Nearly six years after the Caps conducted their first Mentors’ Trip, the team embarked on a two-game journey to New Jersey and Montreal this weekend with 20 of the players’ mentors along for the ride. A grandfather, a godfather and a host of fathers and brothers accompanied the Caps on their flight to Newark on Wednesday afternoon.
“At the start of every season he always asks me, ‘Are they going to be doing the fathers’ trip again?’” says Caps forward Eric Fehr of his dad, Frank. “He starts looking forward to it right away. I think this is one of his more enjoyable weekends of the year. He just likes to be around the team and to be around the rest of the dads. It’s a good experience for him.”
It’s been a good experience for the Caps, too. In five previous Mentors’ Trips, the Caps have compiled a 7-2 record in the nine games they’ve played on those trips.
Mike Green’s dad (Dave), Brooks Laich’s dad (Harold) and John Erskine’s dad (Garry) are now veterans of all six trips. Frank Fehr missed the last one in 2012 because his son was a member of the Winnipeg Jets that season.
“It’s awesome, especially for him,” says Laich. “Now he’s retired and living in Phoenix, but prior to that he used to be able to get out of the cold in Saskatchewan and come down and go to Florida and Tampa Bay or wherever we went. But to be able to get the dads together and be able to share the experience of the game which we had as kids and are fortunate enough as adults to still be able to play it, it’s so, so cool. For them and for us, we’re really lucky our organization does it.”
The old guard is joined by some new blood this time around. Rookies Connor Carrick (dad Jory), Nate Schmidt (dad Thomas) and Tom Wilson (dad Keven) were able to bring mentors along for the first time in their young NHL careers.
“I haven’t been around someone who is more passionate about hockey in general than my dad,” says Carrick. “And I’m sure a lot of players say that about their own dad, but he just loves the game in every aspect. He loves the skill of it, he loves the speed of it, he loves the grind of it. He loves the team aspect. He loves everything about the sport. For him to get an opportunity like this, I’m so excited. I’m sure he is, but I’m so excited to have him around. For him to have this opportunity and for me to have this opportunity, it’s really exciting.”
Most dads who played the game played it at an amateur level, including Jory Carrick.
“He played walking the ponds and throwing his skates on in the city of Chicago,” says Connor Carrick. “If one pond wasn’t frozen, they’d walk a couple of miles to the next one. Being on the ice was always a treat for him. So I think he has that very special viewing of it. It was always a positive experience for him. We always joke that he probably would have been the best hockey player in the family. He’s probably the best athlete out of all of us. He’s got the best size and he’s probably the most coordinated. He beats us at most everything. I still play tennis in the summer and he beat me last summer. He’s almost 50 years old. He’s really excited this whole month.”
Caps goalie Braden Holtby was on two previous Mentors’ Trips, but only because he happened to be recalled from AHL Hershey on short notice. His father Greg did play hockey at the junior level (he was also a goaltender), and he’s along for his first Mentors’ trip.
“We’ve always had a bond with goaltending and with hockey and inevitably with my job now,” says Braden Holtby. “It’s nice to be able to talk about it all the time, no matter what. That’s a thing that we’ve never lost, no matter what level. He’s always the one that understands me best as a hockey player and it’s going to be a lot of fun to have him here as a part of it and that’s the main reason why we do this trip. It will be rewarding for him and everyone here.”
“I think he’s pretty excited. It will be fun. It’s too bad it’s a bit shorter than it usually is, but he’s looking forward to meeting everyone and getting to know everyone a little bit better. It will be fun.”
The Caps joined their mentors for a team dinner on Thursday night, followed by some time well spent in a nearby sports bar watching NHL games from around the league. The mentors attended Friday’s morning skate in Newark, and joined the players for a team lunch afterwards. As the Caps take on the Devils in New Jersey on Friday, the 20 mentors will be watching from a suite at Prudential Center, each adorned with a Caps’ road jersey emblazoned with the name of their grandson/godson/son/brother.
“It’s pretty special,” says Fehr. “They don’t get to see everything. Watching on TV, they don’t get to experience it all. But coming here, being around the dressing room, joining us on our flights and going to the hotels and supper and everything and getting to feel the full experience is pretty unique. I think it’s a pretty cool experience for both sides.”
At 86, Mikhail Grabovski’s grandfather Alexander is the oldest of the mentors.
“I decided that grandpa better go because my dad already had the experience,” says Grabovski. “He’s still working. He is 86. He works at a sports complex, like Kettler, it has gyms. He lives close to there (in Minsk, Belarus). He used to be in construction and build houses, and now he is retired from that and doing other things.
“He is fun to be around always. He came to almost every game [when I was a boy]. He is the leader of our family. I’m always asking him about support if something is happening. He is wise. I have four generations here right now.”
Grabovski’s dad and son will meet up with the team in Montreal on Saturday.
For the mentors, it's a chance to see what the players' life is like out on the road. And for the players, it's a chance to share a glimpse of their daily lives, and to – in a small but significant way – pay back one of the most influential figures in their lives for all the love, support and guidance that helped them get to where they are today.
“He owns a small real estate management company,” says Connor Carrick of his dad. “He works pretty crazy hours to get to see our practices growing up. There were days when he was in the office from six in the morning until 11 at night, and then there were other days when he was out of the office at 4:30 so he could come watch us practice. He works extremely hard, always has, he has always done a great job of being around and obviously financially he has allowed three boys – myself and my two younger brothers – all to play. That’s a successful dad in my book.”
Jason Chimera and Joel Ward consider themselves to be brothers, and their brothers are both along on this trip.
“We’re brothers and our brothers came, too,” says Chimera. “They must have talked to mom.”