Kalynuk’s journey - outdoor rink to NHL debut with Blackhawks

Last Sunday Virden product Wyatt Kalynuk achieved the childhood dream of many Canadians – to play in the National Hockey League.

The 23-year-old son of Leanne and Randy Kalynuk suited up for the Chicago Blackhawks as they faced the defending Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning. The former Virden Oil Capitals defenceman’s parents watched the Sunday matinee at home on NHL Live with Wyatt’s grandmother, Betty McSorley, his sister and brother-in-law Quinn and Donovan McLean, and his niece Aida McLean. Unfortunately, his twin sister, Lexie, was unable to make the family gathering due to work and watched in Winnipeg.

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“There was a bit of confusion on social media just prior to the game. Some outlets were saying he was now a scratch so that caused some anxious moments,” wrote Randy and Leanne in an email interview. “We were thrilled to see him step on the ice for his solo lap (tradition for a player’s first NHL game). There may have even been a few tears shed! We were happy for him that he reached his lifelong dream and experienced a moment that he has waited a long time for.  

“There was a time while he was doing his solo lap that we were a little bit sad. In a normal year, we would have been in Chicago to watch this moment in person. Unfortunately, COVID-19 stepped in the way of any travel plans. We are hoping there will be more games and ‘moments’ to attend in years to come.”

The Blackhawks fell 6-3 to the Lightning. Wyatt’s parents touched base with him later in the evening and reported their son said, “The whole day was pretty surreal but was a little disappointed that the Hawks lost.” He did not have much time to reflect on his accomplishment as he had to pack for the Blackhawks’ road trip, which started Tuesday in Dallas.

Troy Leslie, the Southwest Cougars U18 AAA bench boss who coached Wyatt on the Oil Capitals, was impressed with how comfortable his former charge looked on the ice. He said that “how calm and collected he is out there and how he gets around the rink” could help him stay in the NHL.

Kalynuk family and friends tuned in to see Wyatt take the ice Sunday. Kyle Braybrook, who grew up playing hockey with the now NHLer, watched the game “while FaceTiming all of our friends as we aren’t able to get together. It was pretty exciting getting to watch him and I can’t wait to continue to watch him going forward.”

The game was certainly a thrill for local long-time Blackhawk backers such as Morley Hartel, a former colleague of Randy’s at the Virden Junior High, and Dylan Clarke.

“Being a Hawks fan all my life, it made it special to see him in the best jersey in all of professional sport,” said Hartel, who said he was very happy for Wyatt and the family. “I’ve even heard that some longsuffering Leafs fans are now Hawks fans thanks to Wyatt.”

Clarke, a local businessman and former student of Wyatt’s dad, became a Blackhawks fan after seeing the team play in Winnipeg in the early 1980s. He has now passed his passion for the team onto his children – daughter Zayda and son Zander. As a lifelong fan, Clarke said seeing a player raised in Virden put on a Blackhawks jersey was so exciting.

“Wyatt played with my nephew in minor hockey and also has instructed my son the last few years at Randy's annual hockey camp,” Clarke said. “Wyatt is a super kid and just fantastic with the kids. My boy was so excited to see someone from Virden who he knows and has skated with play in the NHL, the fact that it was Chicago just made it so much cooler!”

Randy and Leanne said that Wyatt and the entire family has been overwhelmed by the support and well-wishes they have received.

“Along with local calls and messages, we heard from so many people that we have met along the way in Wyatt's hockey journey,” they wrote in an email. “Some from people that we haven't heard from in many, many years. Calls came in from all over Canada, the U.S., and even a couple of calls from Australia. It was pretty cool to see how excited everyone was for Wyatt in his debut.”

Wyatt’s ascension to the game’s highest level was never a foregone conclusion. Brian Braybrook, who was an assistant coach of Wyatt’s in minor hockey, said, “What impressed me about Wyatt was his drive, passion, and how much he loved the game. His determination and ‘no quit’ attitude I believe helped him get to the NHL.”

Passion for the game and plenty of hard work, practice and playing – often at the outdoor Chevron Community Rink, that Randy helps run, at the Virden Junior High – also certainly have factored into his success. Randy and Leanne wrote:

“We are pleased for the local hockey community that there is proof that dreams can come true. It did for a kid that wasn’t drafted in the (Western Hockey League) bantam draft or the first two years of the NHL Draft. Wyatt was a late bloomer who will tell you that most of his skills were honed by spending hours upon hours of unorganized hockey at the outdoor rink, just having fun.”   

The Game

Wyatt has spent the early parts of this season with the Blackhawks’ taxi squad. He has been moved on and off the NHL team’s active roster and spent time with its top affiliate – the American Hockey League’s Rockford (Ill.) IceHogs, who are located about two hours outside of the Windy City. Wyatt was to play last Saturday and Sunday with the IceHogs, but early in the afternoon of the first day he received a call saying he was to head to Chicago. His parents assumed he was going to the taxi squad and in a conversation discussed between themselves how “thank goodness he won’t be having his first NHL game against the Stanley Cup Champions and one of the top offensive teams in the NHL.” However, en route to Chicago, Blackhawks head coach, Jeremy Colliton, called Wyatt to say he was playing on Sunday.

The 6-foot-1, 180-pound smooth-skating, offensive-minded blue liner recorded 10:33 of ice time in his NHL debut. He was slated to be the team’s seventh defenceman but the ejection of teammate Connor Murphy for a high hit meant increased playing time for the Blackhawks’ young defencemen.

"I really liked his first period. He had multiple shifts where he closed in D-zone, stopped the puck, (and) he skated it a bunch of times," Colliton was quoted as saying on Blackhawks.com. "It's not super fair what we asked of some of these guys, the responsibility and the ice time and the matchups as the game went on."

HockeyBuzz.com’s Theo Fox wrote that Wyatt had a “fairly solid debut buoyed by his defensive acumen. He battles for pucks and wins more often than not, has strong net coverage, and doesn't get tempted to chase behind the net.

“Also, his elite skating allows him to mirror the opponent pretty flawlessly. And his capacity to walk the line with his technically sound backward strides is a thing of beauty to watch.”

After playing his final college game on March 5, 2020, the former University of Wisconsin Badgers standout was able to get his feet wet in the pro game with four contests with the IceHogs before his NHL debut. During the Blackhawks’ recent nine-day home stand, Wyatt was assigned to the IceHogs to get him ice time. He had a two-assist performance last Friday night before being recalled. As of Monday, Wyatt had a goal and six points with Rockford this season.

"This stretch while we were at home was a good chance to get him in some games and he's done well," Colliton was quoted as saying before the game on Blackhawks.com. "He skates well and moves the puck well. He's produced there offensively… we're happy with how he's progressing."

The Journey

Virden Minor Hockey

On his way to the pros, Wyatt developed his game locally. Virden Minor Hockey Association president Joel Cosens said he was excited to see Wyatt’s debut and had been following it with great interest.

“I think Wyatt is a great inspiration for the kids,” he said. “My children were very happy to see it because the Kalynuk family has remained such an active part of the hockey community. Randy doing coaching clinics and having Wyatt and others out with the kids has been so great and it is a great connection for them and shows them that if you continue to work hard, dreams are possible.”

Before discussing Wyatt’s skill, his former teammate Kyle said that what he remembers most is the kind of teammate the now Blackhawk was.

“Always one of the best guys in the room. It didn’t matter how good you were at hockey; he was always there to help whenever needed and just be a good friend.

“The second thing would be just how skilled he was and, if you dug a little deeper, you realized it was because of the unrelenting work ethic he had.”

Brian, Kyle’s father, observed the work ethic while coaching Wyatt.

“Randy was a big influence on Wyatt’s early development, but Wyatt took those skills Randy taught him to the outdoor rink where he would spend hours almost every day. I have never seen anybody that could see the ice like Wyatt and was always able to make that pass up ice and on the stick of his teammates. He also was able to carry the puck out of our end, which made him hard to play against. He always came to the rink to play,” said Brian who noted, “He was easy to coach as he seemed to understand the game at an early age and was very respectful to the coaches and well liked by his teammates.”

Southwest Cougars

Deloraine’s Brad Mills coached Wyatt with Randy in “second season” hockey for several years. He also coached him on the U15 AAA Cougars. He was ice fishing when he heard Wyatt was playing his first NHL game. Mills packed up his equipment and hurried home to watch it on TV.

“It is not surprising to me to see Wyatt reach the level he has in hockey,” Mills said. “He always had a spark when the game was tight, and he was the kid you wanted on the ice when it was crunch time. He excelled in the big games and he has put in the work to get to where he is today.”

He said Wyatt could be used at forward as well as on defence and loved to play.

“Wyatt had a skill base that was amazing and his drive to play was awesome,” Mills said. “He was a kid that could have played hockey every day and not got tired of it.”

After playing for the U15 AAA Cougars, Wyatt suited up for a season with the U18 AAA Southwest squad before moving onto the junior ranks. He had a goal and 17 points in 43 games that season.

Oil Capitals

As a 16-year-old, Wyatt earned a spot in the lineup with his hometown Oil Caps in the Manitoba Junior Hockey League. He was named to the MJHL All-Rookie Team during that 2013-2014 season. Current Oil Caps head coach and general manager Tyson Ramsey said the organization is very happy for Wyatt and his family.

“We are so excited that he is able to realize a dream of his that he has worked tremendously hard for,” Ramsey said. “We are proud of him and wish him all the best moving forward. It’s always going to be pretty cool when a former Oil Cap plays in the NHL but with Wyatt being from Virden as well, that’s pretty special.”

The calmness that Leslie observed that Wyatt exuded last Sunday is something he witnessed when the current pro was an Oil Caps rookie. “There is a certain calmness about Wyatt that allows him to play in every situation.”

As well, Wyatt continues to display his high-level skating skills. Recalling Wyatt’s season with the Oil Caps, Leslie said, “He just skated himself out of trouble that whole year.”

USHL & UW

Wyatt went on to play in the United State Hockey League with the Lincoln (Neb.) Stars for a season and Bloomington (Ill.) Thunder for two. In his final USHL season, he was named to the league’s third All-Star Team. Wyatt had six goals and 31 points in 60 games for the Thunder during that campaign.

Before joining the Badgers, he was tabbed in the seventh round of the NHL Draft by the Philadelphia Flyers.  Wyatt had an immediate impact in Madison with the University of Wisconsin and racked up awards and accolades on and off the ice during his time there.

In his first season, Wyatt was the Badgers’ co-Rookie of the Year (three goals, 25 points, 37 games) and was named to the All-Big Ten Freshman Team and the All-Big Ten Honourable Mention Team. As a second-year Badger (nine goals, 25 points, 37 games), he was the team’s Most Valuable Player, an All-Big Ten Second Team selection, and earned a spot on the Academic All-Big Ten squad. In his final season in Madison, Wyatt (seven goals, 28 points, 36 games) captained the team and was named First Team All-Big Ten, a Big Ten Distinguished Scholar and Academic All-Big Ten.

Opting to leave college, Wyatt did not come to a deal with the Flyers. The Blackhawks scooped him up last summer as a free agent. The signing by Chicago halted the possibility of Wyatt joining Elkhorn product Travis Sanheim on the Flyers’ blue line or fellow former Oil Cap Zach Whitecloud of Brandon and the Sioux Valley First Nation on the Vegas Golden Knights’ backend.

 

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