By the fall of 2011, Ryan Getzlaf had accomplished what 99.99 percent of 26-year-olds hadn’t.
He was a top-10 player in the world with a Stanley Cup and an Olympic gold medal to his name. Yet, life was overwhelming him. The previous year, he’d earned the Anaheim Ducks captaincy. He’d married Paige, his longtime girlfriend, and they’d welcomed their first child, baby boy Ryder. And like pretty much every new parent, Getzlaf struggled to juggle everything. He hardly screamed for sympathy as a millionaire living a blessed existence, but parenthood is the great equalizer. A pro athlete and a grocery store cashier step into the same shoes every time they change a diaper.
Sleep was a rare treat for Getzlaf that season. He dragged his feet to work, except work wasn’t sitting at a cubicle. He was doing something far more exciting and privileged than most people get to do, but he also couldn’t put his head down and coast through the day on emails and heaping cups of coffee. He was competing in the greatest hockey league in the world as an elite player expected to make a dominant impact on the ice every night. And he couldn’t figure out how to do that. He was racked with guilt every time he left Paige and Ryder. He hated the idea of missing crucial moments in Year 1 of being a dad. He lugged that internal turmoil to the rink. He couldn’t tap into his typically high levels of intensity, and it showed on the ice. He endured the worst season of his career, scoring just 11 goals and 57 points in 82 games, and his Ducks missed the playoffs.
Hey, he was human, and he was a rookie parent. Who wouldn’t endure a learning curve? But that was the old Getzlaf.
It’s a different story these days when Getzlaf, 32, rolls out of bed in the morning. He greets four children, with Gavin, Willa and Mac joining Ryder. The parent hat fits comfortably now. Getzlaf happily joins Paige chauffeuring the little ones around Southern California, usually to whatever sporting events they can find in the summer. He devotes any free hours and days he has to his kids. And when it’s time to put his skates back on, the anxiety is gone.
“Accepting roles is the biggest thing me and my wife had to learn,” he said. “When she’s feeling good at home, when she’s taking care of things at home, it allows me to go to the rink knowing what my role is, and that’s just to provide for my family. You shouldn’t feel guilty. It’s part of the honor of being a dad and balancing it all, because I’ve got to be there for them.”
And everything Getzlaf has done on the ice the past few seasons suggests he really has calmed the storm between his ears. He was the Hart Trophy runner-up in 2013-14. He’s ranked top 10 in the NHL in assists four straight times. He captained the Ducks to two Western Conference finals in the past three years. He embraces fatherhood instead of letting it defeat him. He was determined for it to coexist with his career.
“People have to understand, ‘Getzy’ finds peace and solace with his family and his kids and did that a very young age,” said Ducks coach Randy Carlyle, who's now coaching Getzlaf for a second stint and ninth season. “He’s got four children. That’s where he found his peace. Younger guys in his age group had different agendas in life, and he was dead set on raising a family. He wanted to become a family man. It was a sign of maturity. That was what he deemed was most important in life.”
Now, Getzlaf’s head is on straight, and so is his game. He’s one of hockey’s most complete and well-rounded centers. Not that he’s steamrolling through the league on youthful, springy energy and speed the way Connor McDavid is, of course. Getzlaf’s mind is more mature than ever but, unfortunately, so is his body. Everything hurts a little more than it used to every morning. He said, with a laugh, that it’s actually been that way since his late 20s.
“My game doesn’t adapt well to the older age,” he said. “I try to play hard, block shots, do all those kinds of things. There are a lot more aches. I get a lot less sleep now.”
So just as Getzlaf finally masters his brain and learns how to navigate his busy life, the 6-foot-4, 221-pound body starts to deteriorate. To slow the decline, he’s overhauled his in-season preparation and his off-season training over the past three years. He changed what he does before and between games. He does a lot less heavy lifting now. Instead of trying to build big muscle mass, he focuses on staying agile, making sure his muscles are healthy and his core is strong to avoid groin and hip flexor injuries. It was a big adjustment for a pure athlete, a two-handicap golfer who represented Team Saskatchewan in national youth baseball as a catcher and was a powerful running back before giving up football when high school arrived. If you’re a Canadian Football League fan, you’ll recognize the name Chris Getzlaf, an Edmonton Eskimos wide receiver who spent most of his career starring for his hometown Saskatchewan Roughriders. That’s Ryan’s brother. Sports are baked into the family’s genes.
Getzlaf has led the Ducks to the Western Conference final in two of the past three seasons, but Anaheim came up short of making it to the Stanley Cup final both times.
At 32, Getzlaf remains strong as an ox but has to get by on guile far more than he used to. That was apparent during last spring’s Pacific Division final versus McDavid’s Edmonton Oilers, where Getzlaf and fellow 30-something center Ryan Kesler went head-to-head with the world’s best player and came out on top. McDavid managed just five points in seven games, which by his lofty standard qualifies as being bottled up.
“Outsmart him,” Getzlaf said. “It’s all you really can do. A player my age and my speed, that’s our role, to make sure you identify where he’s going to be before he’s going to be there, which is a split-second decision when it comes to a guy with that kind of speed. Limiting his time and space is always the biggest thing with those guys when they’ve got the puck on their stick and they’ve got room. They can do a lot of damage. That was our mentality in the playoffs.”
Wily, yes, but it’s not like Getzlaf is pushing 40. He remains one of the best players in the game. Only Sidney Crosby, Patrick Kane, Nicklas Backstrom, Jamie Benn and Alex Ovechkin have more points over the past five seasons. Getzlaf played arguably the best hockey of his career last winter, discovering stellar chemistry with wingers Rickard Rakell and Patrick Eaves. Getzlaf had 45 points in his final 40 games. No matter how much he self-deprecates about his fleetness of foot, there’s nothing wrong with his passing. His pillowy feeds rival those of this generation’s very best, from Joe Thornton to Backstrom to Crosby to Henrik Sedin. With famously deadly shooters, it’s common to hear romanticized stories about garage doors caved in from years of firing pucks over and over to hone the skill. It’s less so for Getzlaf when it comes to his playmaking talent. He didn’t, for instance, intensely study Wayne Gretzky or any of the sport’s pre-eminent dishers growing up. He didn’t really have an idol because, he confesses, he didn’t follow the sport closely. He apologizes, claiming that’s “boring,” an ironic statement from a guy saying the opposite of what most players would say when asked about their childhood heroes.
No, Getzlaf was merely a natural passer. What makes him so good? He has the psychology of it down. It’s hardly a coincidence the Ducks’ two 30-goal men last season flanked him on either side.
“The biggest thing that makes a good passer is having that hockey sense to know where people are ahead of time,” Getzlaf said. “It’s a tough skill to work on. You have to be aware of where guys are before they’re going to be there, where guys want the puck. That’s the only thing I really pay attention to. Some guys want it on their front foot, some want it on the back.”
So Getzlaf’s best, most important skills haven’t diminished yet. Still, we’re seeing him start the shift toward elder statesman, a cerebral two-way force who can zoom out from the game and share unfiltered wisdom on it. Carlyle praises Getzlaf’s ability to show, not tell. He won’t just bark at a teammate to do something. He’ll show them himself. Francois Beauchemin has the unique perspective of playing with Getzlaf for three separate stints in Anaheim – from 2005-06 to 2008-09, 2010-11 to 2014-15 and again for this coming season – and he has witnessed Getzlaf’s evolution as a player each time they’ve been reunited.
“Everybody knows he’s been really good offensively, he’s really gifted that way, but he’s one of the strongest guys in the league,” Beauchemin said. “He plays physically. He plays solidly in his own zone. He’s doing everything on the ice. Everyone knows he’s playing power play, but he can also win faceoffs in the ‘D’ zone on the penalty kill as well and at the end of the game.”
The star player/wise player hybrid is what we’ve seen Thornton become during his late-career reinvention with the San Jose Sharks, and Getzlaf has embraced his gradual shift toward that role, especially in the Ducks’ dressing room where he’s an earnest voice. It stands out most in media scrums after losses. It’s not something he has to force. He doesn’t conduct post-game interviews through gritted teeth. He’s considered himself an open and easygoing communicator all the way back to his Stanley Cup-winning sophomore season in 2006-07 and doesn’t think he’s changed.
“That’s just me,” he said. “I try to deal with everything I can pretty much head-on. I never found anything good ever came out of giving generic answers that nobody wants to hear. Everybody knows you’re not telling the truth.”
What’s different today versus early in his career, he said, is his level of responsibility on his team and at home. He takes it upon himself to be the Ducks’ vocal conduit. He understands he has to tailor his methods differently for each player, too. For instance, he can work with Corey Perry, his Ducks teammate seemingly since the beginning of time, without screaming at him. The two have had plenty of heated conversations in trying situations over the years but, as Getzlaf explains it, getting in Perry’s face isn’t the way to reach him. Beauchemin describes Getzlaf as someone who tries to make everyone on the team comfortable, whether it’s on the ice or in social settings, where he’s a talkative guy. Getzlaf seems to keep detailed virtual files on how to connect with each of his troops. It’s reminiscent of what made Bobby Clarke such a beloved captain in Philadelphia.
“The leadership thing, he’s always had that inside of him,” Beauchemin said. “That’s something you develop more as you get older, but he’s been helping everybody out in the locker room and on the ice pretty much his whole career.”
These skills are more important for Getzlaf now than ever before because of the peach-fuzzed company he keeps. The Ducks, despite rarely picking high in the draft, boast a deep and talented youth movement. Up front, that includes Rakell, playoff monster Jakob Silfverberg and bruising power forward Nick Ritchie. In net, it’s budding star John Gibson. And it’s no secret that Anaheim features one of the top two or three young defense corps in the sport, led by Hampus Lindholm, Cam Fowler, Sami Vatanen and Josh Manson, with young puck-movers Brandon Montour and Jacob Larsson ready for the big-time. Players in their early 20s are making a huge impact on this roster, just as Getzlaf and Perry did as 21-year-olds during the 2007 Cup run, so Getzlaf must be equipped to manage a group of fresh, sometimes fragile egos.
“A lot of the young players now, you can’t necessarily just get up and get in their face in the middle of the locker room,” he said. “Sometimes I have to do it off to the side.”
From the net out, the Ducks are set to compete for years to come in the Pacific with the Oilers and Flames. But beads of sweat start to form on your forehead if you stare at the contracts and ages in the forward section of the depth chart for too long. Getzlaf, despite his great regular season numbers, has worn down by year’s end in high-leverage playoff situations. He has no goals and four assists in the six elimination games Anaheim has lost since he became captain. Perry, 32, just posted his lowest goal total in a non-lockout season since 2006-07 with 19. After Eaves scored 11 goals in 20 games as a trade deadline rental last year, he earned the right to a new contract, but he’s 33. He scored a career-best 32 goals last season when his previous high was 20, set in his rookie year, and his rickety body has let him reach the 70-game mark just three times in 12 seasons. Kesler, 33, showed up at June’s NHL Awards on crutches after having hip surgery, and he might miss as much as the first half of the 2017-18 NHL season. Checking center Antoine Vermette is 35. The Ducks have some intriguing forward prospects on the radar in Sam Steel and Max Jones, sure, but their best veteran contributors are running out of good years.
That means Anaheim’s current window of contention will shut temporarily, no matter how good the team is on defense and in goal. Getzlaf doesn’t deny that for a second. He notes how much younger the competition is becoming and feels the Ducks have entered their championship window over the past couple years. The time to win is now, and every member of the team understands that.
“That’s definitely a factor,” Carlyle said. “We’ve talked about it internally on a number of occasions. That was specifically one of the reasons I was brought back and had such a high interest. We all had the same goal. We’re in a spot with our hockey club where we have to take advantage of where we’re at with our roster.”
The win-now Ducks do plenty of winning now. They came within one victory of reaching the 2015 final and within two of last June’s final after falling to the Nashville Predators. If that dream season is going to happen for this generation of the Ducks, it’ll probably be this year. It won’t be long before McDavid’s Oilers can’t be contained. But Getzlaf is ready to make 2017-18 count. He remains at the peak of his powers, largely because he’s found that life balance. He’s a dad everywhere he goes. That includes at home with this kids – but also in the Ducks’ dressing room. He’s the team’s voice of reason, its confidant and its disciplinarian. And if he sees his teammates hoist the Cup next spring, there will be no prouder papa.