For smaller players, there’s a fine line between runt and bulldog. When they break in at the NHL level, their leashes are often shorter. Initial struggles give way to complaints from critics of being pushed around and doubts creep in about a guy’s ability to handle the pounding of playing in The Show. Justly or not, left winger Jaden Schwartz was nearing that territory just a year ago. The St. Louis Blues draftee (14th overall in 2010) was the Hockey News’ No. 29 overall prospect in Future Watch 2013. He’d impressed in a seven-game 2011-12 sniff with his hockey sense, but was struggling to make a splash in the lockout-shortened 2012-13, overshadowed by fellow rookie teammate Vladimir Tarasenko. Our magazine accused Schwartz of lacking strength and playing soft. That sound you hear is us choking down the last few feathery bites of crow. Schwartz, 21, has flicked the switch on. He’s been that aforementioned pugnacious pooch for the powerhouse blues, amassing 36 points in 50 games with a plus-20 rating. He’s filled every role, clicking on a sizzling second line with Chris Stewart and Vladimir Sobotka or hopping up to the No. 1 unit with David Backes and T.J. Oshie when Alex Steen went down with a concussion. He’s rewarded the faith of his biggest supporter, coach Ken Hitchcock. “If you get some experience and go through something for a little while, you’re going to learn a lot,” Schwartz says. “I tried to do that. I’m playing a bit more this year, getting more opportunities and trying to make the best of it. Confidence is a big part in it. When you’re playing more, you’re touching the puck. I realize sometimes last year I’d be thinking too much.” Schwartz credits the spike in his play to a few key mentors. Steen helps him the most on the ice, sometimes directly or sometimes simply when Schwartz watches Steen play. When Schwartz broke into the league, he lived with defenseman Alex Pietrangelo, who taught him how to live the day-to-day life of an NHLer. But if you really want to know where Schwartz gets that rabid puck pursuit ability, ask him about his late sister, Mandi.
She was a hockey player, too, suiting up for the Yale Bulldogs. “She was feisty, she worked hard,” says Tegan Schroeder, Mandi’s longtime best friend. “She’d win those battles in the corner and she’d get that puck to the net and she’d never give up. She played a huge part in any team we played on. The biggest thing was her personality, though. You’d be in the dressing room and she wanted to win and that rubbed off on everybody.”
Schroeder, a blueliner with the Canadian Women’s League’s Calgary Inferno, grew up around the Schwartz family in Wilcox, Sask. and played with Mandi at nearby Athol Murray College of Notre Dame. And while Mandi’s on-ice moxie impressed her, Mandi’s off-ice war with acute myeloid leukemia was truly inspiring. Mandi was diagnosed in 2008 and fought the disease off with treatment, but it returned by 2010. She required a bone marrow transplant and while donors poured in at Yale and throughout Canada, no match was found. A stem cell transplant via umbilical cord blood units in 2010 sent the cancer into remission, but it returned a few months later. Mandi succumbed to the disease and died April 3, 2011. She was 23. Schroeder marvels at how positive Mandi was, even in her final days when she was out of options. When Mandi started to lose a lot of muscle, she would visit Schroeder at the gym and they would work on retraining her muscles to walk properly. She never stopped trying to get better and Schroeder says Mandi maintained sparkle. It was like hanging out with her any other day of their lives together. “The most positive person you’d ever meet,” Schroeder says. “She inspired you to not only work harder and be a better hockey player, but just to be a better person. She wouldn’t say a bad thing about anybody and that’s something we try to take on and live out in her honor.” Schroeder has spent a lot of time around Mandi’s brothers, Jaden and Rylan. Whatever the inner motor was that made Mandi fight her disease so hard, Schroeder sees the same force driving Jaden in the NHL. “He’s a great guy, the kind of guy who will have your back no matter what,” Schroeder says. “A lot of those guys when they reach the professionals, girls hockey is like, ‘What are you doing out here?’ but they let me go scrimmage with them, he invites me to go power skating, I’ll spot him in the gym, stuff like that. He resembles his sister a lot. He’s a hard worker and he’s humble. He deserves what he works for." Mandi’s fight inspired the Yale women’s team to hold annual bone marrow donor drives to help others suffering from AML. The drives have been a resounding success, adding thousands to the donor registry and resulting in 23 matches. Yale also organizes an annual White Out for Mandi game, in which attendees wear white in support, to raise money and awareness for the cause. Not surprisingly, Jaden Schwartz asked the Blues if he could attend the game, which was played Jan 24. Not only did they grant him permission, GM Doug Armstrong decided the whole team should go. So all the Blues hopped on a bus for Yale and attended the White Out Game. While the emotions were mixed for Schwartz, as reminders of his departed sister were prominent, being there was special. “She loved it there, she spent a lot of time there and it was unfortunate I never got a chance to go when she was there,” Schwartz says. “It means a lot to me and my family that the whole team gets to go.” It was the kind of gesture that makes a player want to go to war for his team. It will be no surprise, then, if Schwartz plays with extra fire this spring. He has the inspiration of his teammates and, most of all, his courageous sister. "The whole family is close,” Schroeder says, “but Jaden definitely had a soft spot for Mandi.”
Matt Larkin is an associate editor at The Hockey News and a regular contributor to the thn.com Post-To-Post blog. For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Matt Larkin on Twitter at @THNMattLarkin