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Playing for your hometown NHL team has its special headaches

NHL players talk about the positives and negatives (like the many friends they never knew they had asking for tickets) of playing for their hometown teams.

Not long into his first season back home with Toronto, Daniel Winnik realized that meeting his parents for coffee wasn’t as innocent as it appeared. The real reason, he found, usually revealed itself at the end. Right as they were leaving, Winnik’s father would produce a bag of Maple Leafs jerseys—Winnik’s No. 26—and offer a pen. With time, Winnik developed a practiced response. “I’ll go, ‘What the hell is this? I’m not signing a million things for people every time I see you,’” the veteran forward says. “It just comes at the weirdest times.”

These stories, Winnik insists, are not unique to him. Ask anyone who is fortunate enough to lace up for their hometown teams and skate in front of their families, like Vancouver Canucks rookie Jake Virtanen (photo above). The opportunity brings magic and thrills, no question. He can visit his parents, roughly 40 minutes away from Rogers Arena. His grandparents can come down to rink level after home games. Fans recognize the teenager the moment he steps outside downtown. But he can also spend an entire afternoon signing jerseys that his father lays onto the table, assembly line-style. 

Red Wings rookie Dylan Larkin on rare fast track to stardom with Detroit

Or ask Detroit Red Wings rookie Dylan Larkin, who returned to his childhood house in Waterford, Mich., one afternoon last winter and found roughly 30 pictures and jerseys awaiting his signature.

“A lot of Christmas presents,” Larkin says.

To handle the crush of well-wishers, seat-seekers, and guys whose cousin faced you during peewee hockey, everyone develops different methods. Virtanen, who averages between six and 15 personal visitors per game, simply tells friends to text his dad if they want tickets, though the NHL’s collective bargaining agreement only gives two complimentary seats per player on the home team.

“Even my buddies didn’t know, you pay for tickets on the road all the time,” says Capitals forward Jason Chimera, a native Edmontonian who played 130 games for the Oilers. “They think you get like 10 free on the road, but it gets pretty expensive, especially those first couple years when you’re treating everybody to games.” 

When Chimera broke into the NHL with Edmonton around the turn of the century, he found himself shrinking his inner circle of friends, weeding out those who just wanted something. “You don’t try to pretend anymore,” he says. “You just say, ‘No, sorry, I don’t know who you are.’”

Says Minnesota’s Ryan Carter, "It’s like Kevin Bacon, the six degrees of separation. You all have people who’ll say the friend of a friend of a friend wants this. Now the policy is, if I know you personally, I’ll help you. I have a lot of friends who have friends who have friends."

When Jason Garrison signed with the Canucks before the 2012-13 lockout, the pride of White Rock, B.C., shuttered his Facebook account. Larkin followed a similarly monastic approach with social media and, after buying tickets for roughly 30 people before his NHL debut in Toronto this season, began deferring all future requests to his parents.

“Don’t get me wrong, I’m so fortunate to be able to go home, hang out with my parents, or just be so familiar with the area and have friends at Michigan, high school and stuff,” Larkin says. “It’s unbelievable being able to represent my hometown.

“But then there are the people you haven’t seen since middle school.”

Winnik, on the other hand, simply learned to say no.

“The joke was, when I signed with Toronto, people came out of the woodwork and it’s true,” he says. “Someone messages you on Facebook you went to high school with and you were barely friends with and they’re like, ‘Hey man I’m going to the Leafs game. I was wondering if I could come see you this day?’ I haven’t seen you in like 12 years. Why would I get you to come down after the game?”

Jersey Boy Kyle Palmieri giving Devils his best in homecoming

For Devils forward Kyle Palmieri, who raised in northern New Jersey, having friends nearby eased his transition after a surprising cross-country trade. Palmieri learned about the deal while taking a golf vacation in Ireland last summer. It was around 4 a.m. local time when a friend, current Columbus Blue Jackets forward Jeremy Morin, awoke Palmieri and broke the news. Morin, then with Chicago, had expected to be dealt himself, Palmieri says. And since there was no cell service, Morin had stayed up all night refreshing the Wi-Fi at his hotel.

When Palmieri returned stateside, his phone was filled with congratulatory messages—some from people he knew, others from those he did not. “I haven’t changed my phone number my entire life,” he says, by way of explaining why sixth-grade classmates were suddenly in touch. But aside from a few friends in nearby Hoboken who ask for consideration if Palmieri’s comped tickets go unused, he has felt relatively unbothered. On the ice, his 17 goals lead the Devils and already mark a career high.

“It was nice to have a group of buddies who you can step away from hockey with, and during the beginning of the year you can go watch football and have a couple beers and step away,” Palmieri says.

By the time Palmieri returned to New Jersey, though, he had already spent parts of five seasons in the NHL, all with the Anaheim Ducks. The rhythms of the profession had become routine. He had bought tickets before. He learned exactly where his family should park, enter, and sit. He knew how to say no. Of other players who have “gone home” early in their careers, several who had done so agreed that it brought more complications.

“You’re scared to say no to people at first, like you’d piss people off,” Chimera says. “A lot of people in Edmonton do you favors because you’re from Edmonton and then you feel like if you don’t do them a favor, it looks bad on you. Now you just say no to favors, say no to all those things, just play hockey.”

When Craig Anderson debuted with the Blackhawks in 2002-03, he liked how he could live in a city he already knew, having graduated from high school in the Chicago suburbs. His sister lived down the street and he visited her often. His parents and siblings attended almost every game at United Center, if not all of them. But as a young 21-year-old goaltender teetering between the minors and the NHL, he needed to focus while at work. Perhaps it was inexperience, but Anderson found this difficult to manage “There were more distractions and they were easier to come by,” he says. “It’s just little things that add up.”

Bruins rookie Frank Vatrano’s unlikely rise to the NHL is stuff of local legend

And yet the headaches rarely trump the positives. In New Jersey, Palmieri has been able to watch his younger brother play a last season of junior hockey before heading off to college. Anderson now runs a summer hockey school in Chicago, which he started after working camps while with the Blackhawks. Virtanen idolized the Sedin twins as a child; now they sit only a few locker stalls apart. In Springfield, Mass., the parents of Boston rookie Frank Vatrano have enjoyed an uptick in business at their pizza shop, father Greg proudly reports, and more customers have come in wearing Bruins jerseys.

In July 2013, Mike Santorelli signed a one-year deal with the Canucks. Joining his childhood favorite club was also his fourth stop in five seasons and it felt like a perfect fit. There were former teammates on the roster and familiar faces around the city. His uncle even worked security outside the locker room at Rogers Arena. Santorelli only spent one year in Vancouver and now, with Anaheim, is playing for his third team since leaving. But the brief stay was well worth it.

“Lately it’s been a new place every year,” he said recently. “It was nice to be able to play at home and have that feeling that you belong somewhere.”