The meeting took place, as meetings among Canadians often do, at the nearest Tim Hortons. No donut holes or fritters, just a cup of joe and conversation.
It was last August, not long before Islanders defenseman Ryan Pulock would leave for training camp, and the new boss wanted a word. Traveling to a Stanley Cup celebration in his nearby hometown, coach Barry Trotz had decided to make a work pit stop while passing through Brandon, Manitoba, where Pulock lives each summer. They sat for nearly an hour at the coffee shop, sharing stories about Ryan’s father Dave, whom Trotz had once recruited to the University of Manitoba, and discussing Trotz’s vision for the team. But when the topic turned to the play of Pulock, then entering his second NHL season, not much needed to be said.
“Even before, I knew it was a big year for me and I had to step up my game,” Pulock recalls. “When I talked to him, he had the same thoughts.”
Eight months later, the seeds of that informal chat have born fruit—or, if you please, coffee beans—even faster than Trotz could’ve predicted. After leading the upstart Islanders in ice time (22:22) during the regular season, becoming their youngest defenseman to skate all 82 games since Zdeno Chara in ‘00–01, the 24-year-old Pulock deserves a decent chunk of credit for holding Sidney Crosby scoreless through three games in the first round, all Isles wins, entering Tuesday night. “He’s grown into his role,” teammate Matt Martin says. “He probably spent a little longer in the minors than he wanted to. He’s obviously been huge for this team all year.”
“He’s taken huge strides,” says blue-line partner Adam Pelech. “He’s a clear No. 1, two-way defenseman.”
It has been a process, no question. “I think he’s always just been an underdog, who no one really quite sees enough or knows well enough,” agent Kevin Epp says. Hailing from Grandview, a map-dot Manitoban town of 800, Pulock wasn’t picked until the seventh round of the Western Hockey League draft … as a forward. He went much higher at the next level, No. 15 overall to the Islanders on June 30, 2013 but incubated for three years with their AHL affiliate upon turning pro. This included a bummer of a false start in December 2014, when Pulock took warmups for what appeared to be his first NHL game against St. Louis, only to watch as a healthy scratch and get sent back down the next morning, and a broken foot on his first shift in ‘16–17.
“It wasn’t an easy road for him, by any means,” says his mother, Tannis, who had hastily flown to New York along with Dave for the would-be debut. “But he waited for that call patiently.”
On or off the ice, patient work has never been a problem for Pulock. An ice fisher and golfer, he will gladly hop on a lawnmower to cut the 80-acre property of girlfriend Paige Friesen’s parents in Brandon, or spend full days cleaning out dog kennels in First Nations communities for the mobile vet clinic where she works. Nor does he lack persistence. Friesen, who met Pulock during his last season with the WHL’s Wheat Kings, reports that he is constantly working on projects around the house, paving stones in the backyard or installing a fenced-in dog run for their three shepherd crosses. “He just gets determined and goes for it,” she says.
There is no shortage of motivation on the Island, either. Having already curbstomped expectations by finishing with the conference’s fourth-best record and allowing the fewest goals in the league, the Isles are one victory from reaching the second round for just the second time since ‘92–93. For Pulock, though, a deeper, more tragic source of fuel flows beneath the surface.
Sitting in the locker room at the team’s practice facility before the playoffs, he tugs down the collar of his undershirt to reveal a tattoo on the left side of his chest: two criss-crossing hockey sticks, a maple leaf and the number 4, right above the heart. With a finger he taps the ink.
“Almost do it for the both of us,” Pulock says.
He holds onto the best times. Baseball and camping in the summer. Ripping around on a snowmobile every winter. Grandview is a small community, but even so the family was known well. When the obituary eventually ran in the local paper, it made special note of the popularity of “the Pulock boys.”
Ryan was first exposed to hockey through older brother Derrick, wearing his oversized skates and parading around the house from an early age. (“I still maintain the kid wore skates before he wore shoes,” their mother says.) But he was equally close with Brock, the youngest of the Pulock boys by two years and an ardent Maple Leafs fan, occasionally sharing the ice together whenever his minor hockey team needed a body and Brock was called up. “Holidays, we’d try to hit up the guy who ran the rink and see if the ice was open, then go out there and just shoot pucks,” Ryan says. “There’s a lot of good memories that I’ll remember forever.”
The worst parts, he has tried to forget. “Clear the details out of my mind,” he says. On March 28, 2010, heading south on Highway 10 to watch a hockey game, a 2004 Ford Explorer carrying Ryan and Brock lost control, rolling into a ditch. Neither alcohol nor speed were factors, according to a news report. Ryan only sustained minor injuries, a cut on his head from some glass, Tannis Pulock says. But Brock was transported to a hospital in Winnipeg, where he died early the next day. At the internment everyone released Maple Leafs balloons into the sky. “He was their errand boy, their informant, their voice of wisdom and their best buddy," read the newspaper obit. "They were his heroes and he was their greatest fan who loved them without limits … The boys were as close as three brothers could possibly be.”
Pulock does not talk about Brock much, in public or private. Epp, for instance, has never heard a word. But he pays tribute in subtle ways every day. In addition to the tattoo, Pulock wears a bracelet stamped with BROCK PULOCK around his wrist; it used to be blue but has since faded into a seafoam green, seeing as how Pulock never takes it off. He also writes the numbers 6 and 4 on the knobs of his Bauer sticks—what he wears for the Islanders and what Brock used to wear, respectively. “Before I go out there, I give him a thought,” Pulock says. “Maybe ask if I need a goal that night, ask for him to help me out.”
There are times when Pulock allows himself to reflect on a deeper level. Like Brock’s birthday. Or the anniversary of the accident. This year, as fate happened, it fell on the Islanders’ lone visit to Winnipeg, where friends and family filled the stands at Bell MTS Place. Down 4–2 in the third period, the Islanders rallied with three unanswered goals, including two in the final two minutes, and ultimately overtook second place in the Metro Division from Pittsburgh for good. Pulock, meanwhile, led all skaters with 25:50 and dished out three assists. “And I’m sure he would tell you that he knew there was somebody watching him,” Tannis Pulock says.
Indeed, Brock is always there for the big moments. First NHL game, first NHL goal, “where you think about what he might’ve had to say, just knowing that I’m sure he’d be pretty proud,” Pulock says. Back inside the Islanders locker room, he is asked the natural follow-up: How would Brock, then, react to the prospect of Ryan squaring off against the likes of Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, tasked with shutting down two All-Star centers for 20-plus minutes a night?
“Well, that’s a good question,” Pulock says. “I’m sure he’d bug me a little bit and tell me not to get scored on. It’d be friendly, but he’d probably throw a few chirps in there too.”
Last summer, Pulock signed a two-year bridge contract with the Islanders worth $4 million, a modest annual bump from his entry-level salary. It might prove costly against the cap in hindsight given how Pulock has blossomed, but the idea of a long-term deal was never presented as a viable option during negotiations, according to Epp. Then under new management in GM Lou Lamoriello, the Isles needed to see more from Pulock before committing further. Specifically that he wasn’t, as Epp puts it, “a one-trick pony.”
To be fair, the trick in question is a pretty solid weapon. Trotz, who has coached no shortage of right-handed howitzers in Shea Weber and Alex Ovechkin, puts Pulock’s slap shot among the “top four to five percent in the league.” It carries the sound of a 500-foot home run, crackling off the bat, and hurts something fierce. “It’s called for a few ice bags,” says Islanders captain Anders Lee, a steady netfront presence. “As long as he misses me, I’m happy with it.”
“When it hits you, it’s a thud,” Martin says.
“I don’t think I’m exaggerating to say his shot was feared right from the time he was 5 or 6 years old,” his mother says, “because he could hum it even back then.”
Pulock hasn’t quite become the offensive jackhammer that he was in juniors, notching only nine goals this season, one fewer than his ‘17–18 total in 14 more games. At the same time, he has developed into an indispensible rock on the other end. Burly enough to ward away traffic from the Islanders’ netfront area, he also possesses the requisite shiftiness demanded of modern defensemen. “Just his ability to skate out of pressure and his poise with the puck, not just rim it around the boards or turn it over, is pretty impressive,” Martin says.
The growth began in the minors, where blueliners of the Bridgeport Sound Tigers would stay late after practice, conducting one-on-one footwork drills in the corner without sticks. It has continued under Trotz and the Islanders, who have also enjoyed breakout seasons from fellow young defensemen Devon Toews, Scott Mayfield and Pelech. “He’s such a strong guy,” says Pelech, who lived with Pulock in Bridgeport. “When you add the quick feet to the equation, getting more sticks on pucks defensively, he’s turned into a really good defender.”
The latest witness is a reliable one. So far in the series, Crosby and Pulock have shared the ice for more than 30 minutes at 5-on-5, according to data from Natural Stat Trick. In that time, the Penguins have barely outshot the Islanders (19–17), drawn even in scoring chances (17–17) and been outscored 3–0 despite a heavy dose of offensive zone faceoffs in Games 1 and 3. Not bad against a no-doubt Hall-of-Famer. “Defensively, my game’s come a long way,” Pulock said before the playoffs. “I feel more like a complete player, all-around, than I ever have.”
It will all pay off in a big way soon enough, whenever Lamoriello invariably decides to open extension talks with Pulock’s camp. But that is far down the road compared to the task at hand. Right now the Isles are knocking on the door of their first playoff sweep since the ‘83 Stanley Cup final, which wound up as the last of four straight titles for the Al Arbour dynasty, and could hand Crosby the second brooming of his NHL career. After that comes the winner of Carolina and Trotz’s former team, defending-champion Washington.
And so Pulock will spend Tuesday as he often does, stick-lifting whichever Penguins player comes near the net, retrieving pucks and leading breakouts the other way, hammering slappers and leaving bruises. In between he will likely be draped over the bench, watching and waiting for Crosby to hop back on the ice.
Of course, if the Isles need a goal, he can always just ask.