Florida may be better known for its sandy beaches, palm trees and resort-like towns, but it is slowly gaining recognition as a hotbed for hockey in the Deep South. To date, it has been the birthplace of four NHL players, with many rising young stars calling the Sunshine State home.
One of those young players, Jakob Chychrun, was recently selected as the first overall pick of the 2014 OHL Priority Selection. Chychrun is the son of former NHL defenseman, Jeff Chychrun. Upon the conclusion of his NHL career, the elder Chychrun decided that the Everglades would be the best place to settle down with his family and plant their roots.
“My dad played in the NHL for a few years and he coached me my whole life. He taught me everything I know about the game,” said Chychrun.
Like his father, Chychrun’s calling came from the blueline. Chychrun also inherited from his father a large frame that he filled into at an early age. Only 16 years of age, he already towers over the majority of his competition with his 6’2” and 200-pound body. Unlike many players who experience an early growth spurt, Chychrun is incredibly mobile and his superior skating allows him to impact the game at both ends of the ice. Though he wasn’t yet born while his father was an active player, Chychrun was immersed in the game of hockey early on. His knowledge and passion for the game is reflected in his on-ice play.
Born in Boca Raton, FL, Chychrun played minor hockey for the nearby Florida Everblades and Florida Panthers youth organizations. The Jr. Panthers boast an impressive list of alumni including Brody Sutter, Brady Vail, and Shayne Gostisbehere. Their coaching staff and player development is one of the best in the state of Florida, with a track record to prove it.
Despite everything the Jr. Panthers had to offer, Chychrun knew that he would have to play for a team with more exposure to attract the attention of scouts from the top junior leagues in North America. This led to him accepting an offer to play for the Little Caesars hockey club in Detroit. The Little Caesars compete against other powerhouse minor hockey teams from all over the continent and are yearly participants in some of the most renowned international youth tournaments. By choosing to play for a team halfway across the country, Chychrun would have to sacrifice weekends and holidays if he wanted to compete against the best players in his age group.
“The Little Caesars were the first team to give me a call,” admits Chychrun. “I went to school in Florida but every weekend my dad and me would fly to Michigan. During the week I would practice with a junior team down in South Florida so it worked out pretty well.”
In 2011, Chychrun began playing for the Little Caesars Bantam Major AAA team and in 15 games, scored eight points. Seven of the eight points came from goals.
The following season, Chychrun played for the Little Caesars U16 team and had 18 points in 25 regular season games along with three points in four playoff games for the T1EHL Little Caesars team.
At the end of 2013, Chychrun was drafted in the 10th round, 144th overall, by the Youngstown Phantoms of the USHL. Even though Chychrun had already tried out and made the Phantoms, he faced a critical obstacle. USA Hockey had recently implemented a new rule requiring 15-year-olds to receive a special exemption to play junior hockey. Chychrun’s request was denied.
The process took long enough that by the time the decision was made, most of Chychrun’s options had already closed and he was left without a team to play for at the start of the 2013-14 season. It was at this moment that the Toronto Jr. Canadiens seized the opportunity to add a player of Chychrun’s caliber to their organization and offered him a spot on their Minor Midget AAA team if he would move north to Ontario.
“I had my mind set on Youngstown and I was excited to play there and I made the team. I was there for main camp. They told me the first day at the end of main camp and after the first exhibition game that they wanted me to be on the team,” said Chychrun. “I was more than excited to get up to Youngstown but late in the summer I was denied by USA Hockey.”
This turned out to be a blessing in disguise for Chychrun as he would go on to have a spectacular year playing for the Jr. Canadiens. Not only did he lead the league in scoring by a defenseman with 43 points in 29 games, but he was also the first player from the GTMMHL to be chosen to play for Team Canada in the World U17 Hockey Challenge.
Representing Team Ontario, Chychrun again was the primary points-getter from the back end with four points in five games en route to a second place finish in the tournament.
The tournament did not pass by without a little bit of controversy, however. As a holder of citizenship in both the United States and in Canada, Chychrun’s national loyalty would come into question at this time. There was a lot of discussion about whether he had permanently severed ties with USA Hockey and would continue to wear his father’s native red and white going forward.
Fortunately, Chychrun did not ruin his eligibility to represent the United States in future tournaments. The U17 tournament is not IIHF-sanctioned so competing for Team Canada did not disqualify him from playing for Team USA in future IIHF tournaments such as the popular U20 World Junior Championship.
“I still have the option to do what I want,” Chychrun explained. “We’ll see how things pan out. Obviously, I have to make whichever team I want to play for.”
Leading up to the 2014 OHL Priority Selection, there was some speculation about whether or not the Sarnia Sting would select Chychrun with their first overall pick. The team quickly put those rumors to rest the day before the draft by hosting a press conference where they announced that Chychrun would indeed be the first overall selection of the draft and a player that the club would rebuild itself around.
Chychrun joins Alex Galchenyuk and Steven Stamkos as two other Sting players selected first overall. If Chychrun didn’t already have big enough shoes to fill, the last defenseman to be taken first overall was the Florida Panthers’ Aaron Ekblad.
Making the jump from Midget AAA hockey to Major junior hockey is not an easy step for anyone. Even with his NHL-ready size and strength, Chychrun would be facing players as old as five years his senior and with NHL training camp experience under their belts. The speed, physicality, and level of competition will be an excellent test to gauge Chychrun’s development level with the best players from his age group.
When asked to assess his season so far, Chychrun was confident in his ability to play in one of the top junior leagues in the world.
“It has been more than great. It has been everything I have been hoping for. The Sarnia organization has been unbelievable towards my family and me as well. They’ve really welcomed my whole family,” adds Chychrun. “They have done everything possible to make me comfortable and sink into the league smoothly.”
Less than two months into the season, Chychrun is already making an impact for Sarnia. Through 12 games he has seven points and sits third in scoring among rookie defenseman.
HF’s Beyond Tomorrow feature looks at notable hockey prospects not yet eligible for the NHL Draft.
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