Red Wings rookie sensation Dylan Larkin driven to become the best
Dylan Larkin. (Dave Reginek/NHLI via Getty Images)
Red Wings rookie sensation Dylan Larkin driven to become the best
What sets Dylan Larkin apart from his teenage peers isn't his skill or discipline. It's his dogged determination to win at all costs and the best player on the planet.Whoever it was that named the town of Waterford, Mich., could clearly take a hint. The hamlet where Hall of Famer Pat LaFontaine’s family settled when they moved from St. Louis is 35 square miles and home to 34 lakes, which means you can’t walk a mile without getting your feet wet. There’s Cass Lake, Clam Lake, Huntoon Lake, Little Silver Lake, Upper Silver Lake, Pleasant Lake, Loon Lake, Lotus Lake, Schoolhouse Lake and Wormer Lake, among others. There’s also Our Lady of the Lakes Church, Christ of the Lakes Catholic Church, Williams Lake Church of the Nazarene, Great Lakes Baptist Church and Wellspring Bible Church. The town’s nature center alone has 11 ponds on it. And just in case you needed to be clubbed over the head, the Charter Township of Waterford has trademarked the term “Lakeland Paradise.” The serial number is 76611742. You can check that. It turns out Dylan Larkin could take a hint, too. He didn’t grow up on one of the hundreds of ponds that run off those lakes in Waterford, but it was just a short walk down the street and a few backyard shortcuts to a pond that ran off Oakland Lake. It was there Larkin laboriously planted the seeds that have germinated into one of the best, and most unlikely, rookie campaigns in the NHL this season. Sure, he’d play shinny with his older brother and cousins and the kids in the neighborhood, but what has him in the NHL at the age of 19 and in the conversation for the Calder Trophy is what Detroit Red Wings coach Jeff Blashill calls “unbelievable inner drive.” Long before the others would get there and long after they left, Larkin would be out on the pond by himself, working on his skills and finding his inner Zen. “Just me and a puck and a net,” Larkin said. “That was my childhood. Up here (in the NHL), you want to put up points and win, but there it’s just about hockey.”
It’s right around then that you ask to see his birth certificate. He doesn’t have it with him, but he assures you there is no mention of Saskatchewan on it anywhere. After all, Larkin lived what was supposed to be the quintessential Canadian existence. And, as it turns out, his Canadian roots run deep. His father, Kevin, is originally from suburban Toronto and had a hockey scholarship to the University of Maine until he shattered his kneecap playing junior hockey. Kevin was also a top-notch soccer player, the son of Irish immigrants, so at 23 he went on a soccer scholarship to the University of Southern Indiana. It was there he met Denise Jordan, got married and settled in the Detroit area, where he has a business distributing supplies and furniture to beauty salons. Kevin’s brother, Jimmy, was a member of the Canadian national soccer team, and their mother still lives in Toronto. “I have a buddy who’s originally from Sarnia who does it right up with floodlights on the pond,” Kevin said. “On a Saturday night, the kids would be out playing until midnight and we’d all be inside watching Hockey Night in Canada.”The results of all those hours on the pond in Waterford are now on full display 38 miles southeast at the Joe Louis Arena. Larkin would have to chase the puck all the way down the pond if he missed the net, and he’s now one of the most explosive skaters in the NHL. But it also shows in Larkin’s face, which has the perennially rosy cheeks of a kid who spends a lot of his time outside in the winter. It sure isn’t going to help him get a legal beer in his hometown any time soon, and it prompted one of his teammates to give him a SpongeBob SquarePants toothbrush and a bottle of gummy bear vitamins when the Red Wings held their Secret Santa gift exchange. It’s one thing to break into the NHL at 19. With players being coached, nourished and prepared for competition better than they ever have, it’s becoming increasingly common. But it’s quite another to break in with an organization that prides itself on making sure its prospects are overripe. It’s not in the standard Red Wings player contract that every player is mandated to spend two or three years on an iron lung traipsing around minor hockey’s backwaters, but it’s pretty well understood that’s the way Detroit does things. In fact, when Larkin informed the Red Wings last summer he was ready to turn pro after one season at the University of Michigan and a bronze medal with the U.S. at the World Championship, the first thing Wings GM Ken Holland told the family was to make sure they were comfortable with that determination. “I told Dylan and his family that if he was sitting on a bus from Grand Rapids to Rockford in November,” Holland recalled, “that was their decision.” Turned out it was the right one for everyone involved. Larkin has helped the Red Wings so far, and he’s helped himself. His base salary is $925,000, and he’s a shoo-in to earn his capped performance bonuses totalling $350,000. He got an extra $50,000 for being selected to the All-Star Game, and he’s well on his way to hitting his other bonuses. But think about this for a minute. Larkin is the youngest player to play a regular shift with the Red Wings in a quarter of a century. Keith Primeau was 18 years and 10 months old when he first appeared for the Red Wings in 1990. Before that you have to go back to Steve Yzerman in 1983. At the age of 19 years and 71 days when he made his NHL debut, Larkin was older than Shawn Burr and Martin Lapointe when he debuted, but Burr and Lapointe did not become full-time Red Wings until they were 20. And while everyone around Larkin is loathe to make comparisons, there’s no doubt some are envisioning Yzerman-like things for the young man who is already being compared to Jonathan Toews. There are those who think it’s only a matter of time before Larkin is wearing the ‘C’ in Detroit. And in case you haven’t noticed, when the Red Wings have a player they like, they tend to keep him around for a long time. “He’s going to be here forever,” said Red Wings captain Henrik Zetterberg, who broke into the league when Larkin was just six. “He’s that special.” In the end, he may not be Jonathan Toews, but he will be Detroit’s version of Toews. “He’ll be the conscience of the Red Wings,” Holland said, “the way Steve Yzerman, Nick Lidstrom, Pavel Datsyuk and ‘Z’ (Zetterberg) have been.” For his part, Larkin does not shy away from the comparisons. He is in an environment where he’s set up for success, playing the wing on the top line with Zetterberg, his childhood idol, and Justin Abdelkader. He’s playing in an organization that has established a winning culture and has players like Datsyuk and Zetterberg to show him how to live like a pro. At his exit meeting last summer, Larkin was looking for some direction, so Holland told him, “to follow Luke Glendening around like a puppy dog.” Every day, Larkin would rise at 5 a.m., to make the 45-minute drive into the city to work out with Glendening and some other Red Wing players at a downtown Detroit gym, and he now shares a house with Glendening and Riley Sheahan and their two dogs. They don’t take shortcuts, so Larkin doesn’t take shortcuts. His inner drive and quiet confidence are huge factors. “I had 12 goals at Christmas, and I want more goals,” Larkin said. “I want more ice time, and I want to be better on the power play. That’s just how I am. Today, we had to get off the ice because the New Jersey Devils are coming on, but I wanted to stay out for 20 more minutes. I’ve always wanted to be the best player in the world. It’s hard, but there’s no reason I couldn’t be. I’m in a great organization, and I’ll just keep working.” One of the reasons Larkin cited for signing with Detroit last summer was that he felt he might have a better chance of making the team now that Blashill had replaced Mike Babcock as coach. Blashill isn’t so sure Larkin wouldn’t be a regular in the lineup even had Babcock stayed in Detroit. When Blashill was coaching Detroit’s AHL affiliate in Grand Rapids last spring, Larkin joined the Griffins for their Western Conference final series against the Utica Comets after playing in the World Championship and signing with the Red Wings. The plan was to use Larkin along the half wall on the power play, so after the morning skate prior to Game 5, Larkin was out with Griffins assistant coach David Noel-Bernier long after everyone had left the ice, coming off the half wall and shooting pucks at an empty net. Incensed, Blashill told Noel-Bernier to immediately get Larkin off the ice. “It looked to me like a young kid who had too much energy and not enough brains,” Blashill said. “We put him on the power play and in the second period, he walks off the half wall and goes shelf. My assistant comes to me and says, ‘That’s what he was working on for 20 minutes.’ You can watch the skill set on TV, but it’s the inner drive, the perseverance, the maturity, the confidence…those are the things that allow guys to make the jump early.” It has always been that way for Larkin, going back to his days in Waterford, where he played a year up so he could be on the same team as his cousin Adam, who’s now a junior defenseman at Yale. Dylan’s older brother, Colin, a junior playing Div. III at U-Mass Boston, never let him win and always pushed him to be better. (A younger cousin, Ryan, is a goalie with Miami of Ohio.) It was at a Silver Stick Tournament in Newmarket, Ont., with the Lakeland Hawks that Kevin thought his son was ready to play with the best players in Detroit. They were in the semifinal of the tournament against a team that had St. Louis Blues rookie Robby Fabbri on it and, came back from a 5-0 deficit to tie the game and send it into overtime. The overtime format was 5-on-5, with each team removing a player the longer the game remained tied. When it got down to 2-on-2, Dylan lost a faceoff in his end, but Adam corralled the puck and sent Dylan in on a breakaway, and he scored. From there Larkin made the move to AAA hockey in Detroit with a team of 1996-born players for Belle Tire. That team would go on to win three state championships and one national championship at the bantam level but, more extraordinarily, had nine players drafted to the NHL, including four first-rounders. Larkin and Brendan Perlini were taken in the first round in 2014, and Zach Werenski and Kyle Connor, both late 1996 birthdays, were first-rounders in 2015. Also on that team was Alex Nedeljkovic, a Carolina second-rounder in 2014 who backstopped the U.S. to a bronze medal at the World Junior Championship. Larkin soared through the ranks with Belle Tire, eventually becoming captain of the bantam team that won the national championship. But in his minor midget year, with a coveted spot on the U.S. national development team on the line, Larkin broke his ankle in a tournament in November. Heartbroken, he would come to the rink to support his teammates and vowed to be back by the state championship. One night before a game, Larkin quietly pulled aside Belle Tire executive John Kay and told him that he had been selected for the U.S. National Team Development Program next season. He told Kay he didn’t want to disrupt the team by announcing it himself. And true to his word, he returned in time to play in the state championship. “A lot of kids would have probably said, ‘I got what I wanted and I’m going to sit out and not risk it,’ ” Kay said. “But that’s not the kind of kid Dylan Larkin is.” It was with the NTDP that Larkin really began to take off as an elite prospect. He opened a number of eyes at the WJC in 2015, where he entered the tournament in Jack Eichel’s shadow and emerged as the United States’ leading scorer with five goals, seven points and a team-leading 24 shots. In the round-robin game against Canada, Larkin scored in the dying minutes to pull the Americans to within a goal before Sam Reinhart scored an empty-netter with less than a minute left. Larkin scored again 12 seconds after that before Max Domi sealed the game with another empty-netter. “You could just see every time Canada scored, he wanted to will his team back into the game,” Holland said. “That’s what I mean about being the conscience of the team.” Some players come to the understanding a little later than others about what it takes to play in the NHL. Larkin, to his credit, figured it out early and cemented it in his brain. There are a lot of kids who take their time and are just as good. Some are clueless when they turn pro, others are on the cusp, and others, like Larkin, only need to be told once. The Red Wings have a prospect by the name of Anthony Mantha, who was drafted in the first round the year before Larkin. Mantha is a behemoth of a boy-man who scored 120 points in his last year of junior hockey and led his team to the Memorial Cup final. Clamoring for a young, homegrown star, Red Wings fans were begging Holland to have Mantha in the lineup to start his career. Holland responded by saying Mantha would get every chance, but there were no guarantees. “The kid is 6-foot-5,” Holland said. “I would have looked like the village idiot if I had come out and said there was no way he was going to make our team.” Mantha, though, broke his leg in rookie camp and followed that with a rather mediocre year that drew public criticism from Detroit vice-president Jim Devellano. But now in his second year of pro hockey, Mantha is getting it, working his way through the AHL into a bona fide NHL prospect who could one day be as much of a Red Wing stalwart as Larkin is expected to be. Different path, perhaps the same destination. Because Larkin is so fast and strong on his skates, he wins battles for the puck and almost always does the right thing once he gets it. And the skill. Oh, the skill. NHL veteran Mike Cammalleri of the Devils said he worked out with the hockey team at the University of Michigan last year and was amazed at one of Larkin’s moves. In one motion, he’ll fake a slapshot, actually grazing over the puck with his stick, which makes the goalie bite, and then gets it on his backhand. Cammalleri marvelled at the move and is still unable to perfect it after Larkin taught it to him. Larkin used it once at the University of Michigan and missed the net. He has yet to use it in the NHL, but he will. Off the ice has been a bit of an adjustment for Larkin. He, Sheahan and Glendening have a chef who cooks for them, so that is not a problem. Sheahan said Larkin still occasionally leaves a dirty dish around and Glendening said, “we’ve had to teach him a few lessons about being on time,” but aside from that Larkin has been a model roommate. When the Red Wings have a day off, and Glendening and Sheahan are spending their time at the dog park, Larkin will often make the drive to Ann Arbor to have dinner with kids his own age at the University of Michigan. As far as hockey is concerned, Glendening knows there’s very little he can impart to Larkin, but he can counsel him on how to eat, sleep and live like a professional. “It’s funny because when we go out he’s the famous one, which is awesome,” Glendening said. “He handles it with a lot of grace and style, though.” A lot of that goes back to the humility and the days on the rinks in Waterford. Kay said the Larkins provided a perfect template for the way minor hockey parents should behave. Parents of some star players can be, let’s say, rather high maintenance, but Kay recalled the Larkins being humble parents who looked out for the good of the team over the better interests of their son. And there was never any sense Dylan was above the fray. In fact, on the day he came to terms with the Red Wings, he was helping his father make deliveries to some beauty salons. “We were loading up the truck at one of my vendors,” Kevin said. “He was all excited, and I said, ‘Dude, I want two weeks’ notice, and you’re still working for 10 bucks an hour.’ ” In the Red Wings’ last game before Christmas, they lost to the Devils after falling behind 3-0 in the first period. After scoring his 13th goal of the season, Larkin was pushed from behind into the end boards by Devils defenseman John Moore. He stayed in the game but went for X-rays afterward and sat out the next game. New Jersey clearly targeted Larkin for a physical going over in that game. He left the rink that night with a handful of sticks, wondering what he did to the Devils to make them so angry at him. Blashill noticed it, too, saying a couple nights before against Calgary the same thing happened. “We’re going to have to do a good job of defending him,” Blashill said, “and referees around the league have to know that young stars in the league, when they get targeted, they have to make sure they do a good job of calling penalties. We don’t want our young stars targeted, and we don’t want lots of fights anymore, so we have to make sure we look after them.” So there are clearly some bumps in the road here. Larkin has never played so gruelling a season as he will this year, and the true test began in January when the Red Wings embarked on a stretch of 25 games, 16 on the road, in two months. Included in that was the outdoor game in Denver where Larkin was one of the few players to have actually played a lot of hockey outdoors as a kid. “You ask me if I’m surprised that he leads us in goals and leads the league in plus-minus,” Blashill said. “I don’t know how I couldn’t be. We didn’t draw it up at the beginning of the season, saying, ‘OK, this guy is going to lead us in scoring.’ ” Larkin still finds it difficult to wrap his head around the fact he shares a parking lot and a dressing room with players he adored as a kid. He was just 11 years old when he stood on Woodward Avenue for the parade for the Red Wings’ most recent Stanley Cup in 2008. One of the class assignments at Mason Middle School was to watch every Red Wings playoff game that year. Pretty sweet homework for him. Those were the days when he’d go off by himself and play hockey purely for the love of the game. Things are different now. If you let the laundry pile up or your room gets too messy, it can be overwhelming. If you turn your back on a defenseman, you might end up going headfirst into the boards. But Dylan Larkin is coming along just fine. This is an edited version of a feature that appeared in the February 15 edition of The Hockey News magazine. 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