It’s tempting for fans to think professional athletes have superpowers to put aside life’s troubles and sorrows to do their dream jobs-to play sports. Easier said than done.
New Kraken forward Jaden Schwartz‘ father died last November from a heart attack at 59 years old. The Schwartz family took it hard.
“With my dad passing the last year has been tough times for my family,” Schwartz said during a recent interview. “Everyone handles tragedy and trauma differently.
“It came out of nowhere. He was so young … I could see how hard it was for my mom and brother. At times, hockey was the last thing on my mind, to be honest. I wasn’t sure I was going to play [last season]. I wasn’t ready for it mentally and physically.”
When Schwartz did decide to get to St. Louis for his 10th NHL season, all with the Blues, a clutch goal scorer during his team’s 2019 Stanley Cup title run found it “difficult to be away from my family [in Saskatchewan] with the [Canadian] border closed” and “not being there for them and not having them to be around me either.”
There’s a lot to unpack in Schwartz’s words-and a lot to respect in human terms.
No doubt, Schwartz will be a sincere teammate and leader on a Kraken expansion team with a healthy mix of veterans and younger NHLers looking for breakout seasons. He will be present and available for people in the locker room and organization because he knows the value of that support.
“I was in a really tough place,” said Schwartz during our phone call. “A couple of good friends suggested seeing someone professionally. I never thought it was something I would do.
“It was one of the best decisions I ever made. It helped me to figure out how to cope and enjoy things again.”
“You knew what kind of effort you were going to get from [Jaden] every single night,” ex-St. Louis teammate and linemate Luke Schenn told Jeremy Rutherford of The Athletic in a recent insightful story about Schwartz. “He was going to be one of the hardest-working guys on the forecheck. He was good on the backcheck. He was good at stripping pucks, stealing pucks, and elusive in the corners. And when his stick got hot, he could put it in the back of the net. We all know that his time to shine is in the playoffs. He proved that, scoring 12 goals in the Cup run.”
Schwartz’s remark about mental and physical preparation is a learning point for fans. Getting the mind right for a season of hockey is a vital step, especially in anticipation of the traditional 82-game NHL grind, followed by four rounds of playoffs and 16 postseason hard-fought wins for the most successful squad.
The physical requirements for NHL players demand a focused offseason of healing and conditioning for today’s players. Some players have to make a difficult decision to finally undergo surgery, such as Kraken center Yanni Gourde choosing to get a shoulder repaired that has bothered him for two seasons and will keep him out of the Seattle lineup until later 2021.
Offseason training is how Hall of Fame and multiple Cup-winning defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom ultimately decided to hang up his skates at 41 even when the likes of then-GM Ken Holland figured the Swedish legend could have easily played several more seasons at an elite level. But Lidstrom weighed another summer of all-out effort to achieve peak physical condition and determined it was time to step away after 20 seasons that basically were year-round.
Schwartz arrived in Seattle this week after spending some time in St. Louis informally skating with former teammates (and getting a chance to say farewell) and packing up his belongings.
“I’m really excited for a fresh start,” said Schwartz. “I am super excited for moving to Seattle [his mom will have a much shorter flight to see her son play]. Seattle is such a big sports city. One thing I like about our roster is the mix of younger and older players who have been on different teams and different experiences.
“It will be a special opportunity to get to know everyone, meet new friends,” said Schwartz. “I am in a much better physical and mental state.”
Schwartz has a head start getting to know some teammates. He and fellow veteran forward Jordan Eberle are from the same area of Saskatchewan; while never playing on the same team before, they both have played alongside each other’s brothers.
“We played on all the same rinks,” said Schwartz. “Jordan was the best player in our area.”
Schwartz and Kraken defenseman Jamie Oleksiak were teammates playing for Team Canada in World Juniors as teenagers. As for others, Schwartz said he had texted “about a dozen guys to say hello and introduce myself” during August.
The hurt of losing Rick Schwartz, Jaden’s dad, was profoundly amplified because it brought memories of the family losing Mandi Schwartz, Jaden’s sister, to cancer in 2011. She was diagnosed in 2010 with acute myeloid leukemia and, accompanied by her parents, moved to Seattle for cutting-edge medical treatment, including a cord-blood transplant. Jaden and his brother, Rylan, played for Colorado College back then, making trips to the Pacific Northwest when schedules allowed.
“She was always wonderful around family and friends,” said Schwartz. “She was so hard-working and dedicated as a Division I player. I played because she did.”
Schwartz said he was impressed with Seattle’s natural beauty but added what stands out most is the people he met and the family encountered.
One of those folks was Patrick Keaney, an Amazon executive, who was involved as a volunteer coach with the Washington Wild Female Hockey Association back then. Schwartz remembers Keaney loaning a car to his parents and becoming a family friend. When Schwartz had his hockey-traditional day with the Stanley Cup during the summer of 2019, Keaney was an invited guest.
When Keaney heard from hockey contacts about Mandi Schwartz coming to Seattle for care, he reached out to Yale, offering his support for the family. Rick Schwartz phoned the next day.
“Rick and I became good friends,” said Keaney, who keeps in touch with Carol Schwartz, Jaden’s mom. “We came up with the idea of Mandi coming out to Highline [Ice Arena in Shoreline] when she felt up to it to work with the girls on our team.”
The months in Seattle were physically challenging for Mandi but she was behind the bench one memorable night during a 3-0 win against a Kent team.
“Mandi devised different drills, some specifically for younger girls, and philosophies about coaching girls,” said Keaney. “She especially liked working with the girls who were newer to hockey.
“One thing Mandi said really sticks out to me,” said Keaney. “She said, ‘With boys the coach tells the boys what to do and they do it. With girls you need to tell them why they are doing it and then they will do it.’ “
Hard to argue with that logic.