Kerry Fitzgerald spent a lot of time in recent weeks going through family photos and videos, which she used to create a graduation present for her son Ryan. It did not take long for her and her husband to notice a certain consistency.
“In 80 percent of the pictures he has a hockey stick in his hands,” Tom Fitzgerald said. “I would say, maybe 20 percent of them were of him in a baseball uniform — from Nashville, and that was because of how much time we spent there in the summer.”
However limited the local hockey calendar was in 1998, when Tom Fitzgerald was named the Nashville Predators’ first captain and brought along his family, it still provided enough impetus to point the oldest of the couple’s four boys in the same direction as their father.
Ryan Fitzgerald, whose first experience with organized hockey was in Middle Tennessee, will be among those selected Sunday when the NHL conducts its 2013 entry draft. The NHL’s Central Scouting Service has him listed No. 56 among North American skaters (a drop of 10 spots from the mid-term rankings), and most projections have the 5-foot-10, 168-pound center as a third-round selection.
“He’s more of a skill player than I was,” Tom Fitzgerald said. “I was more of a bullish player — when I was his age I would just power through people and that led into the physical aspect of my game. There’s some similarities but probably more differences. He’s a smarter player than I was. He can hit and he does a very good job away from the puck.”
Predators general manager David Poile has made no secret over the years of his willingness to capitalize on public relations opportunities in the draft. That was at least part of the motivation in 2001, when he traded up and used the first pick of the fourth round on Jordin Tootoo, the first player of Inuit descent ever selected and — later — to play in the NHL. It was no different 2006 when Nashville used a second-round pick on Blake Geoffrion, a local product whose family had a rich NHL heritage.
This year Nashville has the third pick of the third round (64th overall) and three choices in the fourth round (Nos. 95, 99 and 112 overall), and it certainly would be newsworthy if they selected the son of the man who was the face of the franchise in its formative years.
“My wife and I have mentioned it from time to time lately,” Tom Fitzgerald said. “If one of my old teams drafted him, how weird would that be?”
Weird, perhaps. There are plenty of options, though.
Before he signed with the Predators as a free agent on July 6, 1998, Fitzgerald, who was the 17th overall selection in 1986, played for the New York Islanders, Florida Panthers and Colorado Avalanche. He was dealt to the Chicago Blackhawks near the 2001-02 trade deadline and later played for the Toronto Maple Leafs and Boston Bruins.
Of his 1,097 career contests, 307 were in a Nashville uniform.
He retired in 2006 and remained in the game, mostly as a member of the Pittsburgh Penguins front office. Currently, he is an assistant general manager under former Nashville assistant GM Ray Shero.
“This is all I’ve ever known,” he said. “I’ve been doing it professionally since I was 20, and spent 18 years as a player. I’ll be 45 in August. It’s something that I love, I have a passion for and it’s probably the thing I know best.
“With [Ryan], I just think it was one of those things. … We lived it and he probably just thought of it as ‘this is life’ not a sport.”
Ryan Fitzgerald was 3 years old when the family moved to Nashville. His father’s expertise was particularly helpful during his formative years in the sport.
“I remember the days in Nashville when ‘Coach Steve’ would tell him to hang out at the blue line,’ ” Tom Fitzgerald recalled. “I would go, ‘No, no, no you don’t hang out by the blue line.’ He’d say ‘Dad, Coach Steve said I should hang out by the blue line.’ ‘Son, Coach Steve is a mechanic and I love that he’s volunteering his time. But you have to go back and get the puck.’ ”
These days no one questions Ryan Fitzgerald’s knowledge of the game. He is regarded as a skillful playmaker with good hockey sense and the ability to make players around him better.
After three years at Malden Catholic High School in Massachusetts, he gave up his senior season to play for the Valley Junior Warriors of the Eastern Junior Hockey League in 2012-13. Along the way this past season he also spent time with USA Hockey Junior Select Team and the U.S. Developmental Program.
He has committed to play at perennial college hockey power Boston College next season.
“The reason he went to play junior this year … had everything to do with preparation for him to go to Boston College and have the best opportunity to be successful,” Tom Fitzgerald said. “Truthfully, it was probably a very, very tough year for him. He bounced around. … He never really found a groove with his own team.”
Even so, he averaged better than a point per game (14 goals, 16 assists in 28 contests) for Valley, based in Lawrence, Mass., and was named the league’s rookie of the year.
The biggest knock against him, from a scouting perspective, is his size.
“He’s not the biggest kid but he’s got very good hockey sense,” Tom Fitzgerald said. “He’s got good skill. And he’s not afraid of the tough areas of the ice. He’s sub-6 feet, but he’s a hockey player. He can play wing, he can play center. … He’s got very good vision. I think the one thing he can do is he can make people around him better. I think if you would ask kids on his team, past teams ‘Who would you want to play with?’ I think, I would hope they’d realize playing with him would be a very good thing.”
Those, he stresses, are the opinions of a parent and not an NHL executive.
In recent weeks and months Tom Fitzgerald has been careful to separate the two. He says he has done nothing in terms of a formal evaluation of his son and has no plans to contribute to the discussion of that one player in the countdown to the draft.
Similarly, he plans to operate in a dual capacity during the draft, which is limited to one day this year because of changes to the calendar necessitated by the lockout that delayed the start of the regular season until January.
“What I’m going to do is I’m going to sit at my table for the first round,” Tom Fitzgerald said. “Then I’m going to move up with my family, and I’m going to be a proud dad. An anxious dad. A nerve-wracked dad. And I’m going to wait, like any other parent, for that moment when my son’s life will change forever.
“Now he enters the fraternity. It’s just an open door and it’s an opportunity for him, but he enters the fraternity.”