NHL legacies and hockey dads: How Jarome Iginla and Byron Ritchie are preparing for the draft

Byron Ritchie quickly made a note on his phone and sent a text to Jarome Iginla, his former teammate with the Calgary Flames.

Ritchie’s son Ryder was stuck in a goalscoring crisis and Ritchie asked Iginla if he could watch a few of his son’s shifts. “See if you see anything different than I do,” Byron asked.

It was one hockey dad asking another for advice, but in reality, Ritchie and Iginla are less personal versions of these types of exchanges. The two former NHL forwards played together for two seasons in Calgary almost two decades ago. They both had their off-season homes in the Okanagan, a picturesque spot in inland British Columbia that is popular among NHL players.

In August 2006, after their first year as teammates in Calgary, Ritchie’s wife, Maria Johansson, and Jarome’s wife, Kara Iginla, both had a son. Ryder was born on August 3. Tij Iginla was born the next day.

Now the two 17-year-olds are the top NHL prospects heading into this weekend’s NHL Draft in Las Vegas and overcoming the pressure of draft eligibility together at the RINK Hockey Academy in Kelowna. Jarome Iginla coaches the academy’s U18 team – including his son Joe, who made his WHL debut this season as a 15-year-old – while Byron Ritchie works with players at all levels as a skills development coach.

When Iginla looked into Ryder’s services in late November, he had a simple suggestion: turn off your brain.

“As a guy who likes to score and wants to score, it’s the only thing you think about when you’re not doing it,” Ryder says. “‘Oh, I haven’t scored in six games,’ and then, ‘Oh no, it’s seven now.’

“So I’m sitting at home eating dinner and I can’t stop thinking about achieving that goal.”

Then Iginla called and told Ryder he needed to do something to take his mind off hockey. “Don’t think about the game,” he told him. “Read. Go for a movie. Just be a kid. Get away from things.”

Although a formidable power forward during his active career, Iginla takes a patient, measured approach to developing young players, including his sons Joe and Tij and his daughter Jade, all promising hockey talents.

“It’s hard when you’re in it as a player,” Iginla says. “You just want to work harder, work harder. Just keep pushing, you know, break through. But sometimes it’s best to find something else. Give your brain some rest.”

Iginla and his family settled in Boston after his Hall of Fame playing career ended in 2017.

With three young children, all aspiring athletes, sport was the main factor in their decision. Boston had more opportunities for high-level baseball and hockey and easier travel. And just as his children started playing more hockey, Jarome found an outlet that helped him adjust to life after the NHL.

“You’ve heard it a lot from retired players, but it’s a big adjustment to stop playing and everything that comes with it,” he says. “Having to be everywhere, enjoying the competition, the energy of the game, the wins and losses and just being with the game. It was a big adjustment that first year, but being able to coach really helped.”

While Jade played prep hockey and eventually headed to Shattuck St. Mary’s in Minnesota, Jarome became co-coach for Tij and Joe’s hockey teams.

In the summer, Iginla rents ice cream for his three children: Tij, pictured here with his father, Joe, and Jade. (Courtesy of Jarome Iginla)

“Every night we had a practice or a game, so that kept me busy and made me feel like I was a part of it,” Iginla said. “I love the game and it was fun to be able to share that, yes with my own kids, but it was also competitive hockey, so it gave me the opportunity to share it with other kids who want to get better and are excited about it.”

Ultimately, the lure of moving back to Western Canada won out. Jade was recruited to play division 1 college hockey. His sons were serious about pursuing an NHL path, and Jarome wanted them to play in the Canadian Western Hockey League.

“You know it’s our job as parents to help them,” Iginla says, “but also to make sure they keep their options open with their education. But we believe that if you want it, you work towards it and do your best.”

The combination of the significant ice time for aspiring athletes and the educational side of the Western Canadian academy system appealed to the Iginlas.

“So I spoke to Byron and we took the opportunity,” Iginla says.

For the former NHL teammates, working together came naturally.

“We’re going back 30 years,” says Ritchie, noting that they had played U17 hockey together.

“You always have that kind of bond with your teammates. And then you have children one day apart, right? … We just kept in touch.”

The Iginlas enrolled all three children in RINK, and Jarome joined the academy as a youth coach and began working with his former teammate. In the meantime, Tij joined an U18 team and played in a line with Ryder.

“Byron and Jarome are so aligned in trying to develop the modern hockey player,” said Mako Balkovec, director of RINK. “The fact that they also have children here gives them a vested interest and I think that is why they also bring a certain joy to working with other players.

“Byron is very intense, similar to the type of player he was. He’s all in, very demanding. And you can see that in how his teams play. And then for the kids, once they get past the — ‘Oh, wow, that’s Jarome Iginla’ — he’s so invested in working with the young players. It’s just an incredible opportunity.”

In the winter, especially when Iginla was still playing in Calgary, he would come home after games and flood his backyard to maintain the rink for his children.

“It was quite peaceful,” he recalls. “I came back at midnight, when I came off the road, the stars were out and it was so quiet out there. And then once you turn on the water, you start to be proud of it. Make sure it’s not bumpy, make sure that the kids don’t complain. It was actually a good way to relieve stress.”

In the summers, and to this day, Jarome rents ice for himself and his three children. They do drills, do some skills, and then play two-on-two.

The teams are always the same: Jarome and his youngest son, Joe, against Jade and Tij.

“In the winter we played two against two outside all the time, without a goalkeeper, so you had to lower the bar, and Jade and I were always a team against Joe and Dad,” Tij remembers.

“Most of the time Jade and I won,” Tij adds confidently. “Our record was pretty good.”

Born one day apart in the summer of 2006, Tij and Ryder share a fast pace and a highly skilled playing style. (Courtesy of Jarome Iginla)

“For a long time I was able to manipulate who wins, just try a little harder, try a little less, and share the wins, because the kids would get so angry,” Iginla says.

“Then… Jade and Tij got better. By the end Tij was 14 and Jade was 16 and I couldn’t control it anymore. I wasn’t very good in tight spaces anymore. People said, ‘What do you mean, you can’t beat them?’ Well, come on, I couldn’t even body check them! And Tij and Jade were just too good in those tight spaces.

“I started coming in at the end of the day and Joe was so mad that we hadn’t won in a while, and now my wife, Kara, is mad at me, and she’s like, ‘Why don’t you ever win?’ and I have to tell her, ‘I’m trying my best!’”

What started as a duo of former NHL players and dedicated hockey dads coaching their own children has grown into something much bigger.

Tij and Ryder share a fast pace and a very skilled playing style. It’s partly why Tij, ranked as the ninth-best North American skater by NHL Central Scouting prior to the draft, is considered a likely top-10 pick. Ryder should hear his name late in the first round or early in the second round.

“As you grow up and as you get older, coaches tighten it up a little bit,” says Tij, “but my dad and Byron have a good understanding of development. You might make the odd mistake, but the important thing is that if you do, you’ll bounce back.

“That’s the nice thing about my father. He looks at what has changed in the game. He is not stuck with old-fashioned ways. He is always on his iPad looking at things, new exercises and skills.”

That’s another shared trait between the two dads. Their active group chat with RINK staff includes countless clips from all levels of hockey, a fluid and ongoing conversation about the evolution of the game, new drills, and discussions about the value of the latest craze in skill development.

For example, Byron honed his approach as a skills coach in conversation with his CAA colleague Jim Hughes.

In addition to his work at RINK, Byron Ritchie heads up recruiting and player development in Western Canada for CAA. (Courtesy of Byron Ritchie)

“I think small-sided games aren’t just two-on-two on the ice, but there are a lot of different small-sided games and competitive small-sided games where players have to engage their brains to find open ice,” he says. “Put nets in weird places, crazy stuff like that, three-on-two and four-on-three, and the attacking team is outnumbered. I think those adjustments help engage the brains of the skilled players and challenge them to make plays and find space.”

Ultimately, the impact of Iginla and Ritchie’s partnership at RINK Hockey Academy has gone beyond the development of their own sons. Right now, some of the most intriguing young players on the continent — including likely 2026 first overall pick Gavin McKenna and Wisconsin-bound offensive defenseman Chloe Primerano, arguably the best female hockey talent to ever come out of Western Canada — are training at RINK and stay with the Ritchie family.

“He pushes me, and I love it,” McKenna says of the relationship he’s built with Ritchie. “He’s my agent, he’s been my coach, I live here during the summers. He’s been through it all, so he’s helped me understand how hard I have to work, even how I have to eat, to get where I want to go.”

The draft is the culmination of a long-cherished dream for top hockey players and their families, but it also marks the beginning of the journey.

However, for Ryder and Tij, and their fathers, there will also be a sense of relief as a new chapter begins.

“There’s a lot of pressure in your draft year and I remember it clearly,” Jarome said. “When you are called up, it is unique because you are constantly criticized and everyone is watching and judging. It’s part of the game, but in your draft year it feels like everything is magnified.

“Both Ryder and Tij have done well, but as a parent it is nice to know that they are almost through.”

(Illustration: Dan Goldfarb / The Athletics; photos: Jonathan Kozub, Dale Preston/Getty Images)

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