Ever-opportunistic Mississauga Steelheads winger Owen Tippett watches his opponent carefully, ready to pounce. Under pressure a few feet inside his own blue-line, Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds winger Jack Kopacka is looking for an outlet along the left-wing boards. Tippett notices Kopacka is panicking as he sends the puck towards the middle of the ice. Soon it will be obvious the Greyhound has made a big mistake.
The puck lands on the blade of Tippett’s stick — a gift. He takes three strides and fires a hard wrist shot across his body, placed perfectly above the right pad and below the blocker of Soo goaltender Joseph Raaymakers, inside the far post. As the puck hits the back of the net, Tippett, his red hair peaking from underneath his helmet, raises his arms, swings by the glass and lets out a yell.
The Steelheads go on to lose the late-November contest 5-3, but Tippett’s 17th goal of the season shows off his best skill to a T, a prime example of why he’s regarded by some as the best shooter available in the 2017 NHL Draft.
Armed with that quick wrister, a blazing one-timer, deft hands in close, and a strong skating stride, the 18-year-old Tippett helped the Steelheads reach the OHL final and registered 44 goals this season. (Only Owen Sound’s Nick Suzuki and Jonah Gadjovich had more among first-time draft-eligible players in the CHL.) Put it all together and Tippett’s an expected top-10 pick. “Flat out — he’s a goal scorer,” Steelheads coach and GM James Richmond says. “If it was easy to do you’d see a lot more draft-eligible players doing it. They can’t. And he can.”
Despite Tippett’s immense talents, though, it wasn’t long ago that he almost gave up the game. It took moving to a different city for him to find a better hockey environment than the toxic one he endured as a child. That and connecting with a coach who believed in him and set him on the right track. Those key changes reinvigorated Tippett and helped make him the player he is today.
Growing up in Peterborough, Ont., Tippett was bullied at the local rinks by teammates envious of his skill — something he and his mother, Tracy, felt was never dealt with properly by his coaches. He also maintained a difficult relationship with his father, with whom he’s no longer close. Both Tippett and Tracy value their privacy and aren’t interested in picking at old wounds. But, as Tracy says, things became so unbearable that her son’s mental health was suffering and he was on the verge of quitting hockey by the time he was 12 years old. The previous season, the two had considered jumping to the Greater Toronto Hockey League but couldn’t secure the appropriate release. Instead, Tippett had moved down to AA to try to regain his confidence. It didn’t work. Playing in Peterborough was no longer feasible. Tracy and Owen began searching for other options.
The best one to emerge certainly had its merits. On the advice of his cousin, Mitchell Stephens, now a Tampa Bay Lightning prospect and two-time member of Canada’s world-junior team, Tippett and his mom were leaning toward Premier Elite Athletes’ Collegiate. The private sports school, located just west of Downsview Airport in North York, seemed perfect because of its small classes and hockey-specific training. And it didn’t hurt that Stephens would be there, too.
But moving to Toronto in time for Tippett to start Grade 7 wouldn’t be easy on other family members. His older sister, Joscelin, was starting high school in Peterborough and didn’t want to leave home or her friends. And Tracy couldn’t just pack up and leave her job as an educational assistant with the Kawartha Pine Ridge District School Board either. A compromise was reached: Owen and Tracy would move to the big city while Joscelin remained in Peterborough with her father. It was an excruciating decision because the parents were in the midst of a divorce and the siblings are best friends.
Tracy and her son found a place close to PEAC, so Tracy could make pick-ups and drop-offs on her way to work. She needed any spare minute she could get. The school board extends as far as Clarington, a one-hour drive from Toronto if luck is on your side. “Sometimes he’d have to wait at the doorstep until somebody actually opened the school, which really showed me his dedication,” Tracy says. “It was a good team effort to get us through those years.”
Tracy had no grand plan to see her son sculpted into a hot-shot prospect. After all, Tippett wasn’t even a teenager when he showed promise in Peterborough. It was far too early to say whether he was destined for something bigger than the minor-hockey rinks. “It was about being happy,” she says. “He just really loved the game and really wanted to play.” Adds Tippett: “She’s always been my biggest supporter. She made it work.”
At PEAC, Tippett shared practice ice with star players two and three years older, including Stephens, current New York Islander Josh Ho-Sang and 2016–17 Art Ross-winner Connor McDavid. With McDavid already garnering attention as a player who could step into the OHL a year early, Tippett didn’t have trouble understanding the type of company he was keeping and did his best to learn by osmosis. On the minor-hockey side, he joined the AAA Toronto Jr. Canadiens. It was there that he met the coach who would have the biggest influence on his life.
Dan Sullivan played four seasons in the OHL before embarking on a decade-long minor-pro career mostly spent in the ECHL. Playing in regular hockey hotbeds across Deep South, like Baton Rouge, La., Pensacola, Fla., and Augusta, Ga., Sullivan was known for his hard shot and harder fists. Surpassing the century mark in penalty minutes was common by season’s end — reaching 200 wasn’t out of the question. Sullivan had offers on the table to continue playing heading into the 2011–12 season, but knew he no longer could. That September, his son, Daniel, had been born prematurely and was suffering from infant respiratory distress syndrome. Daniel (who is now a healthy five-year-old) was admitted to The Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto. On top of that, Sullivan was also dealing with a bout of depression from the end of his playing career and his marriage was starting to crumble.
As a means of regaining some structure and purpose, Sullivan was asked by friends coaching the Canadiens to join them behind the bench. The team offered him a stipend to help financially, but Sullivan wasn’t too eager. At least, until he was told about Tippett. “He was one of those guys that made it exciting to come to the rink every day,” Sullivan says.
The new coach took to Tippett immediately. Sullivan had grown up without a father in his life and the two formed an easy bond. He noticed Tippett’s skill and offered tips drawn from his experiences as a pro, always receiving a listening ear. “He was the first one to take me under his wing when I moved down here,” Tippett says. “Our relationship hasn’t changed since then. It’s always the same. He’s always there.”
Sullivan liked how Tippett carried himself off the ice as well. He seldom went out with friends, instead spending free time helping his mother or catching up with his sister or maternal grandparents when they were in town. He also treated his equipment with the upmost respect, airing it out after skates and making sure it was properly maintained. He knew his mom was paying for the gear.
That conscientiousness extended beyond sticks and pads. A mature and compassionate teenager, Tippett understood his coach was dealing with some hardships and tried to help the best way he knew how. “He watched me go through some rough times. And he’d always say, ‘Hey man, let’s go rip some pucks,’” Sullivan says. “I’d say OK and get focused.”
“I could relate from different perspectives,” Tippett says. “I knew what it meant to him. It was good that I could be there for him the way he was there for me ever since I came down here. Hockey was everything to him and it was for me, too. We would go to the rink and get our minds off things.”
The relationship — and Tippett’s career — blossomed during the 2013–14 season. Sullivan took over as coach of the minor midget AAA Toronto Red Wings and plucked Tippett, who was still only bantam-aged. Sullivan took some flak from parents for choosing Tippett over a player a year older, but the coach was confident in his potential and saw it as another fresh start. Besides, this Red Wings crew had won only three games the previous season. It couldn’t possibly get any worse.
That doesn’t mean Tippett was spoon-fed ice time he didn’t deserve. Sullivan refused to play him on the penalty kill because of his haphazard defence. Tippett was determined to earn his coach’s trust and worked on the holes in his game every practice. Sullivan finally relented late in the season, and was rewarded when Tippett netted a hat trick against the Vaughan Kings, scoring at even strength, on the power play and, yes, while short-handed. “If Owen trusts you, that kid will singlehandedly win you hockey games,” Sullivan says. After the game, Kings forward Adam Mascherin, now a 100-point scorer with the Kitchener Rangers and a Florida Panthers prospect, sought out Tippett and offered his praise.
That season marked the turning point in Tippett’s career, but the next was when he firmly entrenched himself as a top prospect for the OHL draft. The Steelheads chose him fourth overall in 2015 after he captained the Red Wings and scored 52 goals in 50 games, willing them to an invitation to the OHL Cup minor midget showcase tournament almost singlehandedly. His shot, especially, was getting him noticed.
That remains a hallmark of Tippett’s game today. North American Central Scouting chief scout Mark Seidel considers Tippett’s shot the second best among draft-eligible players, right behind that of Mississauga teammate Nic Hague. Tippett tops the class when it comes to projected goal-scoring ability.
Seidel compares Tippett’s shot to that of Phil Kessel or Alex Ovechkin. Goaltenders should beware when the puck is on his stick in a scoring area. It’s the main reason why Seidel ranks Tippett as the No. 3 prospect available at the draft — and closer to the consensus top duo of Nolan Patrick and Nico Hischier than he is to the rest of the class. (NHL Central Scouting ranks Tippett the seventh-best North American skater.) “This is one of those kids who has a chance to be a really special goal-scorer in the National Hockey League,” Seidel says. “You’re not drafting him to be Bob Gainey. You’re drafting him to score goals and create offence. He’s going to do that.”
Seidel notes Tippett’s skating is also a cut above his fellow draft prospects. He worked hard to improve an already strong stride last summer, training with renowned strength and conditioning coach Matt Nichol to build core strength and power in his six-foot-two, 204-pound frame. Richmond, a member of the Los Angeles Kings development staff until last summer when he was promoted from assistant coach to the head job in Mississauga, also put him through the paces every morning in on-ice sessions. With the Kings, Richmond specialized in tailoring prospects’ skating strides to match their body types. “He’s easy to coach and always open for something to work on,” Richmond says. “I love him to death. He puts his work in. He’s got a smile on his face when he comes in.”
Of course, like any prospect, there’s still room for improvement. Consistency is top of mind. Richmond wants Tippett to mimic Kings forward Tyler Toffoli, a 30-goal man who’s strong on his skates while being excellent at exiting the defensive zone with the puck under control. As Richmond sees it, Toffoli was all offence in junior and was forced to change his ways as a pro. Toffoli is trusted on the penalty kill and a dangerous scoring threat short-handed. Tippett isn’t there yet, but he’s making inroads. He scored a beautiful short-handed goal in the OHL final.
Richmond knows the best way to get through to Tippett isn’t to yell and scream. He’s already hard enough on himself. “I try to improve myself and I can’t get mad at anyone else,” Tippett says. Adds Richmond: “He’s a quiet leader and a well-liked teammate.”
That’s partly why Hague, Tippett’s best friend on the Steelheads and a fellow projected first-rounder, thinks so highly of his teammate. Tippett cares about the team, has elite skill — Hague calls him an underrated passer — and has more than earned descriptors like “trustworthy” and “loyal”. “He’s a guy I can talk with about anything,” the defenceman says.
Wearing a backwards cap, black hoodie and flip flops with socks during an off-day before the OHL final, Tippett is respectful and polite when answering questions. But he’s also direct in a soft-spoken kind of way. He keeps a tight circle of confidants and, as Sullivan puts it, he’ll go through a wall for the people who matter most to him. That’s why when his mom and sister — now 20 and a dental hygienist — made the sacrifices they did, he wasn’t about to pull any half measures. There were times when it was tough, but Tippett pushed through. “I’ve said to him that if he ever took anything for granted or if he wasn’t respectful of the process that helped him get there, I wouldn’t have been so gung-ho to keep going,” says Tracy, who moved to Oshawa in December 2015 to be closer to work. “It definitely hasn’t been an easy road. But he’s just an awesome kid.”
With the draft fast approaching, the move that changed the course of Tippett’s career has proved to be a fruitful one. Sullivan booked his flight to Chicago months ago and will be in attendance on June 23 when Tippett’s name is called early by an NHL team. The coach who helped — and was helped by — Tippett couldn’t be prouder. “He won’t give you any excuses that he’s going to fail or fail you,” Sullivan says. “When he’s focused or he wants something, you have his full attention.
“He’s the epitome of what a coach would want.”
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