Jakob Chychrun didn’t fall in love with hockey on a frozen pond, or in a town where the game is treated like a religion.
He got hooked not far from the beach.
The six-foot-two 214-pound defenceman for the Sarnia Sting of the Ontario Hockey League — expected to be among the top picks at June’s NHL draft — was born and raised about 70 kilometres north of Miami in Boca Raton.
"I consider myself very lucky to be able to grow up in Florida and still have the opportunity to play hockey," said Chychrun. "I knew at a young age this was what I wanted to do."
Coached by his dad, former NHL enforcer Jeff Chychrun, he developed his passion playing in local leagues as a youngster.
But the family knew that fulfilling his dreams would mean leaving home, so they devised a plan to keep life normal for as long as possible while maximizing his chances of one day making the NHL.
By the time he was 13, Chychrun and his father were making weekly round-trip flights from Florida to Michigan to play with the Little Caesars organization in Detroit, sometimes departing the sun and the sand on Thursday and returning in time for school on Monday.
"We definitely racked up the Air Miles those two years," Chychrun said in a recent interview. "But it taught me a lot about time management and discipline."
Then in the season before his OHL draft year, Chychrun (pronounced CHICK-run) moved north on a full-time basis to play with the Toronto Jr. Canadiens. That standout campaign in minor midget led to Sarnia taking him first overall in the spring of 2014.
Chychrun, a dual citizen of Canada and the United States, has impressed observers in his 1 1/2 years with the Sting and was rated as the No. 2 North American skater by NHL Central Scouting at the season’s midway point.
He captained Team Cherry at last month’s BMO CHL/NHL Top Prospects Game in Vancouver and looks to already have the physical maturity of a pro despite not turning 18 until the end of March.
"When you have a player that has the size, the skating and the strength, he’s the complete package that can play in any situation," said Dan Marr, the director of NHL Central Scouting. "He’s capable as a defenceman to be a difference maker.
"He’s got that NHL pedigree. He’s grown up around the game. He knows what’s ahead of him and I think he’s well prepared for it."
For all the accolades, Chychrun’s career hasn’t been without difficulty. He underwent shoulder surgery last season and was cut from Canada’s world junior squad.
"It was tough not to make the team," he said. "I tried to take all the positives away from that."
Apart from leaning on his dad for advice, Chychrun is also the nephew of former NHL defenceman Luke Richardson, now the head coach of the AHL’s Binghamton Senators.
"We have family gatherings in Ottawa all the time," said Chychrun. "I see my uncle in the summer or over Christmas break at the cottage. It’s great to have him as well. He obviously had a great career. I definitely use him a lot."
With another player who learned hockey in the sunbelt — Auston Matthews — viewed as the sure-fire No. 1 overall pick in June, Chychrun is proud of the place where he developed his love for the sport.
And he’s certain others will soon follow.
"The game’s growing tremendously down south and it’s great to see," he said. "I’m happy to represent Florida in a good way and grow the game as much as possible."