Owen Tippett can make it at 18: ‘I have the upside of Phil Kessel’

Mississauga Steelheads star Owen Tippett. (Aaron Bell/OHL Images)

TORONTO – Owen Tippett was 16 years old when he got the same tattoo as his older sister. Joscelin was 18.

The two siblings, best friends pulled apart for a time, ventured to the parlour together and etched their bond in permanent ink.

I hope your dreams stay big and your worries stay small.

The choice lyric from “My Wish,” an achingly optimistic 2006 song from country group Rascal Flatts, serves as a forever memento of family.

As their parents were in the midst of a divorce and Owen’s hockey dreams were becoming increasing livid, Owen moved with his mother, Tracy, to Toronto for Grade 7. Joscelin stayed in Peterborough, Ont., with Dad. “It was an excruciating decision,” Sportsnet’s Daniel Nugent-Bowman described in his long-form feature on the prospect’s tumultuous upbringing.

Wednesday, at BioSteel Camp in Toronto, Tippett raises the inside of a rather prodigious right biceps and pulls back what little sleeve exists on his white tank top.

“We’ve had a close relationship ever since we were young, so if we do go a couple weeks or months without seeing each other, it’s something to remind us of each other,” Tippett says.

“My family, they’ve always been there for me.”

Tippett is now 18, and his dream — the big one — is near enough to touch.

The Florida Panthers drafted 10th overall what several scouts consider the best pure shooter in the Class of 2017, inked him to an entry-level contract last month, and are eager for him to swipe a lineup spot this fall.

“Owen is a natural goal scorer with a bright future and he already possesses NHL-ready size and speed,” general manager Dale Tallon told NHL.com.

“I don’t have any problem and [new head coach Bob Boughner] and our coaching staff don’t have any issues playing young guys. We’re building a team that’s going to be around for a long time, and we’ll give him every opportunity to play this year.”

In an interview with Sportsnet, Tippett says the Panthers’ directive to him was simple: “Keep working hard and it should work out well.”

Tippett hit the gym the moment he became Panthers property and, save for a couple days’ rest in August to ease his growing body, has not relented. No vacation, no travel, no distraction.

“I’ve been going non-stop since the draft,” says Tippett between workouts at St. Michael’s Arena, his God-given trademark shock of red hair peeking out from a black backwards Blue Jays full-back.

For four summers Tippett has been working out on the rink and in the gym here at St. Mike’s, but this is his first one skating alongside the likes of Connor McDavid, Tyler Seguin and Wayne Simmonds, who drafted Tippett to his BioSteel pro camp squad.

“For me, it’s developing my 200-foot game and being more accurate with my shooting. It’s been a dream of mine to play in the NHL since I was a little kid, so I’m trying to develop my game and work as hard as I can to make that happen.”

Eighteen-year-olds seldom stick instantly, but October in Florida is a spot where it could realistically happen.

With Jaromir Jagr, Jussi Jokinen, Jonathan Marchessault, Reilly Smith and Thomas Vanek all axed from the Cats’ top nine, Florida has lost 74 of the 210 goals it scored in 2016-17. More than 35 per cent of the team’s scoring went poof.

A north-south streak with hands and power and a playmaking eye, Tippett will contend for residency on the third line.

“Absolutely,” says BioSteel trainer Matt Nichol. “He’s got not just an NHL-calibre shot but an elite NHL-calibre shot. The guy’s a scoring threat from anywhere on the ice.”

Nichol has overseen Tippett’s summer development for years and affirms that Tippett has yet to miss a workout, that he’s learned to never let a shift coast.

The world-renown trainer vividly paints a scene from Tippett’s first summer skating with the junior group. The pros had arrived for their own session when they noticed Tippett fly down the wing and unleash.

“They saw this kid just fire a laser beam. ‘Who the hell is that kid?’ they said,” Nichol recalls. “Each year, the pro guys have noticed him more, and now they’ve embraced him. It’s really cool to see a guy like that make that transition from being a junior kid that might not look out of place in a [pro] practice to one that’s leading the way in some of the drills.”

Re-draft the ’17 class five years from now, and Tippett could be the steal. Front-office types would see the sniper hang his head or point out his reluctance to rile up or razz his teammates. They’d question his desire.

Tippett battled bullying, mental health issues and familial strife as a kid. His road may seemingly be just beginning yet it’s already longer and rockier than we know. His worries were the furthest thing from small.

“That kid is an unbelievable story,” Nichol says. “He deserves all the success he’s got coming to him. He’s a quiet guy.

“He’s incredibly competitive and motivated. It’s not an outward expression, screaming and yelling, but he’s got that fire that burns inside of him.”

Tippett exploded into an inferno with the 2016-17 Mississauga Steelheads. The sophomore’s year-over-year growth skyrocketed from 20 to 75 points, a leap he attributes to his strength and speed fuelling his self-confidence and vice versa. He wants and believes he has the tools to make the NHL cut now.

“I feel I can fight for a spot in Florida, but at the end of the day, if I’m back in Mississauga, I’ll look at it as a chance to develop my game and get stronger and faster,” Tippett says.

The prospect is learning to become more aware with his defensive-zone positioning; he’s training his feet to be more diligent with stops and starts as opposed to circling around, waiting for the next chance to bust up-ice and flex his most lethal offensive weapon.

Tippett’s shot, a missile self-honed from hours upon hours of pre- and post-practice driveway pucks, comes off the blade in a blink and smacks with a medicine ball’s weight.

“Very good at picking the corners,” affirms Nashville goaltender Matt O’Connor, who’s happy Tippett is on his scrimmage squad this week.

A quick-release, six-foot, 200-pound right-wing marksman selected in the top 10 who comes off as aloof but delivers results? Hmmm … sounds familiar.

“I have the upside of Phil Kessel—the speed, the shot, the way he can make plays. I also have some things I need to work on to be a 200-foot player,” Tippett says.

It’s not the first time the teenager has drawn the Kessel parallel. Nichol has heard Tippett criticized for following the Kessel blueprint and finds that odd.

“Phil Kessel is a two-time Stanley Cup winner. Guy’s scoring 30-plus goals a year. Pretty good guy to want to play like,” Nichol explains. “People are quick to look at the fitness issue. Well, I’ve had Phil Kessel here in this gym. He’s unbelievably strong. For a hockey player, he’s world-class strong. Super powerful guy.

“He’s not a rah-rah vocal guy; neither is Owen. That’s OK. A lot of aspects of Phil’s game are admirable to model yourself after: explosive power, laser-like shot. These are good things.”

Kessel jumped in to play a full NHL schedule the year he was drafted. Tippett can quietly follow suit.