On Their Way to FLA
Schedule announcement day is a highly anticipated event in the sports world. The annual unveiling of a season’s worth of games allows fans to mark their calendars for can’t-miss contests – from homecomings to rivalries – and finalize plans to follow their favourite team on a road trip.
Players are no different, even if they don’t overtly express it. They look for games against old buddies (or former teams), stops near their hometown or when they might fulfill a childhood dream.
For two GTHL grads, October 15, 2016 was one date that stood out on last year’s schedule. For many it was just an early-season matchup between the Mississauga Steelheads and Saginaw Spirit, but for cousins Owen Tippett and Mitchell Stephens, it was the first and only time they faced off as OHL foes.
“I had a couple more points than he did,” Tippett joked about his first meeting against Stephens, when he scored twice in a 3-2 overtime victory for the Steelheads. “I think he was a little upset, but I wasn’t really focusing on that at all. We beat Saginaw both times last season so I didn’t really look at it through an individual perspective.”
Tippett also helped the Steelheads notch another two points against the Stephens-less Spirit in February – the elder cousin was traded to the London Knights in January, erasing any chance of a second rendezvous.
Stephens, a former Toronto Marlboros forward, is two years older than Tippett, a Toronto Red Wings alumnus, so on-ice interactions have never been easy to come by for the duo.
“It was always difficult for us to get together when hockey became more serious, but when he came to PEAC [Premier Elite Athletes’ Collegiate] we were pretty much on the ice every day together,” said Stephens.
“Now that we’re off in different places it’s tough to keep in touch sometimes,” said Stephens, a second-round selection (33rd overall) of the Tampa Bay Lightning in the 2015 NHL Draft. “We’ll try to see each other every summer, but it’s not like when you’re five and six.”
Tippett and Stephens started climbing the hockey ranks in Peterborough, where they developed fond memories of playing mini-sticks in each other’s basement. Stephens and his family were the first to make the move to Toronto in pursuit of hockey dreams, and Tippett soon followed.
“To move away from the city you grew up in, it doesn’t matter how old you are, you have to mature quicker,” Stephens recalled. “We both had to experience that earlier than most people.”
“I had some second thought [about the move] but Mitchell said it was a great place to learn,” Tippett recalled of the support he received from his cousin. “I haven’t looked back since.”
As each player’s career has progressed, so too has their bond off the ice. As Tippett was set to start his draft season, it was Stephens who reached out with advice – just like he had at other key moments – based on lessons he learned two years earlier.
“My draft year got off to a shaky start. I wasn’t performing and I was maybe a bit nervous,” Stephens explained. “People talk, scouts talk, but Owen did a good job of blocking that all out and that could be another reason why he had the year he did and went 10th overall.”
Tippett registered 44 goals and 75 points in 60 games with the Steelheads last season, his third in the OHL, en route to being selected 10th overall by the Florida Panthers in the 2017 NHL Draft.
“It’s something that you always dream about as a little kid, sitting on the couch and watching everyone get drafted and you want to be there one day,” reminisced Tippett. “It’s a dream come true and something I’ll never forget.”
“He could definitely make the NHL this year and I know in the back of his mind he believes he can too,” said Stephens. “If he makes it, that’s great. If he doesn’t, he’s going to have a great year wherever he plays.”
With any luck, the family rivalry will continue through the ranks as Tippett and Stephens head to the Sunshine State in search of full-time spots in the NHL