John Vlasic and his family at the 2019 NHL Draft. Photo Credit: John Vlasic

All In The Family #7: John Vlasic

This is the seventh installment of our continuing “All In The Family” series of interviews. These interviews with the family members of our amazing Connecticut Whale Pod have provided unique and personal content. The family insights about our Amazings, along with the player’s individual interview(s) give us a unique multi faceted look into the life of our Whale beyond their awesome stats and accomplishments. In this latest segment of the series, we’ll hear from John Vlasic, Wohlfeiler, father of our Amazing Assistant Captain and All-Star, #15 Emma Vlasic. We lknew that John had played hockey, and still does, so we began our conversation with him by asking about that background in the sport. We discovered that he coaches the sport as well, as he explained:

"I grew up in Montreal, so that’s where I got the love for the game. My father grew up in Yugaslavia, so he wasn’t a hockey guy. But when he came over here he kind of liked hockey. He moved to Montreal first and that was back in the 1950’s when the Canadians had their great teams. So grewing up there, I played hockey as a kid, then all my life really. When I moved down here to Chicago, I didn’t really know how big hockey was there. I knew the Chicago Blackhawks, they would pack the stadium then, and they were just a hardcore group of fans. But I didn’t realize how big the youth or men’s hockey was. When I moved here the hockey was amazing, so I continued. And of course our kids did as well. Winters were a little colder back then, so we would have an outdoor rink. And that’s really where they got it started"

Cetacean Nation wondered if that was a Canadian thing, but John told us  “Well to tell you the truth, we used to play on outdoor rinks, but they were legit. The town would put up boards, but here nobody puts up boards or has a rink that’s certified. But that’s where we used to play our games when we were kids. League games and house league games. But here was the first time I ever made our own rink, and it was quite challenging, But they just loved it. And because winters can be long and dark,I had a rink with lights on and nets. So the kids (Emma and her two brothers) just loved that, and all three kids took it up.”

Early Emma, including the backyard rink! Photo collage courtesy of the Connecticut Whale

John continued “Emma’s older brother plays Special Hockey, he’s a goalie. A lot of times the organizations affiliate with the local NHL team, and here it’s affiliated with the Chicago Blackhawks. He’s been very, very fortunate. They get all their jerseys exactly like the Blackhawks. They have Nationals, and he’s been to Pittsburgh , Tampa, and San Jose. He was picked for the World Cup team that was supposed to go last March, but it was all cancelled (because of Covid). We had tickets and everything, It was supposed to be a team from Canada, but they wanted to build it up. It was going to be Canada, the US, Russia, but they are trying to build up Special Hockey everywhere.He’ll have other opportunities. So he’s 26, and her younger younger brother plays at Boston University, he’s19.”

Emma had told us she started hockey around age two, and we asked what John remembered about her first starting out. John said

"Yeah, she started late, what can I tell you?" he laughed. "No, it was early, and she picked it up very quickly. She started playing boy’s hockey, because the girl’s was just so lame, and she could handle it on the boys’ side. With he brothers, there’s only like a year and a half age difference between her and the elder boy. So she was kind of like working with him out there (on the backyard rink) as well, the two of them together. She was kind of like the coach, all the time, Miss Bossy Boots. And then of course when the younger guy came along, she took him under her wing as well. So they would run little clinics out there, stuff that she would have to do in her practices. I was also coaching her as well, assistant coaching along the way, so she would pick up all those nuanced stuff coaches would do. And would do that with her brothers on the ice. They were readily accepting, and it’s nice that as a parent you’re removed from it and it’s self running. We were never pushing hockey, just hockey. They tried a lot of sports, some of them they hated, so we dropped those easily. And then we wound up going to music, None of them wanted to do music. So whatever they wanted to do, we would have done and let them take it as far as they could. We were fortunate we had enough money, but it’s an expensive endeavor. A lot of kids, there’s just no way they are going to be able to pull that off."

He added "So we were fortunate, and they helped out by being pretty good, so that helped things. If it’s affiliated with your high school, a lot of time then, it’s subsidized or even paid for. But most of the hockey in the country, and even Minnesota now, is done outside of school, AAA and all. And so you’re holding the bag as a parent. The kids have to like it, and so does the whole family, especially with our kids. Emma was really the first one that did the travel hockey. And then your family, your life, revolves around that. and who you meet, and becomes a lifestyle. There’s a myriad of different people. I just remember traveling, it seems like every Sunday when you’re coming back from Canada or Michigan, it’s always snowing. It’s always the worst weather. Not on Saturday while you’re there, but on Sunday when you’re driving home. So I remember white knuckle driving, The kids aren’t really cognizant of that. But we all came back safely. And when she was playing boys hockey, we went to Minnesota for a tournament. The bus broke down, they had to get us another bus. And it was a bus from like 1952. And it was middle of winter, and they had a bathroom in it made of wood that somebody added on. The seats had these big bubble things in the middle where you couldn’t sit, the seats were on the side of the bus!" he laughed "

We asked John if he had a particularly memorable moment from Emma's youth career and he told us this great little story.

“There was a big tournament, a U14 I believe, in Buffalo. And there we wer, little CYA. Chicago Mission was the big sister, and they usually get all the players. But we were able to make a stand, and keep a lot of the people that lived around here so we had a decent team. So we were up against Mission, Assabet, Mid-Fairfeild, it was the biggest tournament of the year. We came in a won games like 1-0, and Emma would have that goal. And then we’d tie 1-1, and the next game we’d win 2-1 in OT and she inevitably got that goal. Anyway, we won like five games and she scored six of our 8 or nine goals. We just played just such a tight, proper game with good goaltending, and her timely scoring was just phenomenal. We won that tournament and she got the MVP. And the reason I remember it, was you got a free pair of skates from Bauer for that. And she was size 4.5 or 5, and me being the hockey Dad, I knew the break off was size six. At six it’s a men’s skate and twice as expensive. So I said: You don’t want to get some inferior kid’s skate now, you’re going to grow into it. So I ordered a size 6, beautiful, $550.00 skates. And as it turned out, she only makes it up to 5.5! She can never use them, and her younger brother a year later walks right into them. And she was not happy! he laughed. "She’ll remember it, ask about it. It was the only time she won an MVP, or anything like that. She was overshadowed a couple of times, but it was just the touch she had with the puck. That the one time that she really stood out. She had something special there.”

 

Emma signing her first pro contract with the Whale Photo courtesy NWHL

Emma was a Captain with that youth travel team, Chicago Young Americans, Yale and of course, now with the Pod. We asked John to talk to us about how those r leadership qualities developed.

“Some people are kind of a vocal, a rah-rah kind of Captain or leader, and that’s not her, she’s not that at all. She does it more by example. And coaches would look at her and tell the others: This is how we want you to operate. Even if she’s not the best player. The captain is not necessarily the best player at all. It’s just people leading by example, and she would be that kind of a person on the ice and off the ice, an exemplary type of person. Not necessarily the best player, but when she makes plays, incorporating the team aspect of it.When she was growing up, especially on the girl’s side, there were some hotshot girls that have come and gone. She wasn’t the biggest, especially growing up, or the fastest or strongest. But these girls would just be all about themselves and they could do that because girls hockey was so thin. There were two or three girls who were good on either side and if you were one of the top girls you could do whatever you wanted. But Emma wasn’t like that, she would move the puck. She played a team game. I had always insisted that from whatever teams I coached, whether boys or girls. And when I was assistant coach for Emma her whole life in youth hockey, I wouldn’t have to say anything. She just played the proper type of game, even if she wasn’t one of the best out there." Growing up she played on the boys side, and there was hitting then, and she was getting blown up a few times. But she got up and took it. But she was smart, and she never got hurt at all. Even on the girls side, there were always some bigger, stronger, faster girls. But not smarter, that’s where she could compete with them. And a lot of times, some of the girls didn’t play that proper game.”

John added “I get frustrated with these coaches that lean on two or three of their players, at the expense of the whole team. And ultimately, at the expense of those one or two players. Because as soon as they move up, the majority are not going to be able to pull that off. They end up asking: Why are you benching me? I’m a star! Well, don’t you know there are four other players you’ve got to play with? That’s how I came at it, and that’s how she comes at it. Because even now, she isn’t the fastest at all, not the strongest. She works out religiously, but when you’re on the ice, on skates it’s different.You can be 200 poiunds off steel, and you can skate but you go out on the ice and get knocked off the play. Emma’s hands are phenomenal, her backhand , seeing the ice, and her shot. And her desire as well, has kept her in the higher echelon.” We mentioned that Cetacean Nation was also impressed that Emma led all our forwards in blocked shots during Season Five, and John responded It’s part of the whole scenario, a part of the game that is sometimes undervalued. But yet it’s hugely important. She’s a student of the game and takes every little bit seriously. Just like face-offs. She’s cutthroat at the face-off circle. Just all the little things that add up, and yet aren’t the things the average person might recognize during the course of a game. But a coach would appreciate that and understand how important it is, and how things like that add up. For example in the NHL, Emma’s cousin who is a very defensive oriented guy, doesn’t get a lot of attention. But to win Cups, you need both offense and defense. Even the top guys do the little things”

Emma in an awesome Whalepaper Wednesday from the the Whale social media!

We asked John for his impressions of the Whale thus far and the NWHL and he replied

"Emma has spoken well of the whole situation with the Whale.They had some new players, but the whole team was exciting to watch. I’d gone to a couple last year (Season Five) against Boston, our son plays at BU, it’s just down the road, so we’d try to kill two birds with one stone. We’ll make it to Connecticut this coming year (Season Seven). But as far as I saw this year, they were as good as anyone. This year it seemed like a different team. Just the average player was so much better than last year. It was exciting to watch those few games they played. It was good to see that they can compete. Her first year she was, not in awe, but she didn’t know what to expect. The seriousness, the competitiveness, it was a bit of a learning curve for everything. And this year in the bubble, it was kind of more turned up, the pressure, the hockey, everything. So she’ll be looking forward to next year or hopefully in March, the playoffs. If not, September then.” 
(Post interview, we have all happily discovered, it will be March 26th-27th for the Isobel Cup Championships!)

John added "I think the NWHL is great. The women really have to love the sport. They’re not making a living off of it. You really have to be that much more committed. It really shows in the hockey they play. I know that’s true for my daughter. And Colten Orr seems to be able to get that out of this team. That’s why they looked so good. It’s just so tough. My father, when he was alive, I remember him telling me this. He lived in Montreal, and he would come to visit and we’d go to one of Emma’s hockey games. He was a big hockey guy. And he’d ask me: Where’s this leading, boy? And I’d say: She just loves it. And she can get a scholarship too. He had gone to Yale, and my brother and I couldn’t get in, but Emma did because of her hockey. So the hockey did lead to something. She’s just had the drive to do this, it’s not the money, obviously. She was determined to find a job in Connecticut and made it work. The hockey is really important to her. It would have to be somewhere in her life."

And happily for Whale fans, the citizens of Cetacean Nation, that somewhere is with the Pod. We thank John for his insightful and revealing look at Emma’s career and hope to see him around the rink in Danbury next season. Fins Up to that!