As the New York Islanders plan for the move to Brooklyn in 2015, one of the team's biggest assets has stayed put in the wake of the NHL lockout.
Ryan Strome, the fifth overall pick in the 2011 NHL draft, won’t say he is happy to be back in junior hockey. But he won’t say it’s a bad thing, either. Not when his host family is teaching him plenty off the ice.
Strome admits it was a bit of a letdown to return to St. Catharines, Ontario, and the Niagara IceDogs. He expected to challenge for a spot on the Islanders' roster.
“I was just so focused on starting my NHL career coming into this season, especially since I had a little taste of it last year,” says the 6-foot, 175-pound center, who played in three preseason games for the Isles in 2011. “I just wasn’t expecting to come back here.”
Few people were. Strome dominated the OHL in 2010-2011, when he finished third in the league with 106 points in 65 games, leading the IceDogs to a franchise-best 45 wins and 96 points.
Islanders scouts saw a dynamic playmaker with the agility and explosiveness to make moves at top speed and the on-ice vision to find open teammates around the net.
After an injury-shortened 2011-2012, Strome has shown no rust this year. He had 21 points (9 goals, 12 assists) in his first 16 games.
And Strome is insisting there are positives to playing in the OHL again.
“The trainers and coaching staff are unbelievable,” he says. “All I want to do is use the resources I have here to be ready to go when the Islanders call.”
Bob and Mary Lucyk, Strome’s host family for the past three years, are among those resources. For the past two years, they welcomed him into their home in St. Catharines and doted on him like grandparents. Mary made all his meals. Bob cleaned up after him and made his bed every morning.
“What I want to do is provide a good environment for the kids we host so they can relax away from the rink,” Bob says. “We don’t see our roles as disciplinarians.”
But Mary, with a grown kid of her own, has other ideas. She knows what’s coming if she doesn’t nudge Strome and roommate Brett Ritchie, Dallas’ second-round pick in 2011, toward independence. An apartment littered with wrinkled suit jackets, for example.
“After the games when they get home, I yell at them to hang up their suits,” Mary says with a laugh. “All these guys just throw them over the chair. What does it take to hang up a suit?”
Then there are the meals. One morning at the start of the season, Strome and Ritchie came upstairs to the kitchen and noticed Mary hadn’t fixed them anything to eat.
“I said, ‘Well, there’s the frying pan, there’s the bacon, there are the eggs,’” she says. “Since then, I keep telling them both that when they’re in the NHL, they’re going to have to do everything for themselves.”
Mary says Strome joked he would fly her to New York so she could keep making him prime rib and his ritual chicken-and-pasta pregame meal. Strome says he was only half-joking.
But after a rugged few weeks of runny eggs, burnt bacon and plenty of reminders about the suits, Strome started getting the hang of things. He talks about his growing pains like most athletes discuss overcoming physical injuries.
“I’m still not quite there yet, but I’m getting there,” he says. “Day by day, I’m trying to prepare myself for living on my own. I’m going to have to leave eventually, I guess.”
Mary sheepishly admits she hopes it’s later rather than sooner.
“I’m probably the only person in Canada who isn’t wanting the lockout to end right away,” she says.
And why would she? Not only do she and Bob, both hockey fanatics, get to talk strategy with Strome and Ritchie over dinner, Strome is making more of those meals now.
“Last Thursday, he came upstairs when he heard me in the kitchen and insisted he learn how to make chicken Parmesan,” Mary says. “The two guys will get the table ready, and on taco Tuesdays they’ll get the beef going.”
How was Strome’s chicken Parm? Mary pauses like a politician carefully considering a question.
“It was good,” she says in a voice rising ever so slightly.
Like Strome said, he’s not quite there yet. But he’s getting there.