At the 1986 NHL entry draft, a 19-year-old from Billerica arrived at the Montreal Forum cautiously optimistic. He wore a white shirt with a silver tie.
Tom Fitzgerald knew he’d likely go in the first round. But with each announcement, Fitzgerald’s shoulders tensed.
Of course, he was happy to go to any NHL team. But please, he begged silently, let it be the Bruins.
“They chose Craig Janney at No. 12,” Fitzgerald recalled. “I went five picks later to the Islanders. Obviously the B’s made a great pick but it would’ve been really cool to go right away to my hometown team.”
Twenty-seven years later, Fitzgerald’s son had that chance.
“I definitely realize how lucky I am,” said Ryan Fitzgerald, the Bruins’ fourth round pick this year. “This is what any kid from this area dreams of.”
Ryan, a Malden Catholic graduate, is the eldest of Fitzgerald’s four sons. Maybe not yet NHL royalty — a la the Hulls or Howes — but the Fitzgerald family presence is growing fairly deep.
Tom Fitzgerald, now in Pittsburgh’s front office, played 17 NHL seasons. His brother, Scott, is the Bruins’ director of amateur scouting. Their cousins include Keith Tkachuk (500-goal scorer), Jimmy Hayes (current Blackhawks right wing), and Kevin Hayes (a top Blackhawks prospect).
“I guess I always thought that this is how life goes,” Ryan said. “Everyone gets to play pro hockey.”
Tom moved seven times throughout his NHL career, everywhere from Toronto to Florida. Ryan saw the league from a backstage perspective.
He crawled around arenas during morning skates. Some players, like current Flyers forward Scott Hartnell, became surrogate big brothers.
In Nashville, Tom Fitzgerald captained the Predators. He often invited the team’s younger players over for dinner.
“[Hartnell] was an 18-year-old rookie then who didn’t have anyone in the area,” Tom Fitzgerald said. “Truth is, he was a lot closer in age to my sons than me.”
Said Ryan: “I think it was their job to entertain me. We’d play street hockey, but I remember a lot of times Scottie just suiting me up in goalie pads.”
Now Ryan will have a chance to face Hartnell in the NHL.
“That’s the goal,” Ryan said, “but I still have a long way to go.”
His father has instilled realistic expectations.
At the draft, Tom spent the first round on the draft floor with Penguins executives. He then joined Ryan in the stands.
Tom saw his son experiencing the same anxiety he went through — “All around there were mothers biting their nails,” Tom said. “It’s stressful.” — so he offered inside information.
The Penguins evaluated Ryan anywhere from a high second-round to low fourth-round pick.
“I told him that he’s not going to be a Tyler Seguin or Brad Marchand or Patrice Bergeron,” Tom said. “He’s a normal draft pick that will go through a longer development period. He’s not going to make it right away.”
Ryan enrolled at Boston College last month. He is taking two summer classes, Western History and geoscience, before hockey starts in the fall.
With an oval face and light eyes, he looks eerily similar to his father at 19 — especially with the same draft-day haircut. But Ryan is a different player. For one thing, he’s smaller.
At 5 feet 9 inches, Ryan is the shortest of 23 players at Bruins development camp this week. But he has two traits that Tom considers essential.
The first is hockey sense.
“Maybe it’s in his genes, maybe it’s just from watching so many games,” Tom said. “But he has always known what to do with the puck.”
The second is Ryan’s toughness. That’s never been in question.
When Ryan was 3 or 4, the Predators hosted a family skate. A boy stole the puck from Ryan.
“And the next thing I know I look over and the two are on the ground,” Tom recalled, laughing. “Ryan skated right over to him and they started fighting.”
Tom played with the Bruins in 2005-06. At 38, he thought he could play one more season. He trained over the summer and met with Bruins general manager Peter Chiarelli that August.
Chiarelli didn’t offer Tom another contract. Tom didn’t want to play for another team.
“But Peter told me to hold off on saying anything because the Bruins wanted to announce my retirement,” Tom said. “And I think I started to cry. It was always my dream to retire a Bruin.”
Now, his son’s career will pick up right where dad’s left off.