By Matt Slovin, Daily Sports Editor
Published October 25, 2012
TORONTO — Zach Hyman was on top of the hockey world that day, and he stood taller than the CN Tower.
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The year was 1999, and 7-year-old Zach was playing in the biggest game of his young career. He skated circle to circle at Maple Leaf Gardens, where the Toronto Maple Leafs were playing their final season before moving to the Air Canada Centre.
When the puck dropped on the final game of Toronto’s prestigious Timmy Tyke Tournament, Zach turned into a miniature Mats Sundin.
He sniped his way to a hat trick, the tournament’s most valuable player honors and the watch that was given to that award’s winner.
After the game, Zach quietly gave the timepiece to a less fortunate teammate.
“The real prize was playing at Maple Leaf Gardens,” Zach would later tell his dad, Stu Hyman.
Before he exited the arena, before he jolted back to mites after the bright lights, Zach took his time. He poured over the photos of NHL legends that lined the concourses and lobbies.
“Let’s go, son,” Stu prodded his son, recalling the story more than a decade later.
But Zach was in no hurry to leave the place where his NHL dream felt the most alive. He knew nothing of the work it would take, the decisions that would be made and the places he would go to get there. But somehow, he felt it was meant to be.
“Dad, I want to play in the NHL one day,” Zach said confidently with an undeniable twinkle in his eye.
“I believe you. You will,” his father encouraged.
Nearby, a team parent, who worked as a psychologist, overheard and was incredulous.
“You shouldn’t agree to that with your kid,” Stu recalled the man saying. “You shouldn’t tell him he’s going to play in the NHL.”
“Why not?” Stu replied. “He’s my kid, and I’m going to support him.”
Eleven years later, Stu remembers that conversation.
Zach didn’t know it then, but Mountain Arena would be his home ice one day. His years there as a member of the Hamilton (Ont.) Red Wings of the Ontario Junior Hockey League would bless him, reward him and, eventually, send him off to bigger and better things.
Right then, though, on Hamilton's opening night in 2003, 11-year-old Zach was meeting his idol — NHL legend Gordie Howe. And what Howe was about to tell Zach would change his life.
Zach’s dream of the NHL was alive by then with all the passion of a pre-teen kid from a family where kids are “born with a stick in one hand and a puck in the other,” according to its father. He’d do anything to get there, so he asked Howe what it would take.
“I want to be a hockey player just like you,” Zach told Howe.
He smiled down at Zach and planted a seed of hope in him that hasn’t stopped growing.
“One-hundred percent is all we ask,” Howe said. “See you in the NHL.”
Zach’s brother, Spencer, a Michigan commit for next season, skated to the faceoff dot. He relished the opportunity to play alongside his older brother on the Hamilton Red Wings, and this game at Mountain Arena was no exception.
Across from Spencer stood a member of Oakville Blades.
“Get your brother out of this league,” he said to Spencer. “It’s not fair.”
Don’t blame the opponents for asking for a reprieve. Zach tore up the junior level. He led Canada with 2.37 points per game in 2010-11. As a result, he was named Canadian Junior Hockey League Player of the Year.
But when your dad owns your team, as Stu does the Hamilton Red Wings, opponents are going to mouth off, or “chirp,” as his mom, Vicky, likes to say. Zach's been told that he was only on the team because his father owned it more times than he could count.
“Through my time in Hamilton, I proved all those comments wrong,” Zach said. “It helped me become a stronger player. I turned out to be the leading scorer in the league. People didn’t talk anymore.”
Stu, who at one time owned around 90 junior hockey teams in addition to Hamilton, said some skaters had more on their mind than simply trash talk.
“Coaches tell me they circle his name on the board in the locker room and say, ‘Let’s get Hyman. Let’s get him out,’ ” Stu said.