The way the story is told, Tyler Weiss was about seven or eight years old and at a weekend hockey practice being held at Fort Bragg.
Tyler’s mom, Kelly, recalls an assistant coach during a break telling the kids “none of you will ever be an NHL player” and then being startled by what her son did next.
“He stood up and said, ‘Well, I am’ and skated off,” Kelly Weiss said, laughing.
Tyler Weiss still has that firm belief, still has that pluck about him. Now 17, he is a year away from being NHL draft eligible. The Raleigh native wants to hear his name called at the draft and one day be in the best hockey league in the world.
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Weiss has spent this past year in USA Hockey’s National Team Development Program in Plymouth, Mich. The forward was a first-round pick by the Sarnia Sting in the Ontario Hockey League Priority Selection, taken 15th overall in 2016, and is committed to playing college hockey at Boston University.
“He’s come a long way, on and off the ice,” said Mason Graddock, an assistant coach in the USA Hockey program. “He has elite skills and elite speed, but it’s all about becoming a complete player. He’s totally bought in. Tyler’s in a great place going into his draft year.”
This week marks the 20th anniversary of the Hartford Whalers moving to North Carolina and becoming the Carolina Hurricanes. In the past two decades, kids such as Weiss have grown up with the sport in the state, some putting on skates and grabbing hockey sticks rather than shooting a basketball or throwing a football.
The Hurricanes winning the Stanley Cup in 2006 spiked interest in hockey. Youth programs began to grow. Travel teams developed. Better coaches joined in.
Rod Brind’Amour was the captain and leader of the ’06 champs. A son, Skyler, was born in Raleigh, played in the Junior Hurricanes youth program and now is committed to Michigan State. Skyler, 17, could hear his name called in this year’s NHL Draft.
Josh Wesley, 21, already has had that big moment – taken by the Hurricanes in the fourth round of the 2014 draft. The son of former Canes defenseman Glen Wesley, another of the ’06 Cup stars, Josh was the first locally developed player to be drafted by an NHL team and spent most of this year, his first full professional season, with the Florida Everblades of the ECHL.
“Hockey is growing in the state and its roots are digging in,” Rod Brind’Amour, a Canes assistant coach, said. “You can see it in the number of kids who are playing and where they are going.”
When Kasperi Kapanen of the Toronto Maple Leafs scored in double overtime a few weeks ago to beat the Washington Capitals in a Stanley Cup playoff thriller, it was mentioned his father, Sami, played for the Hurricanes. Kasperi was born in Finland but had his first hockey experiences in Raleigh.
Taking another hockey path
Weiss doesn’t have the advantage of having had a father in the sport, smoothing the way.
Shawn Weiss, an N.C. State graduate, has worked for LabCorp in Raleigh for many years and as a hockey referee on the side. He and his wife have two other sons, and an upward path for a player in hockey can be expensive, costing thousands of dollars a year.
Tyler Weiss was briefly part of the Junior Hurricanes program before leaving. Shawn Weiss cites “politics” and leaves it at that, although Tyler said, “I couldn’t make the Junior Hurricanes team – I got cut two straight years.”
Colin Muldoon, director of player development for the Junior Hurricanes, said Weiss, with a 2000 birth year, was trying to play up a level on a team filled with 1999 kids. Though he had a good skill set, Muldoon said, he was younger, smaller.
“Tyler’s definitely a high-level talent and now arguably one of the best players in the national team program,” Muldoon said.
After playing for the East Coast Eagles in Raleigh, Tyler joined the Richmond Generals, the Weiss family making the round trips to Virginia. Then came a huge step: Tyler was allowed to move to Toronto at 14.
“It was tough but we want him to live out his dream,” Kelly Weiss said. “This is what he wants. You can see his future in his eyes.”
Tyler joined the Don Mills Flyers, a AAA team in the Greater Toronto Hockey League. He lived with a billet family and had a one-hour train ride each way to his high school.
“If you want to go to the NHL you have to move out early,” Tyler said of leaving home. “It was really tough my first year, making all new friends and being the only American on the team.
“They don’t like American players in Canada. We’d play other teams and their kids would say ‘Go back to the U.S.’ I’d just smile at them.”
Back to the U.S.
Tyler Weiss did go back to the U.S. Invited to be a part of the USA Hockey program, he moved on to Michigan, where the days are tightly regimented.
Canes defenseman Justin Faulk and Noah Hanifin both spent time in the program, as did Josh Wesley. Skyler Brind’Amour played some USHL games for the juniors team this past season.
Tyler Weiss said a typical day would be: up at 6:30 a.m, classwork for four hours, lunch, a couple of hours in the gym, more hours on the ice, dinner, homework.
Graddock, an assistant coach with the Under-17 team, said Weiss has put on 20 pounds in his first year and now tops 160. “All good weight,” said Weiss, who is 5-11.
Used primarily at left wing, saying he only played center “back in the day,” Weiss was on the U.S. team last fall that won gold in the 2016 Youth Olympic Games in Lillehammer, Norway. The Americans, undefeated in the tournament, beat Canada 5-2 in the gold-medal game.
Weiss, a left-handed shooter who says he patterns his game after the Caps’ Evgeny Kuznetsov, played 34 games in the U.S. Hockey League (USHL) this past season, putting up modest numbers – seven goals and nine assists.
“Everyone has their early bumps and it can be a rude awakening,” Graddock said. “Tyler turned a corner in December and you could see him begin to break out. He became one of our more consistent go-to guys.”
Weiss gets homesick at times and makes good use of FaceTime to stay in touch with family. He’ll spend the summer in Raleigh, working with a personal trainer, skating with Muldoon and seeing such hockey friends as Skyler Brind’Amour.
Another good friend, Josh Wilkins, is coming off a strong freshman season at Providence College. The forward from Raleigh, like Brind’Amour, spent time in the Junior Hurricanes program and could be drafted this year.
Shawn Weiss said the Sarnia Sting is making a hard push to get Tyler to move to the OHL next season, but that Tyler is committed to staying with the U.S. program. Tyler’s grades are good, his parents say, and the hockey competition is strong.
“Tyler lives and breathes hockey,” Shawn Weiss said. “He has a passion for it. He has the skill. He has gotten stronger and needs to continue to get stronger. This is his most important year.”
That’s dad talking. Kelly Weiss said she will continue to text her son the same message: “Keep your head up, play hard, I love you.”
Prospects to watch
Josh Wilkins, forward, Raleigh
Wilkins, 19, this year became the first Providence College freshman since Fernando Pisani in 1996-97 to reach the 30-point mark. Attended Hurricanes’ prospects development camp last summer. Ranked No. 190 in NHL’s final Central Scouting rankings heading into 2017 NHL Entry Draft.
Skyler Brind’Amour, forward, Raleigh
Brind’Amour, like his father, Rod, plans to attend Michigan State. The 6-2, 175-pound forward played last season at the Selects Academy in Connecticut. Also played games for U.S. National Team Development Program teams. Ranked No. 157 in Central Scouting rankings.
Alex Wilkinson, defenseman, Raleigh
The defenseman, 22, played college hockey last season at Army West Point after three years with the Connecticut Oilers. In 30 games for the Cadets, had three goals and 13 assists and a plus-2 rating. Played in the Junior Hurricanes program.
Scott Moldenhauer, defenseman, Oak Ridge
Has played two seasons at Western Michigan after competing for Cedar Rapids in the USHL. Moldenhauer, 22, has good size at 6-4 and 225 pounds and will be a free agent. Was member of Jr. Hurricanes program.