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Family helped make Hawks’ Brandon Saad success in NHL


CHICAGO—That Brandon Saad’s journey to the NHL began with ball hockey games in the cul-de-sac in front of his childhood home in Gibsonia, Pa., is telling.

Family is entwined through the fabric of Saad’s progression from natural athlete growing up in the community about 25 miles north of Pittsburgh to Blackhawks left wing with a future as bright as any young player in the NHL.

At 22, he has already earned the faith of coach Joel Quenneville, having played a huge role in the Hawks’ run to the 2013 Stanley Cup and is an integral part of the current group locked in a battle with the Ducks in the Western Conference finals. Once the playoffs end, Saad will become a restricted free agent, one who could tempt other teams to tender him an offer sheet. But general manager Stan Bowman leaves little room for doubt about Saad’s future.

“He’s emerged as a guy coach’s trust, so I would think he’s going to play an even bigger role next year,” Bowman told the Chicago Tribune. “He’s ready for that. He’ll be 23 and he’ll have a couple of years of solid NHL experience under his belt. He’s ready for taking that next step to being a featured guy.

“We’ll get him signed.”

Saad’s odyssey to reach this point has ties that run from Syria to Pennsylvania to Chicago.

It is a tale that includes a grandfather who was an NFL official who worked two Super Bowls, a father who moved to the United States from Syria at 18 and continues to work to bring every relative still in the war-torn country to safety in the United States, a stay-at-home mother who introduced her two sons to hockey and a brother who was a standout player and mentor before injuries derailed his career.

They helped Saad develop from a boy who collected hundreds of hockey pucks that he kept under his bed and at one point told teachers he didn’t need to study “because I’m going to be a hockey player someday” to the top line of the Hawks.

“We were always close growing up, whether it was my parents or brother doing sports together and my parents working to provide for us and taking care of us,” Saad said. “They are the reason I’m here today.”

It was those countless hockey games on roller blades in Gibsonia against friends and brother George Saad Jr. that kicked things off.

“In the street, we always played against each other,” Brandon said of his older brother. “Being a couple of years older, he was always a little bigger, a little stronger and faster, and that helped me with trying to compete with the big boys. It helped me elevate my game.”

First, though, mother Sandra had to step in and make an adjustment.

“Brandon always wanted to be a goalie,” she said. “I said, ‘Son, you can’t be there, you have too much speed, so don’t even think about it.’ ”

Saad’s speed, natural ability and drive became apparent early on.

“He never liked to lose,” George Jr. said. “Being brothers we always battled it out and pushed each other. He always was very driven. If he did lose, he always wanted to keep playing until he won. He always gave his best to be the best he could be.”

Hockey wasn’t always the family sport.

“I grew up with football,” Sandra said.

Her father, Gil Mace, was an NFL official, who worked Super Bowl XVIII in 1984 as a back judge and Super Bowl XXI in 1987 as a side judge.

Brandon and his brother played hockey and football in high school but eventually had to make a decision, and hockey won out. They played together in junior hockey before George Jr. headed off to Penn State.

“I played a lot of sports growing up, just trying to be a well-rounded athlete and then when I got to high school I just focused on hockey,” Brandon said. “I’ve always seemed to have success at it and always had more fun playing it. I love the speed of the game.”

Saad eventually landed in the U.S. National Team Development Program, where he caught Bowman’s eye as a non-draft-eligible underage player.

“When I went to watch the U.S. program, they said the best forwards on this team are the underages and this kid here, Saad, is going to be a great player next year,” Bowman said.

“The next year he went to Saginaw (of the Ontario Hockey League) and I remember seeing him play early in the year. He was skilled, but he wasn’t like Patrick Kane. He wasn’t dazzling, he just was effective. He did the right things all the time. He’s strong and he just knew how to play the game. That’s sort of how it came to be that we drafted him.”

TORONTO STAR | SPORTS

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