For the Ritchies of Orangeville, Ont., hockey is a family affair. Dad serves as coach, mom as cheerleader, and the two sons as star players. And while both sons have been garnering headlines in the hockey world recently, the focus squarely will be on older son Brett at the 2011 NHL Entry Draft, June 24-25 in Minnesota.
No. 36th in NHL Central Scouting's final ranking of North American skaters, Brett Ritchie, a right wing with the Sarnia Sting, has an off-ice supporting cast that is second to none. In the early 1980s his father, Paul, played in the Ontario Hockey League, while his mother, Tammy, was a three-sport athlete, excelling in volleyball, softball, and basketball. Paul and Tammy each attended Brock University, where sports brought them together and seemingly have linked them ever since. Brett's younger brother, Nicholas, will become the third family member to play in the OHL; the 15-year-old forward was selected by the Peterborough Petes with the second choice of last month's OHL draft.
"My husband and I grew up in sports, so we always encouraged the boys to play," said Tammy. "That's what we do: hockey, lacrosse, golf ... it's just been a huge part of our lives, and we wanted to make sure that's how we raised our kids."
Of all the sports the family plays and loves, hockey is at the forefront, and Brett was built for the game. Standing 6-foot-3 and weighing 210 pounds, he makes for an imposing power forward, especially when you consider his 18th birthday won't even come until next month.
"He uses his size well, fights through checks and is tough along the boards," Central Scouting's Chris Edwards told NHL.com. "He has good playmaking ability and he sees the ice well. He also has a very good shot and has scored some goals coming in off the wing."
In 2009-10, his first with the Sting, Ritchie had 13 goals and 16 assists in 65 games. This past season he improved on each number, notching 21 goals and 20 assists, despite playing in 16 fewer games; he missed approximately a month of the season -- including a chance to participate in January's CHL/NHL Top Prospects Game -- because of mononucleosis.
"That was tough," Ritchie said. "It would have been great to play in that game. It happens to some people -- it's a common thing with teenagers around my age. It's unfortunate, but you just have to fight through it and get back as soon as possible, and that's what I did."
Once back on the ice, a stellar finish to the season led Ritchie's ranking to jump to No. 36 from No. 57 in Central Scouting's mid-term release.
His impressive play upon his return can be attributed directly to his incredible work ethic. Trevor Letowski, who was promoted from assistant coach to interim head coach in early February, speaks highly of Ritchie's passion for the game.
"He doesn't want to pass up on any extra work," Letowski said. "He's always shooting after practice, things like that. He really wants to get to the next level."
After finishing his season strongly, Ritchie is healthy heading into the Draft. His dad might even say he's as healthy as a horse, an animal near and dear to Paul's heart. When it comes to the Ritchies, no sport is left uncovered, not even Standardbred horseracing. Paul currently makes his living training racehorses, and it was one of the most successful Standardbred racehorses ever that inspired Brett's name.
"I love Standardbreds, and one of the greatest sires of all-time is Bret Hanover -- Bret with one 'T,'" Paul said. "I always liked the name Bret, from the horse, and just thought it was a neat name."
Perhaps Brett's extra "T" can stand for "tough," both mentally and physically. On the mental side, Ritchie's play rises with the stakes. In the 2011 IIHF World Under-18 Championship, Ritchie scored 2 goals against the U.S. in the semifinals, and had a goal and an assist in the bronze-medal game against Russia.
For the tournament, he was tied for second on the team with 4 goals, and added 3 assists in seven games.
"I like to think I'm a big-game player," Ritchie said. "I usually do play well when it counts; it's something I try to pride myself on, for sure."
With his size, most of Ritchie's toughness is expected to be of the physical variety. He enjoys watching another power forward, Ryan Getzlaf, and tries to model his game after Anaheim's captain.
"I think I play the prototypical power forward game," he said. "I'm good along the boards, dependable on both ends of the ice, like to win puck battles, chip in on offense and play physical. When I play my best, it's because I'm playing physical."
Being a two-way player is something Paul has insisted on from the beginning. When Brett was 5 years old and Nicholas 3, Paul began building a backyard rink for his sons and then used his own experiences and knowledge to mold them.
"I just preach to be complete players," said Paul, who coached each son through the peewee level. "Offense is great, but you have to make sure you play defense and do all the little things right."
Letowski affirms that Paul's teachings have carried over into Brett's game-play.
"Brett was on the ice in the last minute, regardless if we were leading or trailing," said Letowski. "He wants to be on the ice to make the difference, and that says a lot about him.
"And when he is on the ice -- his mannerisms and the way he carries himself -- he just looks like a pro. You don't see that too often, where a young player sticks out like that."
Both Ritchie sons have outgrown the backyard rink and are well on their way to the highest level of hockey. But when asked which of the two brothers is the better player, none of the four family members could give a concrete answer. Naturally, mom gave the simplest response, and probably the most accurate one: "I think they're both great."
However, there is a firm sense of competition in the Ritchie household. By all accounts, Brett is the better golfer while Nicholas wins most of their tennis matches.
"Sometimes it gets nasty, but that's just brotherly love, I guess," said Brett. "It obviously gets competitive just having that nature about us, playing sports and growing up with them."
Occasional nastiness aside, it seems selflessness also is as big of a part of the Ritchies' makeup. When speaking about the upcoming Draft, all of the family members put the spotlight directly on Brett and were extremely hesitant to accept any credit for his accolades.
For Paul, Brett's major step toward playing in the NHL doesn't fill some void left by his own playing career.
"I'm pretty excited for Brett and I'm just happy for him," he said. "He really enjoys playing the game."
For Tammy, she doesn't look at her son's achievements as some type of compensation for all the rides to the rink.
"I'll just be so happy for Brett," she said. "He's the one who's working hard and who has had to sacrifice. We're all very proud of him … I'm so nervous, though; I just hope his name's called."
And when Brett's name is called -- two "T's" and all -- the Ritchies all will be there in Minnesota together as one big, happy, hockey family.