Despite speaking with representatives from about half the National Hockey League’s 31 teams, Luke Toporowski really has no idea which team will select him on Saturday – if any team selects him at all – on the second day of the NHL draft.
Such is the uncertainty of an event that the Spokane Chiefs forward would really rather not talk about much. So he doesn’t, much.
And, back in Iowa for the summer, he doesn’t have to.
“I always look forward to coming home to Iowa and being a kid, and having friends who don’t play hockey,” Toporowski said. “I talked to some of the guys on our team. All their friends are other WHL players. It’s kinda nice to get to come home and get away from hockey for a bit.”
It’s no wonder he has that desire, really, because in the Toporowski family hockey is hard to get away from.
Home for Luke’s branch of the Toporowskis is Bettendorf, Iowa, where he, brother Jake and sister Alexis were raised. Jake played 100 games for the Chiefs from 2014 to 2018. Their father, Kerry, and uncle, Brad, played in Spokane two decades before, making eastern Washington a satellite for the Toporowski family.
Luke is poised to be the third of his last name drafted into the NHL, following his dad Kerry and a different uncle, Shayne.
But their roots are in Paddockwood, Saskatchewan, a town of 200 people where the four Toporowski brothers – Kelly, Kerry, Brad and Shayne – learned to play hockey in a family that loves the sport.
That love got passed on to Luke and Jake – as well as many other Toporowskis spread across Canada and the United States – in the manner that so many interests and passions work their way through families: by living it.
“It was just a natural thing, a natural progression. It’s not like we sat down and said the kids are gonna play hockey,” Kerry said. “They were coming to the rink while I was playing, and they’d have a stick in their hand. … After practice at 2 or 3 (years old) they’d have a pair of skates and I’d take them out after practice. It just progressed over time.”
Jake said he didn’t feel pushed into the game at all.
“For both Luke and my sister, we all started playing because our family played, but we continued for the love of the game,” Jake said.
A Hockey Family
It was a similar story for the four Toporowskis growing up. Their father, Don, one of nine children, was the mayor and the principal of the local school. He also coached hockey. Their mother, Lynn, the youngest of three, stayed home with the boys until they were school aged and then moved into teaching.
Hockey, Kerry said, was built into their lives.
“We had a backyard rink. We were outside all the time,” Kerry said. “Winter it was playing hockey, and summer it was playing with friends and playing road hockey.”
Shayne, now 43 years old and the youngest brother, remembers it much the same.
“There’s not much to do except have a real good family environment, and of course you have the small community center and ice rink and school and curling rink,” Shayne said. “Other than that you’ve got your farming community. Nothing really else to do.”
Paddockwood is 30 miles north of Prince Albert, which itself is not a large city, either. But with a population of 35,926, it still ranks third in the province.
Kerry, 48, moved to the United States to play for the Chiefs in 1989.
“It was a big deal for me, going from a small town in northern Saskatchewan to a place I’d never even heard of, a bigger city in a different country,” he said.
Kerry was an enforcer when that was still an important piece of professional hockey. He played 130 games with the Chiefs and is still the team’s all-time single-season leader in penalty minutes (505). He hoisted the 1991 Memorial Cup with the rest of his teammates.
The San Jose Sharks took notice and stockpiled Chiefs players in the subsequent draft, taking Pat Falloon second overall, Ray Whitney 23rd and Kerry Toporowski 67th.
Brad Toporowski, 45, also played for the Chiefs: three games with Kerry, he said, when the team needed an extra player on a road trip through Saskatchewan during the 1989-90 season.
But he was cut before the Memorial Cup-winning season, and by the time Brad made the Chiefs team again for the 1991-1992 season, his brother Kerry was playing instead for the Indianapolis Ice.
Brad ended up playing 59 games for the Chiefs between 1991 and 1993, when he was traded to the Moose Jaw Warriors.
After playing five more seasons in six other organizations, Brad retired but stayed involved in hockey. He is now Vice President of the Prince Albert Raiders, the Western Hockey League champion last season.
Brad said he and his family still drive up to Paddockwood about once a month, where his parents still live. Looking back on growing up there, he said there really wasn’t much thought as kids of making careers in hockey. It just happened, again, naturally.
“You don’t really think when you’re growing up about playing at a high level, you just played to play, right? That’s what you did,” Brad said. “Then the next year, you’d play Bantams or AAA. … You just kept on playing and you didn’t really know – I didn’t know – how good we were until we were done playing.”
Kelly, 51 and the oldest brother, did not play professionally but stayed connected to the sport and is now in Edmonton. He is a sales director and also coaches hockey.
Shayne stayed nearby in Prince Albert, where he played three full seasons with the Raiders. He was drafted 42nd overall by the Los Angeles Kings in the 1993 NHL Draft, but he played just three NHL games – with the Toronto Maple Leafs, in 1996-97 – before starting a 12-year career in Europe.
Now the head coach at Division III Worcester State in Massachusetts, Shayne said he knows well that being drafted is no certainty for a long NHL career.
“It was a great honor, you work so hard for it, a dream come true,” Shayne said. “It’s gonna be one of the best days of their lives when they do get drafted, but really the work is just beginning.”
The Next Generation
Jake Toporowski never heard his named called at the NHL draft. But 21 years after his uncle left Spokane, Jake suited up for the Chiefs, for 10 games of the 2014-15 season.
His mother’s parents still lived in Spokane. So, instead of billeting with a host family, Jake was able to live with his grandparents.
“I absolutely loved it,” Jake said. “It’s a beautiful city; the fans are awesome. Living with my grandparents was way better than I could have expected.”
Luke was drafted by the Chiefs two years later, No. 8 overall in the 2016 WHL Bantam Draft and the first and only American skater taken in the first round. Jake was going to have another housemate.
“We knew the Toporowski clan inside and out,” said Chris Moulton, Chiefs assistant general manager of hockey operations. “When you draft players now, you draft the entire package. It’s not just about the players anymore. You want players that get it, parents that want to work with you and not against you, and when you know a family well, that’s an added bonus of comfort.”
In evaluating Luke, though, it was evident to Moulton that he wasn’t the same type of player as his father or his brother, whom the Chiefs had taken 62nd overall in the Bantam Draft three years earlier.
“The funny thing about it is all three Chiefs are so different,” he said. “Kerry was a beast, Jake was the polar opposite, the thinker, the guy who played with some composure. And then Luke’s different.”
All the Toporowskis admitted that Luke is the best two-way player of the bunch, and the offensive numbers bear that out: In 128 games with the Chiefs, Luke has 31 goals and 41 assists; his brother, uncle and father combined for 12 goals in a total of 292 games with the franchise.
“Luke’s just an unbelievable skater, (but) to play at a high level you need to be able to skate, and (be) better all around. That’s the main point: he plays more of a hard-nosed game,” Jake said of his brother. “He plays the way he was as a little brother growing up.”
‘A Special Moment’
Just as Luke’s career with the Chiefs was beginning, Jake’s was waning.
The older brother, a defenseman, entered the 2017-18 season with 99 career games played, seven assists and zero goals. And when that fall came, Jake decided it was time to move on.
“I’ve always looked up to him. I’ve modeled the way I approach each day after him,” Luke said. “So when he came into my room one night and he told me he was thinking about stepping away, I was pretty upset.”
But Luke said he recognized the reasons: Jake had been in and out of the lineup, and he likely was not going to play professional hockey beyond that season.
Jake’s plan was to take advantage of the WHL’s scholarship program, which offers a one-year post-secondary scholarship for each year played in the league. Currently, he is pursuing a business degree while also starting a hockey skills company called JT23 Hockey.
Before Jake officially stepped away from the WHL, though, Chiefs general manager Scott Carter and former head coach Dan Lambert worked out an arrangement. The brothers would play their first and only regular season game together.
Neither brother got on the score sheet, but the Chiefs beat the Everett Silvertips 5-4 on Oct. 4, 2017. It was Jake’s last game with the Chiefs, and Luke’s third.
“With the history of the family, having them in the lineup together was gonna be a special moment,” Moulton said.
Family Faces Everywhere
Every season the Chiefs take one long road trip to play Eastern Conference teams, which means stops in Saskatchewan and Alberta. Often that also means that, mixed among post-game conversations with NHL scouts, Luke comes face to face with family members eager to say hello after hockey games.
Sometimes he has no idea who they are.
“I actually don’t even know them personally. They just have the Toporowski last name, and they tell me we’re your dad’s second cousin or your dad’s uncle,” Luke said. “Toporowskis are everywhere in Canada.”
Luke almost certainly has another year to play in Spokane, regardless of whether he is drafted this weekend. But if he is drafted, the conversations with scouts will be done, the perceived pressure to impress them past.
“After games I would find myself on the bus sitting next to (Jaret Anderson-Dolan) or (Ty Smith) just asking them questions about their draft season and how to approach things,” Luke said of the conversations with two previously drafted Chiefs players. “They told me to have fun with it and stay calm … telling me to play with confidence, play my game and don’t try to impress other people with not being myself.”
Luke said his dad and uncle haven’t said much to him about being drafted, either.
The draft plays out as a spectacle now, Kerry said, very different than what it was 25 years ago. The volume of calls, emails and conversations Luke and his agent have had are no comparison to the early 1990s, Kerry said.
“When I was drafted, it was a different world. The draft wasn’t that big of a deal,” Kerry said. “I didn’t have the pressure during the draft that Luke is going through.”
Nevertheless, Kerry is eager for what awaits his son this weekend.
“It’s obviously exciting, for the whole family,” Kerry said. “You want to see your children succeed and do what they love.”
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