WINDSOR, Ont. — Taylor Hall is one of the two fresh faces of the NHL’s next generation, but he’s really a throwback, a backyard rink rat who honed his dynamic game playing for hours on the ice surface outside his back door.
“It’s hard to be a hockey player without a backyard rink,” said Taylor’s dad, Steve Hall, an ex-CFL player and former member of Canada’s bobsled team. “There’s no question, that’s where the kids learn.”
Young Hall learned plenty noodling around on the backyard rink, to the point neither Steve nor Taylor think it accidental he has become the dynamic player he is.
Last Wednesday, NHL Central Scouting rated Hall second overall in their final rankings, behind slick centre Tyler Seguin of the Ontario Hockey League’s Plymouth Whalers, after both players shared the league’s scoring title with 106 points.
The two 18-year-olds have taken turns atop the rankings all season, so the final ‘pick ’em’ rating was hardly a surprise just a bit less than three months from the entry draft in Los Angeles in June. Hall has plenty of momentum in his favour as the selection day nears.
In the last two years alone, Hall has scored the tournament-winning goal in overtime to help the Windsor Spitfires win their first Memorial Cup title in 21 years, was named the OHL’s playoff MVP, as well as the Memorial Cup tournament MVP, and helped Canada win a silver medal at the IIHF world junior hockey championship in January.
He’s currently helping the Spitfires in their journey through the OHL playoffs as they try to qualify for the Memorial Cup again and take a crack at repeating as champions. Hall’s 16 points, including nine goals, helped Windsor fashion four-game sweeps against Erie and Plymouth to reach the Western Conference final.
He outplayed Seguin in the Plymouth series, scoring three goals and adding three assists, while Seguin was held pointless.
At age 18, Hall is a long way from the backyard rink in some senses, but the spirit of shinny hockey shines through in his hell-bent, uptempo style of play.
Back in the day, in Calgary, one of the rinks Steve Hall built and flooded wrapped around the Hall’s house. The area alongside the house was nicknamed Lindros Lane, while one of the trees in the middle of the ice sheet was dubbed Scott Stevens, “because if you hit it, it stopped you,” Steve Hall said.
Taylor, who started playing at age three, spent hours on the rink alone or with the neighbourhood kids, who included T.J. Galiardi, two years older than Hall, and a current member of the Colorado Avalanche.
As he grew, Hall would use the backyard rink for a pre-game warm-up before minor hockey association games in Calgary.
In Kingston, Ont., where the Halls would later move, the backyard rink was beside the VIA Rail tracks, and when one of those long trains went by, the game was to play keepaway with the puck for as long as the cars were roaring past.
“It was a great experience,” Hall remembered in a recent interview. “You get a sense of what you can do when no one’s watching, that’s when you develop your skills.
“It’s got to be part of the reason why I’m the player I am today, for sure.
“I think Ken Dryden said one time — I read the book The Game — that when people aren’t watching and you have all the time in the world, that’s really when you become the player you can be. You (release your) creativity, you do things you didn’t know you could do and, all of a sudden, you’re doing it in the game, no problem.”
The first time Steve Hall remembers seeing that talent come out was when Taylor was a McKnight peewee player in Calgary whose team was trailing 8-1 in a game. In the end McKnight won 10-9, with Taylor scoring nine times and drawing an assist on the other goal for his team.
“I mean, talk about a moment when you realize your son is really talented,” Steve Hall said.
Steve tried to make sure all the practice and training and focus on hockey was fun, above all. Which is why he took his son to Edmonton to see the Heritage Classic back in November 2003, taking in every memorable, frigid moment of it.
It would be about three and a half years later that Windsor head coach Bob Boughner had his own unforgettable first sighting of the young Hall.
“I remember Warren (Rychel, the Windsor GM) telling me, ‘You’ve got to come and see this kid from Kingston,’ ” Boughner said. “The game I went to see him play was in the OHL Cup in Mississauga and, every time he touched the puck, you’d be right on the edge of your seat.
“He was just flying, I just couldn’t believe the wheels on him. I think he scored four that game we watched. He was the best player in that tournament.”
The Spitfires selected Hall second overall in the 2007 OHL draft.
“Taylor was one of those guys when you see him that if you want to sell tickets and you want fans to really see a guy flying around and be a face of the organization sort of guy, well, he was a highlight reel in midget,” Boughner said.
After the Spitfires drafted Hall, Rychel and Boughner, a pair of Windsor boys and ex-NHL defencemen, met him and his parents, Steve and Kim Strba, and were on the edge of their chairs again.
Asked about his goals for his rookie OHL season, the 15-year-old Hall said he wanted to lead the team in scoring and win the league’s rookie-of-the-year award.
“I said, ‘What do you mean, lead the team in scoring?’ ” Boughner said. “You’re 16 year old (Hall’s birthday is in November), that doesn’t happen in our league, it’s a process.
“I think he got 40-something goals (it was 45) and 87 points (84 points), so I mean, that’s just the kind of kid he is.”
In Year 2, the goal was to play for Canada’s national junior team, but Hall was one of the final cuts from a side that would go on to win the gold medal in ’09.
“That was a learning experience,” Hall said. “It’s not as big a deal now that I look back on it — I was a pretty young kid (17).
“I was doing well in the OHL at the time and I just went to the camp and was a bit overwhelmed. I have just kind of taken it in stride. I finished off with a really good playoffs and we won the Memorial Cup.
“This year, one of my main goals was to make that world junior team and I did.
“I wasn’t overwhelmed. I was really confident in my game and I think it showed. I felt really, really good out there.”
It did show. Hall produced 12 points, including six goals, second on Team Canada behind Edmonton Oilers draft pick Jordan Eberle (eight goals, 13 points) and third in the tournament.
Hall, you may have sensed, is a supremely confident young man, but he comes across as humble, genuine, funny and as grounded as a teenager about to be a millionaire can be.
He comes by his self-possession by way of his upbringing and his own approach to his craft and life.
“He’s not a braggart by any means,” Steve Hall said. “And, I mean, if you don’t have confidence in yourself and you’re in sports? Give up.”
For Taylor Hall, giving an inch is not an option, let alone giving up.
“I’ve always been a big believer that the only way to get confidence is if you feel prepared and you know you’ve done the right stuff,” Hall said. “In days before games, I like to work out and make myself a little stronger.
“My goal is to play in the NHL next year and I’m going to have to get a lot stronger over the summer, for sure.”
His skating power comes from years of the sort of strength training his bobsledder dad taught him — exercises like leg presses and running on an incline with weights on his legs.
“I’m not very big in the upper body at all, and I’m not big in the lower body, either,” the six-foot-one, 185-pound Hall said. “I’m just pretty powerful on my skates.”
The wiry Hall plays an aggressive game, taking the puck to the net, hustling into corners to battle for the puck, taking hits and dishing them out.
“With his body, it’s almost like he’s built for this game,” Boughner said. “The pop in his legs, the quickness, he’s probably the strongest guy I’ve seen on the puck.
“His centre of gravity is unbelievable. He never shies away from the dirty areas, either. Wherever he is, he’s always got someone on his back, he’s always coming to the net hard and skating through traffic. He’s a determined guy, he’s not the least bit soft in any part of his game.”
Boughner said in Hall’s three years in Windsor, he has learned that he doesn’t need to be a one-man show. He’s learned how to kill penalties, which he does regularly and fine-tuned positional play in his own end, “all those little things that have made him the all-around player he is today,” Boughner said.
Hall has also made his mark off the ice during his years in Windsor.
He impressed Boughner when he came to him before the current season began, saying he wanted to purchase season tickets which could be used by children he meets in the local hospital. It turned out the hospital already had their own season tickets, but Hall partnered with them, making one-hour visits every two weeks, spending post-game time with the kids who attended the games.
“I just thought, I’m pretty lucky,” Hall said. “I go to the rink every day and do something I really love to do.
“These kids are in the hospital, fighting cancer, they’ve got things strapped to their chests. It’s not much for me to take an hour every two weeks and come visit them.”
Hall’s visits are in addition to the mandatory hospital appearances the team has implemented as part of an effort to give back to the community. And that generosity of spirit comes as no surprise to his teammates.
“What you see is what you get with Taylor Hall,” said Justin Shugg, one of Hall’s closest friends on the Spitfires. “He’s an elite hockey player, but whether we’re playing golf or grabbing a bite, he’s always a very honest kid
He’s also careful when asked his thoughts on where he might end up after the draft. The Boston Bruins, who own Toronto’s first pick, desperately need scoring, and Hall is represented by Darren Ferris, who works for Hall of Famer Bobby Orr.
The last-place Oilers have obvious needs in every area.
“I haven’t made the NHL yet,” Hall said. “I haven’t done a single thing in the NHL yet.
“The first thing I want to do when I get drafted to a team is obviously make that team if I can and try to be a pretty impactful player in my first year.
“If it’s Edmonton, that’s great, it would be a great city to play for.”
Hall knows Edmonton a bit from numerous visits to play in tournaments in his minor hockey days. A year or two ago, he remembers a visit to his old Calgary neighbourhood, where the sight of his old home surprised him.
“I couldn’t believe how small it was,” Hall said. “At the time, it seemed really big.”
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