By Ross Forman – Tanner Laczynski was ready to make his NHL debut, playing April 3rd for the Philadelphia Flyers on the road against the New York Islanders, with family members present watching with pride and excitement. He was on the bench, set for his first shift.
But instead, he sat.
Problem was, his helmet wouldn’t buckle.
Teammates and others thought he was benched even before his first shift.
“It was pretty funny,” Laczynski said, laughing during at exclusive interview with AHAI.
Photos Courtesy of Len Redkoles/ Flyers
Laczynski did ultimately skate that game, and in several others in April. He played road games, and, on April 11th against Buffalo, he skated in his first home NHL game.
“It’s been surreal,” said Laczynski, who got his hockey start years ago for the Joliet Jaguars. He then skated for the Chicago Chill (now the Chicago Fury) and had his greatest success for the Chicago Mission, which included a U16 National Championship season.
“It’s been quite a road to get to this point, an unbelievable experience that I’ll never forget.”
Laczynski, from Minooka High School, grew up a Colorado Avalanche and Chicago Blackhawks fan. His favorite player was Jaromir Jagr.
His fourth NHL game was against the Washington Capitals on April 13th and he was playing against one of his childhood heroes, Alex Ovechkin, which he admittedly tagged as a “holy crap” moment. Two days later, the Flyers visited the Pittsburgh Penguins and he was skating against “one of the best players of all time,” Sidney Crosby.
“It’s crazy to be out there on the ice against players who, as a kid, I looked up and idolized,” he said.
Not surprising though for some of the Illinois coaches who have long watched his progression as a player.
Photos Courtesy of Len Redkoles/ Flyers
“His game always transitioned and translated well at the higher level, so, we always knew he would play D1 hockey, and we always knew he would play professional hockey – it was just at what level professionally,” said Greg Tam, who still coaches for the Mission.
“For Tanner to make it to the NHL is not surprising. We’re happy for him and proud of him.”
Tam coached Laczynski during his peewee and bantam years and was well aware of his skillset. “His awareness of playing two-ways at a young level,” was already evident, Tam said. “It’s easy for young players to strictly focus on the offensive side of the game, but Tanner, even at a young level, was just as effective and just as proud to take care of the defensive side of the game. For him to accept that at a young level is a testament to where he got.”
His Mission legacy included state championships and a national championship.
“Any big faceoff that we had at that national tournament, we made sure Tanner was on the ice. He was the go-to guy for those situations,” Tam said.
Anders Sorensen, now an assistant coach in the AHL for Rockford, coached Laczynski as a squirt for the Chill and more. “He has always been an extremely competitive kid; that sticks out to me,” Sorensen said. “His skill level was very noticeable at a young age.
“I remember going into his bantam minor year, we weren’t sure we were going to keep him on the team, playing up (against older players). We took him to a tournament in Toronto, and Tanner did really well for himself.
“We knew right then that he was going to be a player.”
Fast forward to 2021 – and Sorensen is texting with Laczynski’s dad, Ken, the day his son was making his NHL debut.
“That was fun to watch,” Sorensen added.
Laczynski, 23, in uniform No. 58, is now a 6-foot-1, 190-pound NHL center – but he hasn’t forgotten his Illinois legacy.
“I played for good coaches, with good teammates, on really good teams put me in a position to move on to juniors, college and beyond,” he said.
Laczynski played three seasons for the Jaguars, one for the Chill and the rest for the Mission. He was drafted by the Flyers in 2016.
He also skated seasons for the Chicago Steel (USHL), then four years for Ohio State University. Laczynski was a USHL Second Team All-Star (2016) and a Big Ten First Team All-Star (2018), among other accolades.
“Playing for the Chill was when I first started getting into hockey, got a little more serious,” he said. “Playing for the Mission was a lot of good memories, playing with a lot of good players.
“That U16 National Championship, that definitely was a great memory.”
Laczynski’s road to the NHL also was guided by Chris Michael, a Skokie native who is now the general manager and head coach for the Lincoln Stars in the USHL.
“I was fortunate to have some very good coaches during my AAA days,” said Laczynski, whose advice for aspiring Illinois players was very direct: “Always have a big goal in mind, but also have little goals along the way. Take it day by day, don’t try to rush things. Work hard and do the right things, on and off the ice.”