Vlasic Family Values

Hockey Has Always Been The Glue That’s Kept This Tightknit Illinois Clan Together

For hours on end, Tara Vlasic would gaze out the large picture window of her suburban Chicago home at her three young children buzzing around the backyard ice rink that her husband, John, built each winter.

Never in her wildest imagination could she have envisioned the unique life and hockey opportunities that sprouted from those humble beginnings for the three of them.

"We just kind of bundled them up, sent them outside, and that's what they did for fun," the family matriarch recalled. "It was like a dream for them to be able to go out and play hockey like that, whenever they wanted. It will always be one of the really cool memories we have of them from when they were little. 

"You don't think about what it's going to lead to down the road. You don't know how good they are, compared to other kids. But everything just kind of kept building and building over the years for each of them. It's pretty cool to think back and realize that's kind of how everything all started, on the rink in the backyard."

From their grassroots beginnings on that backyard rink, along with heated battles in the basement rec room, the siblings from Wilmette, Ill., have traveled the world because of hockey.

The Vlasic's youngest son, 6-foot-6, 199-pound defenseman Alex, parlayed two stellar seasons with USA Hockey's National Team Development Program into an opportunity to play at Boston University and being selected in the second round, 43rd overall, by the hometown Blackhawks in last summer's NHL Draft. 

Emma Vlasic, a 23-year-old forward, completed a standout four-year career at Yale University, where she wore a captain's letter, and suited up for the Connecticut Whale of the National Women's Hockey League last season. 

And the Vlasic's oldest child, 24-year-old goaltender Eric, has flourished in the Chicago Blackhawks Special Hockey program. (The siblings' first cousin, Marc-Edouard Vlassic, has played 985 games on defense for the San Jose Sharks and represented Canada in the Olympics).

John Vlasic still plays in a competitive men's league on Thursday nights. And, while Tara never played the game, she feels indebted to the sport for the friends and memories her family has made throughout the years.

"Hockey has always been something that brings us together," said Emma Vlasic, who inherited her father's passion for the game and, at an early age, established herself as the hockey organizer of the three children.

 "Playing on the rink in the backyard allowed us to create kind of a community outside, together as a family. Hockey was always something we talked about and did together, and it was that common love for the game that united all of us even more so.

"I can't imagine not playing hockey and I'm grateful for all the opportunities it's created for me. I know I wouldn't have been able to go to a great school like Yale without hockey. I've seen so many of my friends earn great opportunities at the [NCAA] Division I and Division III levels. But, even if you don't play at a higher level or you just play house league, you can still benefit from all the amazing people you can meet through the sport."

Of course, John and Tara Vlasic supported their children's passions every step of the way.

"Hockey has been the glue that holds us together, because we were always playing - either in the backyard or the basement - and we always had so much fun doing it," Alex Vlasic said. "We owe so much to our parents, because they've done everything for us so we could play the game. All the opportunities wouldn't have been possible without everything they've done for us." 

John Vlasic, who grew up playing hockey in Montreal, appreciates the strides the game has taken since his youth. And the kind of opportunities the Chicago hockey scene presented for his three children.

"I don't ever remember girls even getting a chance to play hockey when I was a kid," said the 58-year-old patriarch. "Apparently, they weren't capable of playing hockey - it was too physical, I guess - so they had to play a sport called ringette. It's kind of ridiculous when you think about it now and see how passionate a young woman like Emma is toward the sport. 

"It's amazing how much hockey there is here in Chicago and how many opportunities there are for everyone. Our three children are three very different people, and yet each of them has an opportunity to play the game, so we feel so fortunate."

Having a program like Blackhawks Special Hockey in their backyard has been a blessing. Dedicated to providing children and adults with developmental disabilities an opportunity in the sport, the Blackhawks Special Hockey program has taken Eric Vlasic all over the country. He has played everywhere from San Jose to Tampa Bay and participated in national tournaments.

"I just love skating on the ice and meeting new people every season," Eric Vlasic said. "It's great exercise, and it's very exciting. I really enjoy it."

John and Tara Vlasic introduced their three children to a variety of interests, from music to other sports, during their formative years. And all three of them gravitated to the ice.

"Hockey is a path all three kids chose for themselves; it wasn't me or my wife forcing it on them," John Vlasic said. "Hockey is what lit their fire. Why? I think it's self-evident in the game itself. It has everything, from speed to a certain amount of controlled violence to an intellectual aspect to it. And it helped that there was a lot of great competition for them here in Chicago to push them to keep improving."

Last summer, the Vlasics experienced the ultimate dream for a Chicago-trained player when the Blackhawks called Alex's name at the NHL Draft in Vancouver. He helped the NTDP set a program record with 17 players taken in one draft.  

"It couldn't have worked out any better for me," Alex Vlasic said. "Going into the draft, the Blackhawks probably would have been the most ideal team for me to be drafted by, and it's kind of surreal that it worked out that way. Hopefully, I'll be fortunate enough to play at the United Center down the road when I'm a little older and my family members and friends won't have to travel too far to watch me play.

"It really didn't completely sink in that I was drafted by the Blackhawks until I went to their development camp [in mid-July]. It made it feel more real to experience the camp and get used to the other rookies and the facilities."

And it all started with three uniquely different siblings buzzing around a backyard rink, simply having fun.

 

Jim Leitner is a freelance writer based in Dubuque, Iowa.

 

Issue: 
2020-09

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