Watson's family 'a blessing, not burden'
LOS ANGELES -- In the instant when a young man's name is called by an NHL club at the draft, there is often a moment of reflection in the midst of the euphoria, a moment to consider what it has taken to get here.
When Austin Watson's name was called by the Nashville Predators, 18 picks into the first round Friday, he looked down the row of seats in front of him and saw eight reminders of the power of sacrifice and the unshakeable bond of family: seven younger brothers, all dressed smartly in matching blue vests and white shirts to mark the occasion, one younger sister (wearing a dress matching her mom's) and another sibling on the way due to arrive in July.
The Watsons may remind you of "The Waltons" or "Eight is Enough" or The Brady Bunch." And there is a good-humored nature about Watson's parents, Mike and Mary. In an interview the evening before the draft, Austin and his mother joked that there was no way Mike could reel off the names and ages of his clan.
"I can do this," Mike, an overhead crane operator, insisted good-naturedly.
"No you can't," Mary insisted.
"Not a chance," Austin said.
Still, these weren't one-dimensional characters playing off a large brood for a television laugh track. They are a flesh-and-blood family that has endured much to find themselves at the Staples Center at the edge of a dream.
When Watson was 12 years old, his parents, struggling financially with the downturn in the auto industry in their home state of Michigan, packed up and moved to Florida, where Mike had a job opportunity in sales.
A gifted minor hockey player, Watson decided he would stay behind with his grandparents and play hockey and have a chance to play in top-level tournaments in Alaska and Quebec City. "The decision was basically mine," Watson said.
Not yet a teenager, the decision wasn't based on "Will Austin Watson play in the NHL," but on wanting to continue to play with good friends at a high level. The playing was the easy part; the living apart from his ever-growing family for most of four years was less so.
"You get questions," Mary said. "'Why don't you have your family together?' 'Why doesn't your son live with you?' 'Is he really that good?'"
Todd Jenkins was the coach of that minor hockey team in Michigan. Even at that age, he said, Austin showed tremendous maturity.
"It didn't surprise me," said Jenkins, who still keeps in close contact with Austin's grandfather. "I don't think he ever missed a beat being away from mom and dad and the siblings."
It wasn't the first time Austin would make a life-altering decision, ultimately on his own, but with his parents' support. Mike recalled the first time Austin tried out for a minor hockey team when he was 7 years old. The coach approached Mike and asked him if Austin would play for his team.
"I told the guy point blank, 'You're talking to the wrong guy,'" Mike said. "'You need to talk to Austin.' It's been that way ever since."
The family has never told him when to work out, when to practice, which team to join or how to follow his dream.
"It's his career," Mike said. "I don't coach him. I never have. Hockey's not my game, it's his game."
In a sport that many parents live vicariously through their burgeoning hockey stars, it is a refreshing attitude that hasn't been lost on those who have come in contact with Austin Watson.
Two years ago, with the family still facing a financial crunch, they moved back to Ann Arbor.
"A relative told us, 'You can be broke in Florida or you can be broke in Michigan and be around family and friends,'" Mike said. "It was time to come home."
Although he had verbally committed to play college hockey in Maine, Austin was selected by the Windsor Spitfires across the border in Ontario. He joined the major junior club and played a significant role in the first of the junior team's back-to-back Memorial Cups in 2009.
After seeing only a handful of games in the four years they were apart, the Watsons made sure to make up for lost time with regular visits to watch Austin play.
"We were definitely over the top," Mike said. "We were out of control."
Austin rolled his eyes as he recalled the day the entire family descended on the Spitfires store to buy Watson jerseys.
"I was probably a little stressed out with the kids running around," he said.
Austin's brothers and sister became regular visitors to the Spitfires' dressing room, developing warm relationships with a number of his teammates. During weekly family skates, the family was always there. "Every day was a new experience for them," Austin said.
None of the Spitfires, of course, held as special a place in the kids' hearts as their big brother.
"They ask him for his autograph," Mary said with a laugh of the younger kids. "They live with him. It's ridiculous."
To have been able to look up in the stands and see them at games reinforced for Austin and his parents that the sacrifice was worth it.
Mary and Mike have known each other since they were 12 years old. They acknowledged that when people see them coming, they tend to get a bit nervous. "Their initial reaction is to freak out," Mike said.
But with children ranging in age from 19 months to 18 years, there has to be a tremendous amount of structure to make things work. There are two calendars the Watsons work from, one for sports and other activities and the other for home duties. Things are done in an orderly fashion or they wouldn't get done at all.
"They're really ridiculously well-behaved," Mike said of his kids. "I do discipline and management, she does logistics."
Austin is a part of that structure when he's at home. From an early age, he realized that his actions sent strong messages to his younger siblings.
"They all look up to me," Watson acknowledged. "It's definitely a lot of responsibility [being the oldest of such a large family]. I do what I can around the house when I'm home."
Because he's the only sibling with a driver's license, Watson does a significant amount of taxiing his brothers and sister around to baseball practices and other events when he's at home. "It's a huge help," Mary said.
Although life with the Spitfires was good last season, Windsor coach Bob Boughner, also part owner of the team, came to Watson during this past season and told him he wanted to trade him to the Peterborough Petes. Watson had a no-trade clause, and after much soul-searching, agreed to the deal.
Boughner said it was one of the most difficult things he has had to do.
"It was a very hard trade," Boughner said. "He meant a lot to our organization. We all had tears in our eyes."
Although it meant further separation from his family, Watson figured it was best for him to play on a team on which he would play a more prominent role than on the talent-rich Spitfires.
It was a decision that paid off handsomely. He exploded with 20 points in just 10 games for the Petes and became a proficient penalty killer and shot-blocker. Although he suffered an ankle injury blocking a shot in a top prospects game, Watson's stock soared heading into Friday's draft.
Jeff Twohey, the former Petes GM that acquired Austin, wasn't surprised at the big winger's skill level. But there were things that did surprise him.
"What is most impressive when you meet him is the maturity that he has," Twohey said.
He related this story.
After acquiring him from Windsor, Twohey suggested Watson fly to Toronto and he would drive in and pick him up and take him to his home in Peterborough. Instead, Watson told Twohey he wanted to have his car; he told Twohey not to worry, that he had made the drive from Florida to Michigan on his own in the past.
When Austin was delayed in getting to Peterborough, he told Twohey he'd just go on his own. Yes, he had looked up the directions. Yes, he had called ahead to let them know he'd be later than expected.
"It may sound like a little thing to an adult, but he had all that stuff looked after," Twohey said. "He's got such a huge commitment to be a player. He knows what he wants."
Austin is the only one of the nine Watson children to play hockey. The reasons are many, but chief among them is the cost. That is the reality of the Watsons' situation. "Hockey's a money sport," Mary said.
But do not think for a minute this moment in Los Angeles was all about creating an NHL star to bring in some sort of life-altering gravy train. Will the family's life change if Austin becomes an NHL player? Of course. But if they thought for a minute that Austin had pursued this dream as a means to alleviate financial strain for the family, they would have put a quick end to his hockey career, Mary said.
"We wouldn't have that," Mary said. "If he came to us and said he's done playing hockey, he'd be done."
Still, it would be inaccurate to suggest Watson doesn't feel more than a little responsibility to his parents and siblings, that his moment on the draft stage in Los Angeles with a Nashville Predators jersey over his shoulders will indeed change their lives. Not their character, but their lives.
"I play hockey for myself because I love the game. I wouldn't play for any other reason," Watson said. "But at the same time, it will be nice in a couple of years to be able to help out. It's not a burden, it's a blessing. It's something that drives you a little bit more personally to keep at it."
Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.
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