Richmond Review

High praise from Hollywood for Sockeyes

Actor Kurt Russell at Minoru Arenas in 2001.  - Chung Chow file photo
Actor Kurt Russell at Minoru Arenas in 2001.
— image credit: Chung Chow file photo

It’s been a decade since Wyatt Russell and his famous Hollywood parents—actors Kurt Russell and Goldie Hawn—relocated to the Lower Mainland to support Wyatt’s dream of playing professional hockey.

But it’s life lessons that Wyatt learned as a 16-year-old both on and off the ice with the Richmond Sockeyes organization that continue to stay with him to this day, now that Wyatt has closed the chapter on his professional goaltending career, and is following in his parents’ career footsteps.

With the Richmond Sockeyes celebrating their 40th anniversary this year, the Russells shared with The Richmond Review fond memories of their family’s time in the Lower Mainland.

It was in 2002 when Wyatt made the Richmond Sockeyes roster, as a backup goalie behind Kevin McKay, and under the guiding hand of goaltending coach Paul Fricker.

“For me personally, growing up that season, it was the first time I’d been away from home ever. I was 16 years old and I picked up and moved everything.”

Wyatt didn’t have butterflies at all, he said, as his life revolved around hockey and he never questioned the decision to relocate to north of the border from Los Angeles, where baseball was king.

“Everybody in my family, my dad, my cousin, my grandfather, my great grandfather, they all played baseball and (playing sports is) what I wanted to do. So when I came out to Vancouver...there was nothing about it that scared me because it was something I was supposed to do,” he said.

“Being with (Sockeyes coach) Ron (Johnson), being with Paul (Fricker), having the friends that I had, they were all people that allowed you to do the things that you wanted to do, but at the end of the day, face reality. They didn’t let you wander into the netherworld of what junior hockey can bring some kids if you don’t have the right guidance,” he said.

“And Richmond was, from (Sockeyes owner) Ken Kirby down, was all about developing people, having a good time winning, but winning the right way. And that was really important, and the state of the locker room when I was there reflected that. It was a happy place. It was a place that...if you were a parent, you’d want your kid to be any and every day of the week.”

Wyatt Russell and Jason GarrisonThe Richmond Sockeyes provided an environment in which Wyatt could grow as a person and as a player.

“That was the time in my life where growth was important, the right kind of growth, and Richmond and the whole setup they had, allowed me to do that, along with I think everybody else in the locker room...Everybody that I know that played on the Sockeyes, are like to this day great people. Genuinely awesome people. They were great then, and they’re great now, because of...the environment we’re in.”

Kurt Russell also praised the Sockeyes organization for helping to give his son a first-class junior hockey experience that simply wasn’t replicated anywhere else Wyatt played afterward.

“It was the experience that I would hope any young athlete would have because it turns into something far, far greater, when it’s a great coaching experience, and a great relationship between a coach and a player,” said Kurt Russell, famous for his lead roles in Escape from New York, The Thing and Captain Ron. “It turns into something far greater than a sport, and how good you get at it. It turns into a life lesson.”

Russell singled out then Sockeyes team owner Ken Kirby, goaltending coach Paul Fricker, and head coach Ron Johnson, for the way they managed the Sockeyes organization.

“The Richmond people, but those three in particular...they couldn’t have been better, it just couldn’t have been a better experience.”

“Paul Fricker was nothing short of brilliant in that capacity, not just as a great goaltending coach, but a man who looks at life and connects life to the game that’s being played and to the person who’s playing it. And clearly understands something that in life, one has to understand that no matter what your endeavour...you will play to who you are, you will live your life to who you are. So why not find out who you are first, and start to make the changes early that you want to make, and fight for the things that will make you great, and not start learning how to make excuses for why things don’t go your way.”

Of Johnson, Kurt Russell said: “He had a marvelous experience, for a guy that age, playing for a coach like Ron Johnson, who was quite varied in his approach, a very different approach I think than a lot of coaches, and a great one for a young 16/17 year old.”

Of Kirby, Kurt Russell recalls telling his son back in 2002: “No matter how many teams you play for, I guarantee you’ll have a hard time beating Ken Kirby as the owner of a team.”

After playing in Richmond for two years, Wyatt played in Coquitlam for a year, before playing Junior A in Ontario, and then received a hockey scholarship to a Division 1 NCAA school in Alabama.

With injuries piling up, and his playing days numbered, Wyatt decided to play professionally, first in Germany for a year, and then a year in the Dutch elite league, where he blew out his hip, but met his now girlfriend.

“But that year was the only year I could compare to the Sockeyes, as having just an unbelievably great time with great people in a great place, that had a good environment about it.”

Wyatt said his two years in Richmond will remain with him forever.

“Those two years in Richmond really did inform so much of my life, coming from Paul, coming from Ron, coming from my parents, coming from my friends and my teammates. It informed who I was going to be for pretty much the rest of my life. It was the two most important years in my life, by far, hands down.”

As a Hollywood kid, it wasn’t easy coming to B.C. where “hockey is religion” and “just fit right in,” he said.

Wyatt’s appearance on the team could have been interpreted in many ways, he said, and likely was, with some doubtless questioning whether his parents’ star power helped him secure a roster spot.

But by eventually being part of the on-ice winning, he was able to quiet those whispers in the shadows, and make his parents proud.

“It was because of how (the Richmond Sockeyes) handled my situation, particularly, that allowed me to grow inside the system, grow in British Columbia, and they sheltered me from some of the really bad stuff, stuff that I didn’t even know about at the time, that would have been extremely detrimental because I was a sensitive person,” he said.

“There were people who really, not just suspected, but accused me of being there (because of) my parents...And that could have made it easy for Richmond to say, ‘We don’t want to deal with that.’”

But Richmond saw through that, and gave Wyatt a chance to prove his worth.

“It was extremely affirming, and the people I have to thank for those two years is the Richmond organization. They allowed me to do that.”

They gave him a chance to fail, over and over again, because they believed in him, Wyatt said.

And for that, he—and his family—will be Sockeyes fans for life.

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