It was around the time Matthew Tkachuk turned 8 when a prospect from the St. Louis Blues, Lee Stempniak, moved into the family household. Stempniak was from Buffalo, had played college hockey at Dartmouth College, and Tkachuk's father, Keith, wanted to help the first-year player make the transition to professional hockey.
A year later, the Tkachuk family extended the same courtesy to David Backes, a future Blues captain, and then to Philip McRae, who spent a summer living with the Tkachuks ahead of NHL training camp.
For Matthew Tkachuk, having Stempniak, Backes and McRae in his home was like having a succession of older brothers around, who also happened to be aspiring NHL pros he could watch and learn from. They became role models, almost by accident.
"I was lucky enough to be around the rink when I was younger and see the way they go about their daily routines and how they treat themselves off the ice – which is just as important as coming to the rink every day and giving your all," the younger Tkachuk explained in an interview. "That was something I learned at a young age."
The presence of so many ex-NHLers, from his dad to his dad's teammates, ultimately helped Tkachuk finish this past season as the No. 2-rated skater playing in North America eligible for the 2016 entry draft, ranked behind only Cape Breton's Pierre-Luc Dubois by the NHL's Central Scouting Bureau (CSB).
Four other sons of former NHLers are also rated in the top 10 by the CSB: Alexander Nylander (son of Michael) is No. 3; Jakob Chychrun (son of Jeff) is No. 4; Logan Brown (son of Jeff) is No. 7; and Kieffer Bellows (son of Brian) is No. 10.
Now, the sons of former NHLers following in their fathers' footsteps is not exactly a new phenomenon. Brett Hull was Bobby's son. Mark Howe was Gordie's son. Many of the Sutter brothers have offspring either playing in the NHL or in the high minors.
In all, 42 sons of former NHLers – Parises and Folignos, Bjugstads and Nystroms, Wilsons and Reinharts – played in the NHL this past season, according to figures supplied by the Elias Sports Bureau.
There are lots of reasons why so many are making their mark in the league, beginning with the environment in which they are raised, according to former NHLer Ray Ferraro, whose son Landon plays for the Boston Bruins.
"How many times do you a read a story about someone who becomes a doctor because his mother or father is a doctor?" Ferraro said. "Part of the reason, it's what you know – and it seems attainable.
"As Landon got a little older, he was always helping out in the locker room, washing visors and getting tape for the guys. It just seemed, in his mind, that's where he was supposed to be. And I would say it's probably the same for a number of these kids who are coming up."
But what might be surprising is how many of these aspiring NHLers developed their skills in markets not normally associated with grassroots programs. Tkachuk and Brown, along with highly regarded prospects Clayton Keller and Luke Kunin, all came through the St. Louis system. Chychrun was born in Boca Raton, Fla., and played there until the age of 13, before joining the Little Caesars program in Michigan.
As Tkachuk worked his way up through the St. Louis minor-hockey ranks, he crossed paths with many retired NHLers, who built the program from the ground up – Jeff Brown, Jamie Rivers, Basil McRae, Al MacInnis and others.
"The higher up I would go, the more I'd be exposed to them. Jeff Brown. Jamie Rivers, I would do a lot of skills with them," he said. "It's why I'm here today."
McRae, now the general manager of the OHL's London Knights, where Tkachuk played this past season, helped build the programs in St. Louis once his 13-year professional career ended in 1997. He has a theory on why young players from non-traditional markets are thriving.
"When we were in St. Louis, I remember looking at players in the GTHL, thinking, 'Oh my gawd, they can play 100 games a year and they have all these advantages we don't,'" McRae said. "What I found was, in the non-traditional areas, because the costs are so high, you actually practise and work on skills a lot more. You had to become more creative in your practices, do more power skating, do more skill development because you can't be travelling and playing games all the time.
"I think there are some genes, some DNA involved there too. But for a lot of the alumni kids, the rink was like going to school. It was their home away from home. They're very comfortable there. They get the fun part of the game – hanging out with the pros.
"And the moms are all hockey moms. They are like the GMs of the family. They had an impact too."
Ferraro spent the final days of his 18-year career in St. Louis and remembers how Matthew Tkachuk would playing mini-sticks as a four-year-old with Scott Young's son on the dressing room floor.
"The one thing that's really advantageous is that the dads have a real understanding of how hard this all is," he said. "It's a tough balance between knowing what your son has to do if he wants to be a pro and letting him be a teenager.
"I told both my sons, 'Listen, there are a lot of people who become doctors that were screw-ups in high school; went to college and fiddled around for three years and then told themselves they've got to get going here.' Eventually, they mature, they study, they get their degrees and because they're smart, they grind their way through medical school.
"In hockey, that doesn't work. If you're screwing around in high school, too bad, your career is over. So these kids have the benefit of their parents knowing what the right path is, in most cases."