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Of all the rinks in all the cities in which rookie Josh Norris could have played his first pro hockey game, the fact it came at Mile One Centre in St. John’s on Tuesday night had the young Ottawa Senators' winger shaking his head in bewilderment.
And perhaps feeling a tinge of sadness.
“To be honest,” said young Norris, son of St. John’s native Dwayne Norris, when queried about his initial thoughts upon learning Sunday he’d be skating in his father’s hometown in an NHL exhibition against the Toronto Maple Leafs, “I probably thought of my grandfather. I wish he had been here to watch me play.”
Carl Norris was a typical hockey dad, helping raise three hockey-playing boys with his wife, Joan. Dwayne, the oldest, went on to star for the national junior team, win an Olympic silver medal before getting a taste of the NHL — 20 games in total — with the Quebec Nordiques and Anaheim Mighty Ducks.
Warren Norris, the youngest, played NCAA hockey and professionally overseas and in the AHL, including some time with the St. John's Maple Leafs, while Ian toiled in the old provincial senior circuit with the St. John’s Capitals.
Carl Norris passed away in 2003 at age 59, one month after Josh turned four.
The Maple Leafs were Carl’s favourite team.
“I know he’d be pretty proud of me,” Josh said.
Because of the short notice, Dwayne, the Newfoundland and Labrador Hockey Hall of Famer, and his wife, Traci, were unable to get to St. John’s from their Detroit-area home in time for Tuesday’s game.
But Josh, 20, had plenty of support in the sold-out Mile One crowd last night, 19 family members in total, including Joan, his grandmother, and uncles Warren and Ian and their families.
“Having my grandma here means a lot,” he said prior to the Senators'' 3-1 victory before a full house at Mile One. “I know my Dad is super proud, and I wish he and Mom were here. But having the rest of my family means a lot.”
Funny, but it was just a couple of months ago the entire Norris clan – Dwayne, Warren and Ian, along with Dwayne’s three boys, Josh, Coale and Dalton – were in town for the Norris Power Hockey summer camp at Jack Byrne Arena (Coale, 22, plays NCAA hockey for Ferris State University, and 17-year-old Dalton is a rookie with the Lincoln Stars of the USHL).
Little did Josh, born and raised in Oxford, Mich., think he’d be back in the city, lacing up the skates for real in mid-September.
“It’s kind of crazy, huh?” he smiled. “Hockey is a crazy, small world.
“I don’t think,” he said prior to game time, “I’ll have another experience like this one tonight, so I plan to enjoy it, to soak it up.”
The left-shot pivot was originally San Jose property, after the Sharks selected him 19th overall in the 2017 draft. But he was traded to Ottawa last year, part of the Erik Karlsson deal that saw the star defenceman move to California.
A product of the U.S. National Team Development Program, Norris won a gold medal at the world U18 championship, before twice representing the States in the world juniors. The Americans won bronze in 2018, and silver in 2019.
It was in the 2019 tournament Norris suffered a shoulder injury that eventually required surgery and put a premature end to his sophomore year at the University of Michigan (Dwayne Norris also played NCAA hockey, at rival Michigan State University).
“I don’t think I’ll have another experience like this one tonight, so I plan to enjoy it, to soak it up.” — Josh Norris
Despite playing only a season and a half at Michigan, Norris opted to leave school early, signing a three-year entry level deal with the Senators last spring.
“It was a combination of me feeling ready (for the pros), and the rebuild that’s going on in Ottawa,” he said.
“It’s a new coaching staff that’s starting fresh, and I want to be part of the team from the get-go, get my foot in the door early and show my versatility. And here I am.”
Norris gave the shoulder a test at a rookie tournament in Belleville, Ont. earlier this month, and received a passing grade.
The Sens are giving him every opportunity to crack the lineup this season, although he did miss a lot of hockey last year.
Still, he impressed AHL Sens coach Troy Mann at rookie camp.
“I love his skating ability,” Mann told Postmedia News. “When Josh gets the puck through the neutral zone, he’s got his head up and he’s got some really good speed. He’s got a sneaky, quick-release wrist shot, and that was good to see.”