Chicago Wolves defenseman Nathan Oystrick won’t be planning a trip to any amusement parks this offseason. The ups and downs and dips and dives of the rides there would pale in comparison to the real-life roller coaster he has been on for the past year.
The last 12 months have seen the Wolves blueliner wrap up his first full season in the National Hockey League; get married; meet his biological mother for the first time, 26 years after his adoption; be assigned to the American Hockey League out of training camp; suffer the first major injury of his professional career, which required his jaw to be wired shut for more than a month; and get traded.
Those mechanical loop de loops aren’t looking so exciting anymore, are they?
Oystrick has had to hold on tight, but that hasn’t stopped him from enjoying the ride.
“It’s probably been the weirdest year of my life,” he laughed. “There have been a lot of ups and downs.”
Let’s start with an up: after winning the Calder Cup with the Wolves in 2008, Oystrick hit the gym hard over the summer and earned himself a spot on the Atlanta Thrashers roster out of training camp. He wound up spending the entire 2008-09 campaign with the Wolves parent club.
“Nathan always had the talent, but he didn’t put the time in during the summers,” Wolves General Manager Wendell Young recalled. “Once he realized that hockey is a year-round job, he reaped the benefits right away. He and I worked together one summer and he made the Atlanta Thrashers right out of training camp. It takes some guys longer than others to learn the importance of conditioning, and some never figure it out, but Nathan understands that now and he saw the difference it made right away.”
“It was pretty cool being able to finally make it and play my first game in the NHL,” Oystrick said. “It was exciting and kind of nerve-racking but I definitely learned a lot of things playing in Atlanta last year. You’re playing against the best players in the world on a nightly basis. I think I grew up a little bit up there too.”
The Thrashers failed to make the playoffs, which was a bit of a down coming off a championship season, but Oystrick packed an impressive amount of life-changing events into his summer – the first of which was finding and meeting his biological mother (see sidebar). The second of which was marrying his college sweetheart, Lindsay, on July 17 in Marquette, Mich.
Then came a down. Free agent signings led to a surplus of defensemen in Atlanta this fall, and Oystrick was assigned to the Wolves out of training camp.
“This year it didn’t work out the way I wanted it to and the way I planned, but its hockey and that’s just the way things go,” he said. “I came back down here and just tried to be as positive as I could and bring what I learned last year to the team this year and try to help some of the younger guys.”
The 27-year-old’s good attitude and experience led the coaching staff to name him an alternate captain early in the year, which gave him an added sense of responsibility.
“Being an assistant captain, I have to watch what I do and say and make sure I’m always positive,” Oystrick said. “If we’re down and we’re losing or something’s not going right, I can’t come in the room throwing things around or yelling at people. I’ve got to make sure that I keep everyone positive and happy and get everyone back in the game. I’m older now and I’ve been around a little bit more and some of the younger guys look to me for some leadership.”
Oystrick was trucking along at his usual pace when there came a big down, in the form of a slapshot to the face that would sideline him for 20 games. Up until that point, Oystrick had been something of an iron man, never missing a game (to the tune of 201 consecutive matchups) in his first two seasons with the Wolves. The injury tested his resolve.
“It was probably the first time in six years that I’ve had any type of injury like that where I missed games and missed a lot of time,” he said. “I had hurt my thumb earlier in the season, but that wasn’t so bad. I was still able to work out every day and come to the rink and be with the guys and be as much a part of the team as I could be while I wasn’t playing, but the jaw, that one definitely took a toll on me.
“The first few days I was pretty depressed. Just kind of down,” he recalled. “Not being able to eat or open your mouth or just do little things like talking or being able to go to the fridge and grab something to eat quickly was tough. The month and a half that I had my jaw wired shut I had to blend everything and eat milkshakes, soup, Ensures and protein drinks. It was definitely hard. I lost 10 pounds during that time. I lost a couple teeth so I have to go have surgery again this summer. It was not an experience I’d wish anyone to have. Luckily, I had Lindsay at home to kind of keep me sane and make my food for me.”
On the night of March 1, Oystrick’s roller coaster took another sharp turn.
“I was sitting at home watching a hockey game and I got a phone call from a number I didn’t recognize, so I didn’t answer it,” he said.
The voicemail was from Atlanta’s assistant general manager, Larry Simmons, so he called right back.
“I thought maybe Atlanta was just calling to check in on me but Larry told me I’d been traded to Anaheim,” he said. “I wasn’t really expecting it because I was hurt and I wasn’t going to be skating for another month.”
The blueliner took the news in stride – his concerns about having to pack up and move assuaged by the assurance that he could remain with the Wolves, as Anaheim does not have an AHL affiliate.
“It’s obviously a good situation for me because anytime you’re going play in the AHL you want to be in Chicago; it’s the best place in the American league to play, so I was happy about that,” he said. “We have a good team here, a good group of guys and a good coaching staff, so that kind of calmed me down to hear that I could stay.
“I’m always thankful to Atlanta for giving me the opportunity to play, I’ll never have a bad thing to say about them. At the same time, I think from both standpoints it was time for me to move on and do some different things. It’s weird because Atlanta is the first organization I played in as a pro, but I am excited. It’s good to have a new team and a fresh start.”
But Oystrick still had a lot to overcome before he could take advantage of his fresh start, with weeks of recovery from his injury still ahead.
“Coming back working out, I couldn’t open my mouth. They were scared for me to go too hard cause I couldn’t take a deep breath yet, so I couldn’t push myself as much as I wanted to,” he explained. “But as soon as I got the wires off, I went to Anaheim and worked out there, and then came back to Chicago and started skating with (Skating and Skills Coach) Kenny McCudden before practice. That was good because he works on a lot of stuff with your hands and your feet and getting your brain to work - little things you might not be able to work on during practice - and that helped me a lot.”
Oystrick made his return to the Wolves lineup on March 26 and was called up by his new NHL club six days later – just another high in his year of ups, downs and all arounds.
Through all the chaos and distractions, Oystrick says his wife and family have been the constants keeping him focused.
“I think at times it gets in my head a little bit, but Lindsay is always there to keep me sane and my parents are there for me to call any time,” he said. “My sister is really good with stuff like that, too. She’s good at calming me down and just saying ‘relax, things will work out.’ I’ve got a great bunch of people around me to keep me sane and keep me going and keep me going towards my goal of getting to the NHL again.
“It’s been a weird year,” he marveled, after reflecting on the list of monumental events that make even his head spin. He isn’t done though. Oystrick already is looking ahead to the next turn.
“Hopefully we can end it on a good note and win a Calder Cup.”
How A Google Search Led To A Family Reunion
During Nathan Oystrick’s rookie season with the Wolves in 2006-07, he was quoted in the yearbook discussing his adoption:
“I was adopted when I was two-and-half-months old,” he said. “My parents are great. They told me about it at a young age and they let me read through the adoption papers…I’d like to find my biological mom someday. I started the search last year, but I just got too busy with graduating from college and starting to play professionally right away with the Wolves. It’s a long process.”
That process got a lot shorter one evening last winter. It was January, and Oystrick was on a road trip with the Atlanta Thrashers when he got a phone call from his then fiancée, Lindsay. She had been watching TV and had seen an actor that shared her last name.
“She went on the internet and googled it to see if there was any relation,” Oystrick recounted. “One of the websites that popped up was a genealogy website, so she went on there just for fun and typed in my biological name and the first thing that came up was a baby boy, born December 17, 1982, in Regina, Saskatchewan, named Jordan Robert.”
Oystrick was intrigued, but chose not to follow up on the lead.
“It was my first year in the NHL and I didn’t want that many things going on at once, so we waited,” he explained.
After the season ended, the couple took a vacation to Florida. The first night there, Oystrick replied to the post. Twenty minutes later, he got a response. Twenty-six years after being adopted, he had found his biological mother.
“We started going back and forth on e-mail with questions from the paperwork that she had and the paperwork I had, and everything she asked I knew the answer to and vice versa,” he said.
The e-mails led to a phone call, and the phone call led to a visit.
“We talked on the phone for about an hour that night and had a pretty emotional conversation,” he said. “She asked if she could come out to Atlanta. Obviously I said yes, I’d been waiting for 26 years to finally meet this woman. So, a couple weeks later I flew my sister down and Kandace, who is my biological mother, came with her sister and her daughter.
“There were a lot of tears involved,” Oystrick said. It was me surrounded by five women who were all crying. But it was cool. We hung out for three days and just talked and shared stories about our lives. She brought some letters she had written to me when I was younger that didn’t get to me because it was a closed adoption, so I got to read those, and she brought some pictures and I had the same ones.”
Their conversations uncovered some incredible coincidences. Odds are, Oystrick thinks, their paths had crossed during his childhood without anyone knowing.
Kandace’s family was in the hotel business, and she worked at the hotel where Oystrick’s youth hockey team held their year-end banquets each season. Another of the family’s hotels, where Kandace often helped out, was a building away from Oystrick’s mother’s office, and she and her co-workers would frequently go there for lunch.
“I might have seen her way back in the day but just never realized it,” he reflected. “It was weird hearing all that stuff. But it was obviously very cool to finally meet the woman that gave birth to me. We still talk a couple times a month through text. We’re planning on more trips and meetings.”
Oystrick says that meeting his biological mother was important, but she will never replace the parents and family that raised him.
“Obviously she’s my ‘mom’, but she’s not my mom. My parents will still always be my parents. She’s just kind of a really, really close friend that I’ll always have in my life now that I finally got the chance to say hello and tell her thank you.”
Immense gratitude was the main thing Oystrick wanted to express to the woman who gave her two-month-old son up for adoption when she was 16 years old.
“A lot of girls back then at 16 probably wouldn’t have done the same thing she did,” he said. “There was never any animosity on my part. I understood fully what she did and I was always thankful for it. I was put in a home where I had two loving parents and a loving sister; people who took care of me and treated me well and did everything under the sun that they could for me. So that’s pretty much what I told her when we met and she was happy that I grew up to be who I was.
“I think in the back of her mind she’d always wondered, ‘is this kid in jail or on drugs, or doing something silly - what happened with his life?’ So to say that she gave birth to a professional hockey player I guess was pretty cool for her.”