Brandon Saad values his close-knit family as much as his skills on the ice that make him a projected first round selection at this year's NHL Entry Draft in St. Paul, MN. In fact, if it weren't for his family, he might not have discovered his passion for hockey.
"My cousins played hockey and when I was two and my older brother (George) was three, we decided that we wanted to play with them and ever since then it's been hockey all the time," Saad explained. "Playing on the ice and street hockey in the summer and even mini sticks at home…it was pretty fun getting into battles with each other. We were competitive and he pushed me a lot to make me the player I am today."
The native of Gibsonia, PA (just outside Pittsburgh) meant he was a Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr fan when he was little and later a fan of Sidney Crosby and Evgeny Malkin and credits the the youth programs in Pittsburgh for developing not only his skills, but his love of the game as well.
"Pittsburgh has a lot of youth programs," said Saad. "I think coming along with the success players have had and Pittsburgh being a great hockey team, I think the organizations I’ve played with growing up, the Butler Valley Dogs and then the Amateur Penguins and then the Hornets… there’s a lot of options there and I just think they do a great job of keeping it fun and with the good teams they have there its a lot of fun [to play]."
When he was 15 years old, Saad was invited to join the US National Team Development Program in Ann Arbor, Michigan but after seven games, in which he scored six goals and earned 11 points, he decided he wasn't ready and headed back home.
"I don’t think at that age I was ready to leave home yet and my brother being a senior we could have played another year together and we ended up going to the North American Hockey League to play for the Youngstown Phantoms which are in the USHL now," said Saad. "But being able to stay home another year, mature a little bit, be with the family and obviously be with him until he left for college (Penn State) I think was a big part of that decision."
But after leading the Phantoms with 29 goals and 47 points in 47 games as a 16 year old and the youngest player on the team, Saad started to realize that his dream of playing in the NHL could actually become a reality and that it was time to start making some decisions about how to get there. With another invitation to join the program in Ann Arbor, he committed wholeheartedly giving him a leg up in his development and another year to to figure out what the next step in his development should be.
"After the Youngstown experience and my brother was leaving to college and I was ready to leave home and obviously I needed to further my career to play in the NHL so at that point I wasn’t sure if I wanted to go to the Ontario League or the college route so I think going to the National Team was a good year for me to develop more as a player and another year of experience to learn which route I wanted to take. So, I think that was a big part of it," he explained.
Saad earned 29 goals and 29 assists for 58 points in 63 games with the NTDP and was part of Team USA that won gold at the 2010 World Under-18 Championship with six points in seven games and found himself on the radar of NHL scouts doing their homework for the 2011 NHL Entry Draft.
"Just being in the weight room and on ice, the way they run things [at the NTDP], the professional way they run things, I think it’s a great program for young players to go to and develop and become well rounded. Overall it was a good experience to build up and develop and prepare me for the next step."
After the season ended he went home to decompress and talk things over with his family and, in the end, decided to sign with the Saginaw Spirit of the OHL instead of going the college route.
"[I] just wanted to be a professional hockey player and play more games in a league that’s structured like the NHL," Saad said. "I think that was the reason I came here, but just going back and fourth it was a pretty difficult decision, but in the end I think I made the right one for me."
For the two-way playmaker known for his speed, his fluid skating and his ability to win battles in the dirty areas, his game has certainly improved over the past few years with the additional weight and strength he was able to add to his 6'2 frame, but he's also grown as a person and knows there's a difference between being a teenager who plays hockey and a teenager who wants to play in the NHL.
"Being at home you have the easy things like your parents taking care of everything and being with my brother and riding around with him in the car and now getting older and having your license and leaving home and living with billets…it's a lot more free." said Saad. "There’s two ways to handle it…you can either be a goof ball and mess around or do it the right way and I think just maturing a lot as a person and learning it not through my parents but throughout other experiences I went through helped a lot."
Saad, who also played soccer, baseball and football growing up, was invited to the National Junior Team Evaluation Camp last summer in Lake Placid and the selection camp in Troy, NY for the World Junior Championship in December, but was one of the final cuts as Team USA went on to win bronze in Buffalo.
"Going to the camp, obviously you wanna make the team as everyone does, but being one of the younger guys you just want to work hard and give it all you got," he said. "So, I just think going to the camp was a good experience and then obviously getting cut is not fun, but you gotta get focused, readjusted. Obviously, it’s a little bit of a disappointment, but there’s still hockey to play and learning to do and obviously to get better. So, that's what I have to do."
After a solid season in Saginaw with 27 goals and 55 points in 59 games with the Spirit, Saad is once again looking at a busy off season. Fresh off the combine this past week, he'll head to St Paul for the draft on June 24th and in addition to the National Junior Team Evaluation Camp in Lake Placid in August, he'll also have an NHL development camp to attend and then in September, his first NHL Rookie Camp.
"After the season, everyone needs a week or two to recharge their batteries and stay away from the rink and the gym and things like that but getting back to it in the summer helps a lot obviously to stay conditioned," he said. "There’s never really an off season with hockey. So, its good to skate as much as you can and work out in the summer, but at the same time, I think hockey's a lot of work and a lot physical drain and mentally, so I just think getting time to relax and kick back is also important."
His draft stock has dropped slightly throughout the season mostly due to a minor injury, but he tries his best to block out the chatter.
"I focus more on what’s now and doing what I can now to work hard because if you focus there and let the present go, then its obviously not gonna be good for your future," he said.
But still, Saad can't help but be excited about the next step in achieving his goal of becoming a professional hockey player.
"I just think growing up with it and playing everyday, you fall in love with the game and you love to play and the competing and all about it…to make it as a career would be unbelievable."