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Chicago Sun-Times
Chicago Sun-Times
Ben Pope

As Kirby and Colton Dach prepare for NHL future together, Dale Dach amazed by their blossoming careers

From left, Hilary, Colton, Kirby, Callie and Dale Dach celebrate Kirby’s draft selection by the Blackhawks in 2019. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

As soon as his sons were old enough to skate, Dale Dach could tell they possessed a special talent for hockey.

But he didn’t want to let his imagination run wild.

‘‘You always see that glimmer, and you always hope,’’ he said. ‘‘You see that they’re at the high level of their peers. You have that thought in the back of your mind that they’re doing quite well and they picked it up very easily and they’re in love with the sport. But you never know. Nothing’s ever for sure.’’

Fifteen years or so later, Dale’s dreams for his sons have been proved wrong: They weren’t lofty enough.

Kirby Dach, now 21, has played 152 games in three NHL seasons and will be one of the young pillars around which the Blackhawks will shape their coming rebuild. Colton Dach, 19, had 79 points this season for the Western Hockey League’s Kelowna Rockets and, as the Hawks’ second-round pick in 2021, soon might join his older brother in Chicago.

The reality of what they’ve become is difficult for Dale to believe at times. It feels a bit more normal to Kirby and Colton, but they have Dale to thank for making it possible.

‘‘My dad has had a huge impact on my career,’’ Kirby said. ‘‘I wouldn’t be the same person or player if I didn’t have him as a father.’’

Winters on the lake

The brothers’ first hockey memories happened in two places: a backyard rink behind the Dachs’ home in Fort Saskatchewan, Alberta — just northwest of Edmonton — and on the frozen lake beside the Dachs’ rural cabin.

‘‘At the rink, you always had your buddies there,’’ Kirby said. ‘‘But when you’re able to fall in love with the game on your own, that’s what really drives you as a kid to get to the NHL. It’s what sparks that initial dream of playing pro hockey for the rest of your life.

‘‘You don’t really care about how cold your hands are, you just keep going. Your mom’s always a little bit worried about it, and your dad’s always saying you’re fine.’’

Both the rink and the lake, of course, were playable only because of Dale’s setup efforts.

‘‘We’d clear the snow [off the lake], and then we’d go out with a couple of other families and flood the ice for them,’’ Dale said. ‘‘We spent a lot of time out there getting the ice prepared, getting it as smooth as possible. On a lake, that’s kind of hard to do. But it was quite enjoyable because you can make a fire and play out there all day long.’’

Colton, Kirby and sister Callie Dach learned to love hockey on their backyard rink. (Colton Dach)

Those memories at the lake started when Kirby was around 5 years old. At the same age came his first NHL memory: watching the Oilers’ 2006 run to the Stanley Cup Final.

Dale, who played second-tier junior hockey and college hockey while growing up in Edmonton, was a longtime Oilers season-ticket holder. Before each home game, Kirby and Colton would argue about who would accompany their dad to Rexall Place.

‘‘Sometimes we’d try to get our minor hockey teams to go together for a game,’’ Colton said. ‘‘But the games that stick out to me were when it was just me and my dad. He’d always make me leave around the 10-minute mark of the third period because it’d end up being too late for me to stay up. So that’d always be a painful one for me to take. But it was nice.’’

Recalled Kirby: ‘‘We had to get there early enough to watch warmups and grab a program, so I could look at the stats for different players and see who was in town. It was just a really cool experience to have that as a kid, to be fortunate enough to be able to do that.’’

Indeed, the boys never would leave their seats, Dale said, even during the intermissions. Every aspect of the NHL atmosphere engrossed them.

Advice for adversity

Kirby’s and Colton’s love for hockey and brotherly competitiveness — ‘‘When Kirby does something, I want to go do the same thing and do it better,’’ Colton said — led to career explosions during their teenage years.

In a blink, Kirby was drafted third overall by the Hawks in 2019. In another blink, Colton became draft-eligible in 2021.

When the Dachs learned the Hawks had selected him, too, they were overjoyed. Kirby ambushed Colton on his Zoom call with reporters, a priceless smile on his face.

‘‘I can’t even describe the feeling me and my wife [Hilary] went through with that,’’ Dale said. ‘‘We had a 1-in-32 chance of them being on the same team and even a further chance of both boys getting drafted and also potentially playing together. It’s beyond amazing.’’

The whole family, including younger sister Callie, were able to reconnect during the first year of the pandemic before the 2021 draft, with Kirby and Colton unburdened by daily hockey commitments for the first time in a decade. Kirby, Colton and Dale passed COVID’s first few months by snowmobiling, ice fishing and hunting, just like the old days.

But the hockey commitments soon renewed with vigor, and Dale — who had helped coach his sons’ youth hockey teams up through around age 12 — once again was relegated to spectator and adviser. The latter role has proved crucial to his sons, Kirby in particular.

Kirby Dach has already played 152 NHL games but struggled with injuries and adversity. (Getty Images/Jamie Sabau)

After all, Kirby has encountered far more adversity than expected during his first three NHL seasons. His 2019 debut, which Dale, Hilary and Callie attended at the United Center, was delayed because of a concussion, and he has missed substantial time in each of the last two seasons with wrist injuries.

Even when playing, his offensive production hasn’t always lived up to his draft status, and he has weathered storms of criticism and doubt, prompting him to delete all of his social-media apps this past winter.

Kirby has discovered during his most frustrating moments, however, that his dad is always available to ‘‘listen and let me vent out.’’ And when he seeks input, his dad passes along advice focused on optimism.

‘‘Staying positive is probably the biggest key for him,’’ Dale said. ‘‘You can’t get too high and you can’t get too low. You’ve always got to know when something’s around the next corner.’’

Said Kirby: ‘‘[He tells me] just to play every shift like it’s your last because you don’t know when it’s going to be over and how fast it really goes by. Even when things aren’t going your way or you’re not getting the bounces and . . . you feel like everything you do isn’t going to work, you’ve got to keep going out there and enjoy it and remember why you fell in love with the game and play for that reason.’’ 

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