Detroit — It was more difficult than he ever imagined. His top linemate was injured, his team was losing, his production was dropping, COVID was affecting everything. One year ago, the Red Wings’ newly minted captain was skating through a fog, lugging more responsibilities with less help.
Dylan Larkin didn’t feel burdened, but he also didn’t feel right. Being anointed in the place he grew up, in a city that reveres its hockey captains, brings unique pressures, and Larkin tried to embrace them. He immersed himself in his duties, right up until a nasty crosscheck to the back of the neck by Dallas’ Jamie Benn ended his season in April.
Eight weeks in a cervical collar shrinks your world and narrows your thoughts. Larkin healed without surgery and is back to dazzling in his seventh season, leading the Wings in points (37) and tied with Tyler Bertuzzi in goals (19). He was named an All-Star for the second time. When the Wings (18-18-6) face the Blackhawks on Wednesday night at Little Caesars Arena, they’ll be five games ahead of their pace a year ago, eight points out of a wildcard spot but way ahead of where they were.
It’s the turnaround expected in Steve Yzerman’s rebuild, with the addition of three promising pieces — Moritz Seider, Lucas Raymond, goalie Alex Nedeljkovic — who rank among the best rookies in the league. For them, it’s been a revelation. For Larkin, it’s been a relief, a needed realization he doesn’t have to skate or lead alone.
“Deep down, I know what I am, I know who I am, I know what kind of hockey player I am,” Larkin said Tuesday after practice. “My entire life, I’ve always kind of quietly carried that confidence with me. But it was difficult personally. It was a huge honor (to be named captain) and I thought a lot about how it could affect how I act. The whole time I just tried to be myself, but it was hard at the beginning.”
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Bertuzzi is healthy after back surgery, and with the addition of terrific young talent, the Wings are competitive. But the truth is, it took Larkin, 25, a bit longer to become whole again.
Something was different in the opener in October, and not just because Bertuzzi scored four goals. Larkin threw a punch at Tampa Bay’s Mathieu Joseph, who had delivered a hard check to the back of his neck. It was an uncharacteristic flash of anger from the soft-spoken Larkin, understandable considering he was returning from a serious neck injury. It cost him a game misconduct and a one-game suspension.
About two weeks later, Larkin left the team for eight days for personal reasons, and when he returned Nov. 7, he fought back tears as he talked about dealing with a family emergency. He asked for privacy and politely declined to discuss it further.
I asked him if now he felt like himself again.
“I’ve never wavered from how I’ve thought about myself,” he said. “Has there been some doubt? Yes. I’ve always tried to rely on my support system, but yeah, there have been tough times. I don’t really want to go much further than that, to be honest with you.”
He said he leans on his girlfriend and a more-balanced home life. He acknowledged that hockey consumed him, growing up in Waterford and going to Michigan, putting extra pressure on himself.
He scored only nine goals last season while playing 44 games in the pandemic-impacted schedule. Losing Bertuzzi was a blow. Losing games was a bigger blow, even as the Wings improved markedly over their disastrous 2020 season.
There are still COVID issues that affect everyone, but normalcy is in sight. It took a while, but Larkin can see it.
“I haven’t really publicly talked about it, but I think you see a lot of athletes, as much as they work on their bodies and their craft, you also have to work on yourself, your well-being,” Larkin said. “The past couple years, with the difficulties from COVID and the ups and downs of my career, I’ve had to learn to take care of my mental health. I’ve talked to a lot of guys that have played in the past and they bring up questions like, how is it so common in sports now that players are stepping aside for mental health?”
That sent him on a dive into his own mind, and when he talks about it, he sounds enlightened, matured.
“I just think the pressure, even going back to kids being one-sport athletes, it’s all you focus on from a young age,” Larkin said. “You put pressure on yourself, then the social media side of it, the pressure of that. People can hide behind whatever name they want on the Internet, make up rumors or say things, and that has an effect on athletes. The more you can get away from hockey or your profession, the more you can enjoy life.”
He loves being home with his girlfriend and his dog Ellie, and he enjoys golf in the summer. Point him to a peaceful lake and he’ll fish all day. Winter nights away from the arena often are spent on the couch, binge-watching. “No spoilers on ‘Ozark,’ OK?” he said.
The Wings have stumbled of late, losing six of eight, and that remains the overriding frustration. All the youth creates energy and excitement, and also defensive mistakes and trouble winning on the road.
But now people can see something forming, from the rookies to the experienced guys to the revival of Larkin, who could top his career-high total of 32 goals in 2019.
“Last year he just never really felt confident with the puck,” Jeff Blashill said. “There definitely have been times throughout his career where he’s been like he is now. He’s got that great explosive ability, and when he plays his best, you notice him a lot because he’s skating and has the puck and is controlling the play. It starts with confidence.”
It’s one thing for fans and media to stamp the word REBUILD on a team, then check out and check back in later. It’s another thing when you’re in the middle of it, going to the arena knowing you’ll probably lose but entrusted with the job of keeping spirits up.
“You understand where you are within the organization, but that doesn’t take away from what the guys think in the dressing room,” Larkin said. “Quite frankly, it’s tough to show up to the rink on a day-to-day basis and bring a great attitude when we haven’t had the results. Now, I think we got better at every position — I don’t think, I know we did. We have a great group of veterans and we’re gonna add more young pieces the next couple years and it’s a healthy environment for them to come into. That’s what I’m most excited about.”
He’s excited to be excited again. He also knows, as everyone does, more tough times are ahead. But it no longer looks endless or fruitless, the task no longer as daunting. Larkin assumed the captain lineage from franchise greats — Yzerman to Nicklas Lidstrom to Henrik Zetterberg — and Yzerman took a year pondering the move, recognizing how difficult it can be. Larkin was appointed last January but officially christened on opening night this season, with every living Wings captain in attendance.
While Larkin certainly fits the mold of smart, unassuming leader, it’s not easy to grow into such a celebrated position, to be captain-ized, so to speak.
“He takes the responsibility extremely seriously,” Blashill said. “I think it takes time to where it becomes real natural, and he’s gotten more comfortable with it. I definitely think he’s totally been Dylan Larkin this year. That’s not to say he wasn’t last year; it means you’re thinking about things and sometimes it can affect your own play.”
As the season has unfolded and the goals have come, including his first career hat trick, he looks more and more unburdened. He already was one of the fastest skaters in the league, as well as one of the fastest risers, scoring 23 goals at the age of 19. Nothing has been derailed, only rearranged. Tough times can be revelatory, and as Larkin rediscovers Larkin, the Wings are finding their way forward.