LOS ANGELES — Robert Burakovsky had already occupied the role of pushy father for so many years, the guiding force and booming voice backing his son’s aspirations. His muscles still bulged from two decades playing professional hockey, and his love for the game still burned strong. But young Andre had also just turned 20 years old, deep into his rookie season with the Washington Capitals, which meant Robert needed to accept the same reality that, at some point or another, all parents must.
“I’ve done my part,” he said. “It’s important to step aside, make sure I’m there for him.”
He was overlooking the rink, watching practice in suburban Los Angeles, one of many proud dads invited along for the Capitals’ annual fathers’ trip, reflecting on the difference time had made in their relationship. When Andre was born on Feb. 9, 1995, Robert played for Klagenfurt, a club in Austria. He was considered one of the most gifted hockey players Sweden ever produced but later would lament that he cruised on talent alone. “Lazy,” was how Robert later described himself, so he tried to ensure his only son never repeated those same mistakes.
As Robert bounced between clubs and countries, moving from his native Sweden to Germany to Switzerland, the family followed, and Andre was always steadfast in his dreams. When Robert asked whether Andre wanted to play for Malmo, the top-tier team at home in Sweden, Andre said no. The NHL was always the goal.
So when Andre hoped to play goalie, Robert pelted tennis balls so hard at him that Andre fled into the house, arms covered in bruises. When he helmed Andre’s teams, he rode Andre harder than anyone, believing the coach’s son should never receive special treatment. He taught Andre to trust others, swearing that if he ever saw Andre seem disappointed over a bad pass from a teammate, he would storm onto the ice, lift him up and take him home. They bickered plenty, Robert recalled, and Andre cried a lot. And when fellow parents questioned his methods, Robert replied that it was none of their business.
“It’s my son,” he would tell them.
But Andre had now become someone else’s business, a first-round selection by the Capitals in 2013, and as Coach Barry Trotz has repeatedly proclaimed, the young forward is an anchor for their future. Through 41 games, 18 more than Robert logged during his only NHL season with the Ottawa Senators, Andre has experienced plenty of growing pains. He had scored in his professional debut, skated on the top line with superstars Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom, served as a healthy scratch and, for one weekend, was dispatched to the team’s American Hockey League affiliate in Hershey to work out the kinks. But he had made it just the same, and even in the toughest moments, Robert reminded himself that this alone was worth a smile.
Andre grew up in countries where he often struggled to learn the language, so hockey became his way to make friends. Having a famous father often helped, though at the time he didn’t understand why. His mother made bags of popcorn at home and brought it to Robert’s games, where Andre devoured the snack and watched his father skate.
“Long time ago, but of course it was fun to be the son of a good hockey player,” he said. “Just go to the games all the time. I remember I used to love it. I still do.”
Now it was Robert’s turn to beam from the stands or, if he couldn’t watch in person, from in front of the television overseas. He hasn’t missed watching a Capitals game, often waking up at 1 a.m., in Sweden for the puck drop, then crashing for good at 5. Last season, when Andre recorded 87 points in 57 games in juniors for the Erie Otters, success that quickly vaulted him onto Washington’s radar for a roster spot this year, Robert visited three times. This season, he was there at Verizon Center when Andre scored in his NHL debut against the Montreal Canadiens and became the eighth Capitals player ever with a father who had played in the NHL. And he was here on the fathers’ trip, looking onto the ice and smiling wide.
“This is his dream,” he said, “and my dream and my family’s and my wife’s dream.”
They still talk almost every night, dialing each other from across the Atlantic Ocean, but only discussed hockey if Andre asked. They had become best friends, so close that Robert tightened his fists to demonstrate the bond. They golfed together on the father’s trip, with the other Swedish dads. They wrestled in their Santa Monica hotel room. Robert even quit coaching so he could fly stateside to see Andre whenever he wanted. Sure, Robert will still offer small points of guidance, telling Andre to skate harder or to avoid standing still or to shoot more because “he have one hell of a shot.” But no more making big deals of the little things. No more tears.
“I’ve been pretty hard,” Robert said, while the Capitals trickled onto the ice for practice. “I’m really happy I was that. We have the result here today.”