Scan deep down the rosters of development camps held this month by the Kraken and other NHL teams and you’ll find the names of scrappy, undrafted players looking to gain a toehold in the professional game.
Jordan Tonelli was one such undrafted player invited to Kraken camp this week, a 6-foot, 179-pound college hockey forward notable for mixing it up in corners and battling for loose pucks. But what separates Tonelli, 22, from other undrafted, unsigned camp invitees toiling in anonymity is his back-of-jersey name guarantees he’ll stand out.
Especially when that name evokes memories of an all-time dynasty and one of the most famous goals in NHL history. When his father, John, took a neutral-zone pass 42 years ago from future Kraken scout Lorne Henning, then fed Bob Nystrom for a backhanded overtime winner, it clinched the first of four consecutive Stanley Cup titles for the New York Islanders and ensured the younger Tonelli could never have his name spoken in a hockey rink without folks of a certain age doing a double take.
“I’ve kind of looked at it like I’ve had an advantage my whole life, growing up in his footsteps,” Tonelli said this week as he worked out at the Kraken Community Iceplex alongside top draft picks Matty Beniers, Shane Wright, Ryker Evans and Ryan Winterton. “But at the same time, he always says — and I’ve always felt this way — that he never forced me into anything with hockey.”
That’s often double-edged for sons of famous players. While doors can be quickly opened, they also slam with a vengeance when direct comparisons don’t quite measure up. In which case, it pays to avoid such comparisons by finding ways to stand apart.
“I’m trying to be my own person,” Tonelii said. “And he’s kind of set that path for me as well. He doesn’t just want me to do what he did just because that’s what he did. He wants me to be my own man and my own player.”
While John Tonelli has yet to reach the Hall of Fame, he was widely respected and beloved by fans — even those from opposing teams — for a relentless work ethic, take-no-prisoners style and big-game play. His became a household name alongside Islander greats Bryan Trottier, Mike Bossy, Denis Potvin and Clark Gillies as a cornerstone of the last true NHL dynasty that reached five consecutive finals before being dethroned in 1984.
Later that year, he had the game of his life in the Canada Cup, back then the only “best-on-best” international tournament before NHL players participated in the Winter Olympics. Playing for Canada against the heavily favored Soviet Union in the semifinal, he’d already scored once and then later had one of the hardest-working shifts ever seen, manhandling two players behind the net in sudden death overtime to help set up a Paul Coffey point shot that was deflected wide.
But Tonelli kept on working, evading a check to send another loose puck back to Coffey, whose shot this time was deflected home by Islanders’ great Bossy for the winning goal.
Tonelli was named MVP of the game and later the entire tournament after initially hesitating to even accept the invitation to Team Canada’s training camp.
“I remember him telling me when he went to camp he wasn’t even sure he was going to make the team,” Jordan Tonelli said, adding he’s never actually seen taped footage of the game, but has heard plenty of stories about it. “He just wanted to prove everyone wrong. And obviously, he ended up doing that.”
That’s quite a legacy to live up to. And admittedly, there’s only so much avoiding of on-ice comparisons Tonelli can manage.
“I think I am actually kind of similar,” Tonelli said, chuckling. “I always try to play a similar way. I play a hard game. A two-way game. Which I think I have in common with him.”
His dad, who’s divorced with three children from his first marriage, had remarried to his second wife, Lauren, and had Tonelli and his brother, Zach. While their on-ice styles may be similar, their routes through hockey have been entirely different.
His Canadian father grew up in a hockey-crazed steeltown, played in the precursor to the major junior Ontario Hockey League, then famously jumped to the major professional World Hockey Association as a teenager. Tonelli, meanwhile, grew up in the town of Armonk in Westchester County, New York — hardly a hockey hotbed back then.
“I was one of like, three kids in my grade that played hockey,” he said.
He and his brother began playing on a small, frozen pond on the family’s large property, then their dad gradually built it into more of a rink.
Tonelli later played for Cedar Rapids, Iowa in the junior level United States Hockey League before embarking on an NCAA career — which players such as his father taking the major junior route are ineligible to do. His first season at Brown University was canceled due to the pandemic, but last season he played 26 games, scoring three goals and adding two assists.
His famous dad, now 65, was usually in the stands.
“He’s a huge supporter,” Tonelli said. “He comes to pretty much all my games. Obviously, I hear what I hear from my coaches but I also hear from him what he thinks as well.”
They don’t always agree.
“When I was younger, we would disagree a lot,” he said, chuckling again. “But as I’ve gotten older and matured a little bit, we’ve had more peaceful conversations about what’s going on out there. He’s really just trying to give me little pointers to help me in different areas.”
Though his dad’s former teammate Henning still works for the Kraken and assistant general manager Ricky Olczyk was once a Brown team captain, Tonelli isn’t the property of any NHL or pro club yet. Invited players come to these camps hoping to get noticed and that it eventually leads to something.
For now, Tonelli plans another season at Brown and to further his Ivy League education. He’s studying Applied Math Economics and said: “My parents have invested too much in me not to get my degree.”
But if the right pro offer comes along, he isn’t above continuing to forge his own hockey path a little beyond.
“It would be a good problem to have.”