Hat's On for Prospect Ty Nelson | NHL.com

2022-08-08 07:00:01 By : Ms. Rebecca Wu

When an 18-year-old hockey player hears his name called at the NHL Draft, the emotions of an entire childhood dream can flood the moment. For Kraken third-round draft choice Ty Nelson, his reaction was "pure excitement" then, same as the way he plays as a defenseman, straight to the action July 8 when Seattle director of amateur scouting Robert Kron announced Nelson as the 68th overall pick at the 2022 draft in Montreal.  

"As soon as I stood up, I just wanted to say, 'thank you,' to my parents," said Nelson. "They've done everything to help me get where I am. That was the big thing."

When asked later in the Kraken suite at Bell Centre about their first thoughts when son Ty was officially drafted, Rick Nelson said that a flood of emotions took over his voice. He paused a moment, then said his first reaction was "thank God."

"Blessed," said Ty's mom, Tracy.

"Seattle is truly, truly an unbelievable organization," said Rick Nelson, emotions back in check. "Great ownership and the facilities are top-notch."

Nelson was raised in the Clearview Heights neighborhood in west Toronto, sharing a 700-square-foot, two-bedroom apartment with his parents and older sister. Rick is a steelworker and Tracy works in an insurance office. They call themselves a blue-collar family and have stayed in Clearview Heights despite increased gang violence because Rick's widowed mom lives in the building next door and have vowed never to move. Rick and Tracy worked second jobs and despite overtime hours, never failed to wake early to drive their son to hockey practice and games.

"We have worked hard to put Ty in a position where he was able to succeed," said Rick Nelson. "It's all about family. My wife and I would be working, so our daughter [Peyton] would come home as a 15-year-old daughter and make pasta for Ty before he went to practice."

The roles reversed last Christmas when the Kraken defenseman prospect was home for the holidays after a torrid first half of his rookie season with the North Bay Battalion of the Ontario Hockey League. Thanks to his billet family and dad-renowned local chef, Steve Bitonti, Nelson had learned how to make homemade pasta, meatballs from scratch, bruschetta, plus a proper Caesar salad. Sister Peyton helped prepare the meal and mom Tracy learned how to make the meatballs Rick Nelson told Bitonti by phone "I could eat a million of those meatballs."

There were no private power skating lessons or pitching in money for ice time and extra practice. Yet when the Ontario Hockey League staged their annual draft of 16-year-olds in 2020, Nelson was the first overall pick, going to the North Bay Battalion.

Nelson left his family for the first time as a 5-foot-8, 175-pound defenseman whose early years as forward still show today in his quickness on the ice in all directions and the way he joins the offensive rush (evident in ample shifts during the recent Kraken Development Camp). Nelson, who scored nine goals and added 42 assists for 51 points in 66 regular-season games last year plus 10 more assists in 13 playoff games.

On his draft day, Nelson stood a sturdy 5-foot-10 and 195 pounds. The North Bay leadership wanted a billet family who could help Nelson eat healthy foods while getting bigger and stronger. The Bitontis fit the bill, especially since Bitonti, along with his beloved North Bay "The Boat" restaurant, operates a catering business that includes the juniors team Battalion's arena.

After missing the entire OHL season in his originally planned rookie season of 2020-21, Nelson proved quickly to be a fan favorite in North Bay even with older stars and NHL draft picks on the squad. He was voted such by fans at the end of this past season and similarly honored in a best teammate vote by players. As importantly for NHL teams and scouts - and make no mistake other NHL teams were prepared to pick Nelson in the third round if the Kraken didn't beat them to it - the right-shot defender shows his wares on protecting his team's end.

Tiktok from @BellissimoHats: We surprised @tynelson29 with a custom hat for his big day #nhldraft we wish him luck and success wherever he wnds up playing.

"That's what the Battalion set out to do," said Bitonti, who has worked with the OHL franchise since it moved from Brampton to North Bay for the 2013-14 season. "The coaching staff here is phenomenal ... they felt the hockey world knew about Ty's offensive upside but they wanted to showcase Ty's defensive abilities because that's what was going to make him more attractive on draft day, that he's a smaller defenseman that can hit like a truck. He's got that reputation now - you know not only to watch him for when he's got the puck but you better watch out when you have the puck."

Billet families in the hockey universe are what in many ways holds together the rise of young players to become bonafide professionals who can begin to realistically aspire to play in the NHL, earn a college scholarship, play in Europe if not in North America, become coaches and scouts and professional-level referees, all of the above.

For Nelson, his billet family assured Rick and Stacy their son from the close-knit family was living with another tight, loving group of humans. The meatballs are a bonus. Steve Bitonti wanted to do something special for Nelson's draft day, no matter what round or which NHL team made the selection. He wanted this always-working, chip-on-the-shoulder, big-hearted defenseman to somehow stand out among the 200-plus kids picked in Montreal earlier this month.

The solution came from Bitonti's two grandfathers' classic fedoras and his own admission of near-bald head ("no brush involved, my biggest hair decision is which hat do I wear"). Bitonti follows the Chayo brothers, Levi and Yossi, and their New York-based Bellissimo line on Instagram. The Hasidic Jewish brother founded the business in 2017 with the idea of making quality hats at affordable prices, though they continue to make custom hats for the likes of Snoop Dog, Jamie Fox, Cedric the Entertainer and more than half of the Montreal Canadiens roster (the Chayos both married Montreal women).

Bitonti's brainstorm was late-breaking but Levi Chayo was intrigued by the challenge of making the custom hat in a week's and even delivered the hat himself to Nelson at the draft in Montreal. Bitonti's first idea was black hat with a light blue band to match the suit fabric sent by Tracy Nelson. Chayo said, "Do you trust me?" and Bitonti said, "Absolutely."

The result was a glorious light blue chapeau that matched perfectly with Ty Nelson's chosen tie and, more fittingly, the Kraken jersey Nelson slipped on after handshakes from Robert Kron and Kraken GM Ron Francis.

Let's just agree it was a social-media sensation. Plus, while most every draft choice donned NHL team ball caps that day of Rounds 2 to 7, Nelson kept the Bellissimo/Bitonti creation. Even the official NHL photographer taking head shots told Nelson, don't you dare switch to the ball cap.

"Levi and I had a long talk after I messaged him on Instagram," said Bitonti. "We wanted Ty to look like a million bucks. It's his draft day. I said to Levi, 'do what you gotta do.' When he sent me the final picture, it almost took my breath away ... And it happened to work perfectly with a Seattle Kraken uniform. It was awesome."

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