How new NHL dads juggle newborns, playoff pressure

The Lightning had a lot to celebrate in their second-round rout of the Bruins. But J.T. Miller has another reason for joy this spring. Mark LoMoglio/NHLI via Getty Images

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Winning their first-round playoff series in five games was beneficial to the stamina of the Tampa Bay Lightning -- and essential to the sanity of J.T. and Natalie Miller.

Had the Lightning's series gone to six games against the New Jersey Devils, J.T. would have been in Newark while his wife, Natalie, was delivering their first child, daughter Scottlyn, at 7:20 p.m. on April 23. "We won Game 5, and she went into labor 30 hours later," Miller told ESPN.

Her pregnancy spanned a hockey year for Miller that saw his season with the New York Rangers descend into disappointment before he was shipped down to Tampa in a trade-deadline blockbuster that included defenseman Ryan McDonagh.

"After the long year in New York, and after the trade down here and getting settled, she was just begging to get that baby out," he said, laughing. "It's been amazing. It's something my wife and I have been looking forward to for a long time."

But then came the hard part for the new parents: having Miller embark back on the Lightning's playoff journey, attempting to keep his focus on his ultimate career goal while a tiny miracle was growing up fast back home.

"It's hard leaving her. She's so fresh. So new. And it goes so fast. She's coming up on a month now," said Miller.

The 25-year-old Lightning forward is one of three players in the Eastern Conference finals who have welcomed a child during the postseason. Teammate Yanni Gourde and wife Marie-Andrée welcomed Emma Kate Gourde to the world just hours after Game 2 of Tampa's second-round series against the Boston Bruins. Gourde was back with the team in time for Game 3.

Washington Capitals defenseman John Carlson and wife Gina welcomed their second child, son Rudy, on May 5. Carlson then scored the opening goal in the Capitals' Game 5 win against the Pittsburgh Penguins the following night. "It was pretty cool. A pretty cool couple of days. Everything worked out great. Everyone's healthy, and that's most important," he said after that game.

Nearly two weeks later, Carlson is doing what he can to stay connected to Gina and their newborn when he's on the road.

"She's gonna need a new hard drive on her phone for all the pictures she takes," Carlson said.

For the Carlsons, Rudy's arrival ended an emotional two years of trying to conceive a second child. Gina Carlson wrote on Instagram about two miscarriages and an ectopic pregnancy she endured. "John told me over and over again, God wouldn't give me anything I couldn't handle," she wrote last December.

Thank you everyone for the well wishes on our baby boy 💙I've gone back & forth whether to share our story about this journey. Positive stories kept me going & this subject is so rarely talked about. When Lucca was 4 months, we decided we wanted another one.. A few months later we were pregnant but quickly found out something wasn't right. On Lucca's 1st birthday, I spent the day in the ER removing a ruptured ectopic pregnancy & my tube. I remember being thankful Lucca was healthy & home having fun with his grammie & anxiously wanting to get home & watch Lucca do his cake. I felt lucky to be able to get pregnant so easily & felt god wasn't ready for us to add to our family. 9 months later we were pregnant & found out we were miscarrying again. Two months later, we were pregnant for a third time. John was on his way home so I got Lucca dressed up in a hockey shirt that said "big brother," & he wanted to put his skates on too. Daddy got home & we surprised him with the news. Baby was due right around Christmas. I was so excited & remember thinking about Lucca & baby in matching Christmas PJs, I started dreaming up our family of 4. My first appointment was here. The sonogram woman looked puzzled. I knew. My heart sank.( John was in playoffs so I was alone at my appointment.) My doctor tried to stay positive & tell me sometimes it's just too early & we needed to wait 14 days to confirm. Everything inside of me knew it was over.. I didn't tell anyone besides John for days bc I was so crushed. There's no worse feeling than being pregnant, feeling pregnant, being sick & knowing there's no baby you will meet one day. 14 days later DR confirmed the baby had stopped growing. Thankfully my husband had the day off & took me for my surgery. Remembering back on these hospital days, my husband always kept me laughing & smiling. A few weeks later we found out our 3rd loss was a girl. Knowing the gender hurt way more than anything else. John told me over & over again, god wouldn't give me anything I couldn't handle. We decided we'd try IVF & genetic testing with the embryos.The month we were suppose to start, my heart wasn't in it. I couldn't do it.

A post shared by Gina Nucci Carlson (@gnacarlson) on

Now, with the Capitals having gone further in the playoffs than they have before in Carlson's career, he's indebted to his wife's fortitude while he's away.

"I'm pretty lucky. She's a real strong person and can shoulder the work," he said, "And I'm also blessed to have the ability to get help. Her family is from D.C., too, so there are a lot of people around, chipping in."

Miller also feels blessed. "We've pretty much had our entire family there to share it, from her side and my side, to help her out while I'm away right now. It's amazing," he said.

Help is in abundance for new fathers on NHL teams. In the Lightning room, there are more than a dozen players with children.

"You don't really go out of your way to ask questions, but it comes up. Everybody has kids. Everybody's been through it," said Miller. "And everybody's been great, even the wives, who have helped my wife out with even the little things. Just letting her know what they've been through, and that it's going to be OK."

Capitals forward T.J. Oshie, a father of two, said players can rely on each other for parental trade secrets. "When we're hanging around, you mention stuff. If I have a problem, I'll ask someone with older kids. Or I'll talk with Nick [Backstrom], because our kids are of a similar age. When you're a parent, you find different tricks along the line from all sorts of different people. And you take when you can get," he said.

Oshie said long-distance fatherhood has gotten easier as technology has improved. "It's a lot easier these days than it was in the past, with FaceTime and all that stuff. For me, it's FaceTime in the morning, when I get back to the hotel after the skate, and FaceTime before I go to the rink. I get to see the kids [multiple] times during the day. It makes it easier," he said.

Miller said his wife sends him a constant stream of Snapchat images of their daughter and that he FaceTimes with them from the road.

Carlson? Well, he's tried to use FaceTime.

"We're not great at that. My oldest son likes to hang up all the time, so it's kind of useless," he said.

Joking aside, it's not uncommon for new fathers to feel useless when they're away from a newborn and their partners.

"Kids have been the greatest blessing in my life. They help me appreciate the game, appreciate family, all that kind of stuff," said Anaheim Ducks captain Ryan Getzlaf, who together with wife Paige has four children. "But that first season [as a father], I felt guilty all the time for leaving. I felt like I was missing out on things. You have to learn, your wife has to learn, the dynamic that's going to work for your family."

Oshie agreed that missing out on big moments can be gutting.

"The toughest part is not being there for the lessons that they learn. You get home, and you see that they've learned some new stuff. And you realize that they learned it without you. That's the hardest part," he said.

Of course, the playoffs aren't like going off to war. Players return home for a few days at a time, and that time with their families becomes even more valuable than it typically is. It's also therapeutic, according to Carlson.

"It's nice to get your mind off things sometimes. I use it as therapy a little bit," said Carlson. "Yeah, I can get some rest [on the road]. But when you're at home, you're trying to shut your brain down. Mental fatigue is significant at this point of the season, even more than physical. The more you can shut your brain off, it helps you refocus a little bit. It's white noise."

Ask NHL players, and they'll tell you there's no template for fatherhood, no blanket approach to this incredible change in their lives and the lives of their partners.

"I know this is a little bit cliché, but there's really not a whole lot that can prepare you for parenthood," said Getzlaf. "You have to just live it. Especially in our world, with how much it changes your daily life and how much more important things feel for you away from the rink."

Lightning coach Jon Cooper, a father of three, has a word for that: perspective.

"It's amazing, these playoff babies. And to have them on off days is remarkable," he said, with a laugh, after the arrival of the Gourdes' baby. "Let's be honest: We play a game for a living, and it's competitive, and all the clichés you can throw out there. But nothing matches the birth of your children. It just puts everything in perspective."