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How working on a sheep farm helped turn the Flyers’ first-round draft pick into a top NHL prospect

Stacking 500 to 1,000 bales of hay a day helped Tyson Foerster build up strength, which helps give him a powerful shot. The bales weigh about 50 pounds each.

Tyson Foerster, the powerful right winger who was drafted by the Flyers in the first round, said one of the secrets of his strength is lifting about 500 to 1,000 bales of hay while working summers at his grandparents' farm in Ontario.
Tyson Foerster, the powerful right winger who was drafted by the Flyers in the first round, said one of the secrets of his strength is lifting about 500 to 1,000 bales of hay while working summers at his grandparents' farm in Ontario.Read moreCourtesy of the family

It’s easy to imagine Tyson Foerster one day whipping wicked, one-time shots from the left circle as Flyers fans percolate with excitement, anticipating what his quick release and powerful follow-through can do to opposing goaltenders.

Foerster, 18, had one of the hardest shots of any of the 217 players selected in the recent NHL draft. It’s one of the reasons the Flyers selected the 6-foot-2, 194-pound right winger with the No. 23 overall pick. That and his playmaking ability, his high hockey IQ, and his driven, competitive personality.

Oh, and his willingness to work on things that need improvement, like his skating (it’s gotten much better) and his defense, general manager Chuck Fletcher said.

But, make no mistake, Foerster’s blistering shot, which has been compared to (gulp) Alex Ovechkin’s, is his calling card.

Thousands of hours on the ice have perfected it. Countless hours in the weight room have helped, along with sweaty summers working on his grandparents' sheep farm, located about 10 minutes from his parents' home in Alliston, Ontario.

Sheep farm?

“We have to get the hay ready for the winter, so there’s lot of haying and cleaning,” Foerster said in a phone interview last week. “They have a couple of cows and horses, as well, so it’s a pretty busy summer.”

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He stacks the hay, works the fields with his tractor, shovels manure, takes care of the animals, and cleans out the stalls, along with other jobs.

Building strength

Stacking 500 to 1,000 bales of hay a day helped him build up strength, which helps give him a more powerful shot. The bales weigh about 50 pounds each. “It’s not the easiest job, but I think it’s worth it,” the affable Foerster said. “I like helping my grandparents out and I’m also getting a bit of a workout.”

Dean and Ellen Cottrell, Tyson’s maternal grandparents, own 100 sheep on a 100-acre farm. They breed them and sell the lambs, and they also raise cattle. They sell hay and use some for their animals.

They have lots of stories about Tyson and his older brother, Dawson, who each started working on the farm during their early grade-school years.

“They used to come here and spend the summer when school was over,” Dean Cottrell said. “They’d work out on the farm with us all week, then go home for supper and go and do their sports and then come back here and spend the night and work the next day — everything from fixing fences to tending to the animals.”

“Each year, they were less of a problem and more of a help,” Ellen Cottrell said.

When Tyson was 12, his grandmother said, “the bales were pretty heavy for him, and it was really, really hot and sunny and I remember him crying his eyes out as he was working away. He was so hot and so tired, but he didn’t want to quit.”

Scouts say he has that same type of work ethic on the ice.

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This summer, before working on the farm, Foerster would do early-morning workouts with former NHL right winger Aaron Downey in Shelburne, lifting weights and doing some unconventional drills. Downey "does it old school,” said Dean Cottrell, who was on Toronto’s emergency-task police force, equivalent to SWAT teams in the United States, before retiring and getting into farming nearly three decades ago. “He had them with weights on and running through the potato fields, which isn’t easy, and turning the big heavy tires and stuff like that.”

Like a lot of Canadians, Foerster is an outdoors person. He likes to fish and hunt. He doesn’t watch much TV “except for sports,” enjoys playing PlayStation 4 and listening to Drake.

But his real passion is hockey.

Two years ago, his grandfather said, he and his grandson were in a supermarket when “a woman who was his Grade 3 teacher came up to us and said, 'You’re not going to believe this, but Tyson said to me in Grade 3 that 2018 is the year he was going to get drafted into the OHL.”

Tyson was 9 years old when he made that proclamation. Seven years later, that’s exactly what happened.

"Back when he was maybe 4 years old, he was sleeping here and having a nightmare, and Ellen went up there and said, ‘Just think about something good. What makes you feel good?’ " Dean Cottrell said. “And he said, ‘Playing a real hockey game.’ "

He closed his eyes again. Sweet dreams, kid.

Skating improvement

Foerster’s skating was rated as just average, which is why he fell to No. 23, scouts said. But his once-choppy skating has improved greatly since the Ontario Hockey League season ended, according to Paul Matheson.

Matheson is the skating coach for Foerster’s OHL team, the Barrie Colts, and also his personal instructor. He has been working with Foerster once a week since June, and he said the big forward’s work ethic is off the charts.

Foerster used to skate awkwardly, but not anymore.

If you last saw him in the OHL last season and looked at him now, he’s a “different skater,” Matheson said.

“I think it’s improved a whole bunch over the summer and over the quarantine,” Foerster said. “I’m still trying to improve it, and I think I’m right up there with some of the best” in the OHL.

Foerster started working out with Matheson in the summer of 2019. At the time Foerster’s skating “was a question mark,” Matheson said. “His basic straight-line stride was not very pretty to watch. It’s better now, but that’s something that was glaring and stuck out like a sore thumb. Even if you weren’t a skating aficionado, you’d watch him and say, something doesn’t look right there. It just looked labored and slow. Choppy. Just inefficient. And most of that was because his upper body was too involved; it wasn’t in a good position.

"It was almost like he was trying to skate with his shoulders. He was using a lot of energy with body parts that are a long way from the ice. He’s been able to quiet that down, and his acceleration has really taken a nice step. He has to build on the consistency of that and make it so it’s habit and second-nature, but the great news is that he’s shown he can do it.”

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This past summer, Foerster "made noticeable progress,” Matheson said. “Unfortunately, not many people have gotten to see that” because the pandemic has delayed the start of the 2020-21 OHL season. “Before, he was working hard, but the work wasn’t really well-directed toward being a good skater. It was just hard work for the sake of hard work. His efficiency is much better; he’s in much more powerful positions. Everything has improved dramatically.”

Matheson paused.

“There’s still work to do, but from where he was, there’s going to be a lot of people who are going to be very surprised at how much of a different skater he is from the middle of March, when everything shut down. After everything we’ve done, he hasn’t had a chance to try it out yet in a game situation and see how it holds up. He’s on the ice with other pro players that are bigger and stronger than him and he holds his own, skating-wise, quite easily now — and that’s very positive.”

'Always there for me’

As a rookie with Barrie two years ago, Foerster played for former Flyer Dale Hawerchuk, who had to stop coaching after the 2018-19 season as he battled stomach cancer. Hawerchuk, a Hockey Hall of Famer who played most of his career in Winnipeg, died in August at age 57.

“We were pretty close. He always had something to cheer me up, even though I wasn’t playing that much in my rookie season,” said Foerster, who made a 57-point improvement from his first to second seasons. “He texted me before he passed and we talked a bit. … I think everyone pretty much knew he was in his last couple days. He was always there for (me).”

Last season, Foerster erupted for 36 goals — 18 on the power play — and 80 points in 62 games. He signed a three-year entry-level contract last week.

“He has a shoot-first mentality,” said Brent Flahr, a Flyers assistant GM who is their draft guru.

Foerster plays with an edginess and is not short on confidence. His goal, he said, is to go from the junior ranks to the NHL in 2021-22. It’s not common, but it does happen. Sean Couturier, then 18, went from the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League right to the Flyers after he was drafted in 2011.

After another year in the OHL, Foerster hopes to be ready for the NHL at age 19.

“Maybe not this year, but maybe next year,” he said when asked about his aspirations to reach the NHL. “If I keep working — I’m a pretty big kid — and if I get my skating up, then I can go right in there.”

All dates are tentative because of the coronavirus, but Foerster and his Barrie teammates are scheduled to open their OHL training camp Nov. 15, with the season starting Dec. 1.

Besides improving his skating and defensive skills, Foerster said he wants to become a better leader. “We’re still a young group, so being a good leader for the boys” is important, he said.

Craig Button, the former Calgary Flames general manager who is now a TSN analyst, said Foerster “plays with skill, smarts and is very competitive. He has progressed significantly in two seasons, and as he matures, he will only get better.”

Maybe his slap shot won’t be as lethal as future Hall of Famer Ovechkin, but Foerster said he has heard the comparison and is humbled by it.

“It’s pretty cool when they compare that,” he said, adding Ovechkin is his favorite player. “I just love his passion for the game and how happy he is every time he steps on the ice, whether he scores or he doesn’t, or his teammates score. He’s always the happiest person ever, so I admire that.”

Foerster’s overall game has been compared to four-time All-Star Corey Perry, a 12-year vet who has 341 career goals.

“I mean, Corey Perry has a Cup. He’s a winner. I don’t mind being compared to him,” Foerster said with a chuckle.

Philly, here he comes

Foerster looks forward to the day when he can play at the Wells Fargo Center. He attended a Flyers game in Philadelphia when he was about 10. He doesn’t remember specifics from the game or who was the Flyers' opponent, but there was something from that night that left an impression.

“All I remember is how nuts the fans were in the building,” he said. “They were always yelling, always screaming. I thought it was a pretty cool experience, just seeing how crazy they were — and now getting drafted by them, it’s pretty cool. It’ll be fun to play in front of those rowdy fans.”

But first, he realizes, he has lots of work to get to that level.

“Like everyone always says, it’s a dream of mine to play in the NHL,” Foerster said, “and I couldn’t be happier that it’s with the Flyers.”

He will get there one day. Maybe as soon as October in 2021 — after one more summer of baling hay.