LANDSHUT, Germany — For two years, at every home game played by the national development program’s 2004 age group at USA Hockey Arena in Plymouth, M.I., the biggest cheering section has belonged to one player: Frank Nazar III.
On a bad night, there are 10 people there screaming him on. On a good one, there might be 20. They travel in from in and around Mount Clemens, 50 minutes east of Plymouth in Harrison Township at the border of Detroit and Lake St. Clair. Most of them are usually wearing his No. 14 jersey. His mom, Gina, often sports a USA hairband. And they are loud.
Down below them on the ice, though, the player they shout after is best known as reclusive and shy, a contrast to his family.
Five months ago, standing in the tunnel outside his locker room at the arena, Nazar rolled his eyes when asked about them, as if to feign embarrassment.
“Everyone comes. Everyone. The entire arena knows the Nazar family…” he said, pausing. “I basically grew up playing in this rink my whole life. Every guy on the team, you’ll ask them who’s got the biggest crowd and it’s always going to be me. (My family) love it and it’s a special thing for them to come watch USA play.”
Nazar’s the kind of kid who likes to keep his hockey career and the rest of his life apart.
He admits he hasn’t grown as close with his teammates these last two years as some of them have with each other because of that.
“I don’t like to hang out too much outside the rink,” he said. “I like to keep it separate. That’s how I prefer it. School friends and hockey friends.”
Earlier this year, he sat down his entire family and asked them not to speak to him about his draft year. He even asked his adviser, Kevin Magnuson of KO Sports, to do the same.
“We’re not allowed to talk about it,” Gina said. “Like we are not. He has refused. He does not want to know where he’s at, nothing. He just wants to focus on getting better and working towards the team goals for the year, which is under-18 worlds. So when he’s home, we really just try to talk about everyday life. And because we’re a really big family, we’re always able to talk about other things that are going on.”
This week, in Germany for that U18 World Championship he has been working toward, his cheering section is just two: his mom, Gina, and one of his three sisters, Victoria. But amongst the scattered USA jerseys belonging to the family of all of the players around Landshut’s Fanatec Arena, they’re still unmistakable, their voices ringing out as they sit at the edge of the tables and booths that line the south end of the rink just above the glass.
Between the hums and haws and the excited encouragements of all of the American boys — Skate! Shoot! Get it! Come on! — they talk to No. 14.
That they’re there, though, in any capacity, means the world to him. The Nazar family are a blue collar one and, standing in a different tunnel outside a different USA dressing room this week, more than 4,300 miles away from home, it’s not lost on him that spending two weeks in Germany is a big undertaking for them.
“It’s pretty expensive to get over here so not everyone could make it, but they’re taking the time and I’m grateful that they’d even take the time off work or spend the money to come over here and support,” Nazar said. “I think that’s pretty cool.”
Nazar, or Frank III, has always played two for things. To fuel a deep-seated, quiet competitiveness that has propelled him to the very top of the NHL Draft – and for them.
Gina and Frank Nazar II are laughing about their luck over speaker phone on a late-February call when Frank slips up.
“I definitely struck out first,” he says.
Gina corrects him.
“You struck out three times,” she says, laughing.
They weren’t always planning to have four kids, but they knew they wanted to have a boy. A lot of what makes Frank III the reserved type has been being the little brother to three big sisters and the only son to a strong-willed mom.
“He had sisters that gave him all of the emotional advice and then had other sisters that would wrestle with him,” Gina said of the family dynamic.
The Nazars were never your typical hockey family, either. They never even expected to be a hockey family. Neither Gina nor Frank II ever really played sports, let alone hockey. None of his sisters (Katie, Victoria and Amanda) ever played hockey either.
For the last five years, Frank II has been a kitchen manager at a senior living facility and Gina has been a controller for a building and roofing company. Before that, they owned their own small business, a restaurant and banquet hall on Lake St. Clair: “It was fun but we got a little old and being out working until 3 in the morning in your 40s isn’t fun,” Gina said of the career change. Before that, the Nazar family owned a valet parking garage in downtown Detroit right across from Cobo Hall (since re-named Huntington Place) and adjacent to the former home of the Red Wings, Joe Louis Arena.
Frank got into hockey and eventually became a diehard Red Wings fan almost by default. On game days, when it filled, he had to be able to talk to fans — and, yes, the Red Wings players and families who parked there — about the team on their way in, and the game on their way out.
“It’s really the only sport that our family watches on TV and we all enjoy watching,” Gina said.
In the Red Wings’ heydays in the 1990s, Frank II was known to have snuck into a Stanley Cup parade (or two), evidence of which they still have in pictures.
“We had a golf cart and one of my co-workers and I, we decked it out red and white, we had a stereo on it and Red Wings flags, and we actually broke through the chains on Woodward (Avenue) and him and I used it, with music blaring, to lead the parades,” Frank II said, laughing once more. “We told the cops we worked for WRIF (the local radio station), and they let us right in. It was a lot of fun.”
Frank III began to take interest in the sport after finding his dad watching the games on TV enough nights to start asking questions. He didn’t put skates on for the first time until he was 6 and his parents finally brought him to the local learn-to-skate program with the 4- and 5-year-old kids.
But when he got on the ice for the first time, he just started skating.
“The guys were like, ‘Why is he in learn to skate, he already knows how to skate?’ and I was like, ‘Well, he’s never skated before today so I thought he needed to learn to skate!’” Gina said, laughing. “And he kind of just took off, I don’t know how. And then he was just kind of naturally good at it and it just kind of happened. You play one season and then they say, ‘Do you want to go to travel?’ and you say ,‘Oh, OK, sure’ and it kind of all rolled from there.”
“I only did it for one day,” Frank III said of the learn-to-skate program. “When I came back they put me in the highest group. So it kind of just came natural and I was lucky with that because I was late to start.”
After just one year of house league, Frank III immediately made the prestigious nearby Belle Tire AAA team. Then, at 12, he made the jump to the rival AAA Detroit HoneyBaked.
With the HoneyBaked, under then-head coach Mike Hamilton (now the head coach of the USHL’s Muskegon Lumberjacks), he started to realize that he might have a future in the sport.
It took some time, though. When he first arrived, he was really raw compared to his teammates (a star studded group that included future program teammates Rutger McGroarty and Cutter Gauthier, as well as would-be No. 3 pick into the OHL, Max Namestnikov).
But he had one thing going for him: He was faster than everybody else. Hamilton and the HoneyBaked knew that from playing against him.
“He didn’t really know the game, he was just a gifted skater,” Hamilton said. “So the toughest part for him, and this is where I think he grew so much as a hockey player, is he had to learn how to play with a bunch of players that were as good as him. He had to take that step from just doing it himself to, ‘How do I make my linemates and my teammates better?’ He had to figure out how to not just play north and south but how to play east and west, and finish his checks, and defend.”
The good news was that Frank III was determined to figure it out.
“He was one of the hardest-working kids I’ve ever worked with,” Hamilton said. “You were never going to question his work ethic. He was going to come to work every day and work his ass off.”
He was also a kid who, even as a pre-teen, knew that he was shy and would use that as motivation to help other players on the team who didn’t fit in.
“Honestly, if there were guys on the team that weren’t getting a lot of ice or guys that people would pick on, those were the guys that he gravitated to,” Hamilton said. “As a person, he just really wanted everyone to feel part of the team. I have nothing but great, great things to say about the type of person he was, even at that youth age. He always spent time with everybody to make them feel comfortable.”
After finishing eighth on the HoneyBaked in scoring in his first year, Frank III quickly became the team’s most improved player.
By his third and final year with the team, he rattled off 127 points in 55 games at the U15 level.
That year, he was also named to Team USA for the first time when he was selected to play at the Youth Olympics in Switzerland. After posting five points in four games, Gina and Frank II began to see in their son what he’d begun seeing in himself: a future in hockey. Only they imagined something different than his NHL dream.
“We were just hoping for some free college,” Frank II said, he and Gina both laughing.
“With three girls who already went through college, we had our fingers crossed,” Gina said.
“It tapped us out pretty good,” he added.
After his performance at the Youth Olympics, Frank III was selected to the national program even without their usual 50-player camp (which never took place due to the pandemic).
At the program, he quickly turned the entire staff, from coaches Adam Nightingale and Nick Fohr to strength coach Brian Galivan, into huge fans.
The first thing they noticed was the same thing everyone does: the skating.
Nightingale calls it “world class.”
“I have a hard time believing there’s anyone with his ability to create separation (in the 2022 draft),” Nightingale said.
Fohr calls Frank III’s speed “second to none.”
“Everybody who comes to the rink, he’s going to jump out at you because he’s so fast. We joke around that he averages like two breakaways a game,” Fohr said. “He’s just so different than the rest of the players on the ice sheet that way.”
On one of his first days training with GVN (Galivan’s gym, which runs out of the national program), Galivan was struck by his natural athleticism and surprised to learn that Frank III didn’t come from a family of athletes.
“Genetically he’s pretty special. I don’t tell him that but he is. He’s a hell of an athlete,” Galivan said. “When it comes to performance metrics, he’s definitely in the top of a very, very elite group.”
But the bigger thing they were all drawn to was his ability to learn.
In his first year at the program, there were growing pains for Frank III that were bigger than those of many of his teammates. But he then just kept getting better and better.
The switch flipped, according to Fohr, when they moved him from the wing to centre, to get his smallish frame (today he’s 5-foot-10 and says his weight fluctuates between 170 and 175 pounds) off the wall and into the middle where he could really skate.
“It wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows in the beginning. But he’s an analytical kid, he’s got a lot of questions, and he’s always got one more thing to ask,” Fohr said.
Frank III progressed so quickly that by the time the season was done his 55 points in 45 games led the team in scoring.
“He has really blossomed into a very well-rounded player,” Fohr said. “He has learned how to utilize that speed. Sometimes if you’re too fast and you’re too far in front all of the time, you need to learn patience. And he has learned the times to go and the times not to. That’s a subtle piece of the game that’s hard to pick up but he has done a good job with.”
In back-to-back offseasons with Galivan, he made equal progress in the gym as well. Though he says adding weight is one of the biggest difficulties he as a hockey player, he has worked with Galivan to make sure he’s doing everything he can to put on weight in the summer and then maintain it in season.
“I work really hard at it,” he said.
Galivan insists Frank III has diligently trained his earned his speed too, even appears second nature from afar.
“He’s extremely explosive, he’s powerful … and to train those two qualities, you need to have a lot of intent behind your training, which is something that Frankie doesn’t have any problem with. He’s very talented but he’s got a blue collar approach. That’s Frankie in a nutshell,” Galivan said. “And one of the things about Frank is he’s one of the guys at the top but he doesn’t take advantage of that. He works just as hard as some of the guys that may be closer to the bottom. That’s what makes Frank special. It’s not so much that he is an elite athlete but he’s also got an elite work ethic. He’s really mature for his age; he’s got real, specific goals.”
To reach those goals, Frank III billets close to the rink in-season as well as in the summer so that he can keep up with his 3-4 hour training days split between the ice and GVN, going home on the weekends. That means going head-to-head with the Hughes brothers, Cole Caufield, Cam York, and the rest of the program’s NHL alums who return in the offseason.
“That’s a pretty big commitment for him,” Galivan said.
That commitment led to a second consecutive season where the speed with which he got better matched the speed with which he played.
Nightingale was particularly impressed with how he handled games against the tougher opponents the U18 team play against (after playing predominantly against the NAHL and USHL in their U17 seasons, the program replaces their NAHL games with NCAA ones in their final year).
“It’s unbelievable how much his game has grown,” Nightingale said. “He’s way more engaged for a full shift and I think his ability to change speeds has adapted. When he came in, everything was speed based. Now he’s able to delay and then explode and protect the puck.”
When the U18 team played Muskegon this season, Hamilton, saw that progress firsthand when Frank III scored six points in five games against his team.
“Now, as I watch and coach against him today, I see the player he has become and how he has learned how to pull people in with him and it’s impressive. He just grew so much in all of those aspects (that he needed to work on) to the point where they’re now strengths of his that you can see plain as day,” Hamilton said. “We inherited him as is with the skating. He has always been able to flat out fly and has always had a hard, sneaky shot. Those were just gifts that God gave him. He has just figured out how to use those gifts.”
Though Frank III doesn’t want to know about his draft status, he’s likely to be picked in the first half of the first round in Montreal this summer.
After leading the U17 team in scoring to begin his U18 season with an ‘A’ rating from NHL Central Scouting, indicating him as a first-round pick, he played his way to the No. 17 slot on their North American skaters ranking at midseason.
Then, after battling through a shoulder injury he suffered crashing into the boards in the second half, he finished third on the team in scoring (behind linemate Isaac Howard and projected top-five pick Logan Cooley) with 61 points in 50 games heading into U18 worlds. And in Germany, he added to that total.
After scoring the tying 2-2 goal in USA’s stunning 6-4 gold medal loss to Sweden, Frank III finished the tournament with nine points in six games.
Ahead? A busy summer.
The last of his three sisters is set to graduate from university the summer. Another is set to get married in August. And he just became an uncle.
Oh, and then there’s the draft. But they can’t talk about that.
“We’re excited, and nervous, and all of those emotions that we don’t show to him,” Gina said, laughing.
Next fall, he’ll begin his next hockey chapter at the University of Michigan as a freshman with the Wolverines as well. His cheering section will only need to add 20 minutes to their drives.
And as much as they might embarrass him, Fohr thinks they’re good for Frank III. Earlier this year, he scored two goals in the U18 team’s 4-3 loss to the Wolverines in Ann Arbor. The loudest group in the building was the same at Yost Arena as it is in Plymouth.
“He always plays well when they’re loud,” Fohr said. “It’s pretty cool that he gets the process here of what we do but he’s close enough to home that his family still gets to be a part of it. He has that comfort and he can still see his family and go there on an off weekend.”
When he talks about them, he eventually confesses that he’s not so embarrassed after all.
“I actually kind of like (being the youngest) deep down,” he said. “My mom kind of treats me like I’m the baby so I get a few things my way. And I actually liked growing up with three sisters. I think it helped me in life.”
When they talk about him, they talk about his infectious smile, his quiet nature, his humble disposition, and how well-mannered he is.
“He’s a really good kid,” Gina said, pausing to collect herself as she got emotional.
But they also talk about a kid who’d read the Monopoly rule book when he was 6 years old to make sure his big sisters weren’t taking advantage of him.
“He hates to lose,” Frank II said. “We play a lot of family games, we’re a very tight family – a very, very, very tight-knit family – and you can’t come to an Uno game here.”
“Being the youngest, there’s just a competitiveness thing with him. There was no ‘Oh just let Frankie do it,’” Gina added. “He’s always wanting to get better and be better at everything. He wants to be better at hockey, he’s always trying to improve himself, he wants to have all A’s (in school), and he’s very, very determined and usually very successful at everything he does as a result.”
Ask those who aren’t family but have worked with him and it’s clear they see the same qualities.
“If my kids become half of Frankie,” Galivan finished, “I think I’ll be doing a good job.”
With reporting in Plymouth, Mich.
(Photos: Rena Laverty / U.S. NTDP)