Full house raises Ann Arbor native Austin Watson’s hockey dream

Ted Kulfan
The Detroit News
The Watson family shows their support in 2012 when Austin, center, played for the OHL’s London Knights.

Things can get a little hairy on NHL rinks, especially in the playoffs.

The checking is a little firmer and the pressure gets turned up a notch when a bad bounce of the puck could be the difference between advancing and going home.

For Ann Arbor native and Nashville Predators forward Austin Watson, he learned about teamwork and how to deal with hectic situations growing up, so don’t look for him to get rattled by the defending champion Pittsburgh Penguins when he plays in his first Stanley Cup Finals game Monday night.

You see, Watson, a winger drafted No. 18 overall by the Predators in 2010, is one of Mike and Mary Watson’s 10 children. And as the oldest, Austin Watson, now 25, was often charged with taking care of his younger siblings.

Now, that could be a challenge. But also immeasurable fun.

“There would always be something going on,” Watson told The Detroit News in a telephone interview last week. “You have a bunch of kids, especially boys, around the same age. We’d always have a game going on, some kind of sport.

“We’d be playing something all the time. It was never quiet.”

Ten kids. Nine boys, and one girl, Maggie, age 11, who somehow has survived being the only female among all the brothers.

“If I ever heard anyone say, ‘I’m bored,’ I’d tell them I had a chore for them,” said Mary Watson, who along with Mike have done an All-Star job running the Watson household.

Austin said as oldest sibling in a large family, he learned early about the importance of independence — about doing things for yourself — but also being part of something much larger.

“You learn responsibility,” Austin said. “You learn about being part of a team. Everyone has a job to do.”

‘It’s been a blessing’

Mike and Mary Watson have cooked and cared for, transported, listened and advised, done every other parental chore, 10 times over, over the last 25 years.

Vacations have been rare. Parents and siblings haven’t always gotten what they wanted. The family has been strapped financially from time to time.

But they smile and laugh about the good times, and brush off the bad. It’s been hectic in their household, a bit chaotic, but that’s life.

“I tell everyone, ‘It’s been a challenge at times, it’s been hard, but it’s also been a blessing,’ ” Mary Watson said.

The ones that are still camped in the Watsons’ Saline home — Mike and Mary, plus six of the kids — will be in front of the television Monday night, watching Austin and the Predators.

It’ll get noisy, Mary will wear her lucky Predators jersey, and the kids will cheer crazily when Austin appears on the screen.

Mary will stay home to watch the Stanley Cup Finals. She and her friends tried to watch a Predators playoff games socially during these playoffs but it didn’t work.

“Let’s just say I can get outspoken during playoff games,” said Mary, adding the restaurant’s customers got an earful.

Austin feels the support from his family in Saline all the way back in Music City, which suddenly has become a hockey hotbed.

Keeping in touch with siblings is much easier these days, what with smartphones and Skype. And Austin does, consistently getting updates from across the country.

“We’re a little more spread out these days,” Austin said. “We’re at the age where we’re all out and doing our thing, which is kind of exciting. But we stay in touch.”

Nearly every coach Austin Watson has played for at the junior level (Windsor, Peterborough), or as a pro for the Predators organization, has remarked about his maturity and earnestness.

Learning responsibility

Nearly every coach Watson has played for at the junior level (Windsor, Peterborough), or as a pro for the Predators organization, has remarked about his maturity and earnestness.

He’s always been the young player who plays and acts beyond his years, takes responsibility in the locker room and on the ice.

And much of that can be traced to Austin being the oldest in a large family. Being independent while at the same time taking on additional responsibilities for the sake of the entire family.

“I remember one time, Austin must have been around 10 or 11, he wanted a specific shirt to wear,” Mary said. “I was in the middle of something else. I told him he’d have to wash it on his own. Sure enough, he went out and did it.

“He was always real good watching the kids, he was great with the youngest ones. All the older ones always were. As the oldest one he had a lot of responsibility.

“Austin, all the older kids, were a lot of help.”

When Austin was 12, the difficult decision of letting Austin remain living in Ann Arbor with his grandparents (Mary’s parents, Richard and Margaret) was made, so Austin could continue with his hockey career while the family moved to Florida.

Mike had a job opportunity in Florida, and this being 2003, with the economy in Metro Detroit slowing down, the difficult decision to leave Ann Arbor — where Mike and Mary grew up, too — had to be made.

Austin continued to play in the Compuware program — fortunately, Compuware Arena (since renamed USA Hockey Arena) is in Plymouth, not far from Ann Arbor — and the family kept tabs, hundreds of miles away.

“Back then, in Florida, hockey wasn’t what it is now,” Mary said. “Teams from Florida were coming up here to play competitively. If it wasn’t for my parents, and I say this about a lot of things, I don’t know how we could have done this.

“There were a lot of tears, some tough times. You wonder if you’re doing the right thing.

“But it worked out. You try to fulfill your kids’ dreams. We’ll do anything to help our kids reach their dreams.”

Austin also remembers some difficult times during those days. Going from a house bursting at the seams with brothers and sisters to one in which there were no siblings at all was a big adjustment. And his mom and dad were so many miles away.

“It was tough, but you make a decision and you live with it,” Austin said. “I wanted to play hockey. My grandparents, and aunt and uncle, did so much, driving me around. They were unbelievable.

“Hockey is an expensive sport — all the equipment. My grandparents helped out that way, too.

“You miss your parents, your siblings. But I made the decision. I wanted to play hockey.”

Back together again

When the family returned to Michigan five years later, the Watson clan was whole again, just as Austin was selected by the Windsor Spitfires in the junior draft.

“He was able to reconnect with his siblings, and his siblings had a blast watching him play,” Mary said. “They spent so much time around the team, in the locker room. The team loved them.”

Austin Watson has four goals and two assists in 16 playoff games this year.

When Austin was drafted by the Predators in 2010, at the Staples Center in Los Angeles, the entire family was there. To this day, it’s been one of the highlights of Watson’s hockey career.

“A great experience — it really was,” Watson said. “To have all of them there, they’ve been such a big part of the entire experience, it was real special. It meant a lot.”

After several years in the minor leagues in Milwaukee, Watson took a major step in his career this season — five goals, 17 points, plus-14, 99 penalty minutes in 77 games — and has starred in the playoffs (four goals, six points in 16 games).

Watson began using his size (6-foot-4, 205 pounds) this season, and played like the power forward with an offensive touch many scouts envisioned he’d develop into.

“He’s been a real warrior,” Predators coach Peter Laviolette told NHL.com. “It’s true, you probably mark a big save more or a big goal more than you would the physicality or somebody willing to sacrifice their body the way (Watson) does.

“He’s been really good at it and a lot of guys have played that way. That’s probably playoff hockey bringing out the best in everybody.”

Being part of this Predators playoff run for Watson, and playing a significant role, has been exciting.

“It’s an exciting time in the city, the support we’re getting is incredible,” Watson said. “We knew we had a team capable of doing this, of getting to this point and winning the Stanley Cup. There’s been a belief in our locker room.”

The Watsons have loved watching the games back in Saline.

“I’m real proud of him, how hard he’s worked to get to where he is, what he’s gone through,” Mary said. “He’s had to basically reinvent himself to be the player he is now.

“People watch these games, but they don’t realize everything that goes on, all the work and pressure that goes with it.

“We’re proud of what he’s accomplished.”

Austin isn’t sure yet how much of the family will get to any of the games in Nashville or Pittsburgh. Mary’s parents are likely to get to Game 3 on Saturday in Nashville. Mary and Mike hope to attend, too.

But there are sports and other activities for the siblings in Saline. Time is tight. Stanley Cup Finals tickets are expensive and no one is going to ask a rookie to buy a handful of tickets.

So, the Watsons could be around the TV, cheering the Predators and watching one of their kids’ dreams come true.

“It’s been hard at times but I wouldn’t have changed any of it for a million bucks,” Mary said. “Like I said, it’s been a blessing.”


Twitter: @tkulfan

The Watson roster

Here are Mike and Mary Watson’s 10 children:

Austin, 25, NHL player

Mikey, 22, Navy

R.J., 19, Franciscan University of Steubenville

Ben, 18, U.S. Military Academy

Kolbe, 16, student

Nate, 15, student

Christian, 13, student

Maggie, 11, student

Matthew, 8, student

Joseph, 6, student