Maybe, just maybe, Kyle Capobianco really was genetically engineered to play defense.
And maybe while growing up in a family chock full of professional-caliber athletes in the Toronto suburb of Mississauga, Ontario, Canada — some 2,000 air miles from Southern Arizona — the 21-year-old, third-year Tucson Roadrunners defenseman was destined to find his own stardom in, of all places, the desert Southwest.
Capobianco is expected to take his usual spot among Tucson’s regular corps of defensemen on Friday, when the Roadrunners return home for the first of back-to-back games against the Ontario — that’s Ontario, California, not Canada — Reign.
Seated somewhere near Section 207 will be Clare and Maureen Exelby, Capobianco’s maternal grandparents. The two are spending a decent chunk of their winter in Arizona, where sunshine beats the snow-covered sidewalks back home near Toronto.
“No matter what you do, when your kid goes further in hockey, you drive a bit further,” joked Clare Exelby, Kyle’s grandfather.
Clare was first in a number of athletes in the family to not only reach the professional sporting ranks — he did it as an All-Star in the Canadian Football League in the 1960s — but to find success on the defensive side. Joining him: former pro goaltender Randy Exelby, Clare and Maureen’s son and brother to Julie Capobianco, Kyle’s mom. Kyle’s brother, Tony, turned a four-year NCAA Division I goaltending career at Canisius College near Buffalo into a minor-league hockey stint.
Any now there’s Kyle.
The Exelbys’ drive to see Capobianco isn’t far off from what they used to do when he stood out on Canada’s major junior hockey circuit with the Ontario Hockey League’s Sudbury Wolves. Then, Clare and Maureen Exelby would drive a few hours each way from their home north of Toronto to Sudbury, where they’d catch almost every weekend series.
Now, the Exelbys commute between Tucson and Scottsdale, where they are staying through the end of December. Friday will mark the third of eight times they’ll get to see their grandson skate at Tucson Arena before heading back to Canada.
Capobianco isn’t the only member of the family currently based in Arizona. And Capobianco — even with making his NHL debut a year ago this week, playing 13 minutes in one game during a call-up to the Arizona Coyotes — certainly isn’t the first in the family to make a dent in the Arizona hockey scene.
Randy Exelby was known as the guy whose first career game as an NHL goaltender included just three minutes of action. Exelby made his debut 30 years ago next month, when Patrick Roy, the Canadiens’ hall-of-fame goalie, signaled to the bench — mid-game — that he needed a bathroom break. In came Exelby, who stopped the only shot he faced; three minutes later, a refreshed Roy was back on the ice.
Randy Exelby has a more permanent legacy, too: He is considered one of the most influential figures in Arizona’s modern hockey scene.
“He’s been huge for the development of hockey in this state,” Capobianco said of his uncle — who has owned and operated the Behind the Mask hockey shops and youth camps in the Phoenix area while sponsoring hockey teams, tournaments, rinks and more in every which direction possible since 1994 — two years before the NHL’s Coyotes would ever play a game in the state.
“He does more than just have the shops. He reaches Yuma and Prescott, and down here (in Tucson). He’s always doing so many great things to grow the game.”
Randy Exelby’s brick-and-mortar stores are located in Gilbert, Scottsdale and Peoria. He also loads up his custom-wrapped Sprinter van with gear and travels virtually the entire state, bringing the game of hockey to underserved communities and cities — like Tucson — where the game is just starting to grow.
As key as Randy Exelby has been to Arizona’s hockey scene, he wouldn’t mind it one bit if Capobianco’s growing stardom — now with the Roadrunners, and eventually, maybe permanently, with the Coyotes — becomes the centerpiece of the family’s Arizona hockey crest.
“All my employees, they’re all (Kyle’s) biggest cheerleaders and biggest fans,” he said of his nephew, who spent many of those summers as a “shooter” at Behind the Mask’s Arizona-based summer goaltending schools. “They’ve seen him grow up. … We couldn’t believe it when he got the chance to play here.”
Randy Exelby said he does his best to not get into hockey specifics with his nephew; he doesn’t see that as his job.
“I don’t coach Kyle. He’s got plenty of people trying to tell him what to do,” he said, adding that when Capobianco first reached the NHL last year, “I basically told him to enjoy every moment. When you get on a charter plane, get to eat fancy food, five-star hotels — all of that — just cherish it. You never know how long it’s going to last.
“When you go to the rink, and people are asking for your autograph, or you’re lacing up your skates next to someone like (Coyotes captain and All-Star defenseman) Oliver Ekman-Larsson, don’t be nervous. Soak it in and enjoy it.”
Capobianco has picked up more or less right where he left off a year ago, when he was named an AHL midseason All-Star.
Entering Friday’s series with the Reign, Capobianco’s 13 points — one goal and 12 assists — lead all Tucson defensemen. He and his usual blueline partner, Robbie Russo, have combined for a plus-minus rating of plus-26 on the season.
With the Roadrunners home six times this month, Clare and Maureen Exelby plan to take advantage of every chance they get to see their grandson play.
And, later this month, a good chunk of the Exelby/Capobianco clan — including Kyle’s parents, siblings, grandparents, uncle and others — will celebrate the Christmas holiday in Scottsdale.
Randy Exelby said he’s looking forward to reigniting, as always, the banter he shares with his nephew. The 53-year old former netminder carries a few bragging rights.
For one: “I own him in street hockey,” Exelby said.
“One-on-one … in the cul-de-sac. Me, the goalie. Him, the skater. I still dominate him.”
Also, Exelby, despite limited offensive opportunities as a goaltender, claims bragging rights by having more AHL playoff points (one, an assist) than his nephew. Kyle played in Tucson’s nine playoffs games last spring, but was held without a point.
“He’ll bring that up,” Capobianco said. “I have to do something about that this year.”