Get­ting used to play­ing against boy­hood he­roes is part of life in the NHL

Belleville News-Democrat - - Classified & Sports - BY JIMMY GREEN­FIELD Chicago Tribune

Look­ing across the ice, the hockey fan lights up at the sight of his hero in front of him.

Then the hero digs his skates into the ice, low­ers his shoul­der and lights up the fan straight into the boards.

That's not a video game or a fan­tasy. It's a rou­tine that plays out on rinks across the NHL when rook­ies first take the ice against their he­roes.

“There's dif­fer­ent in­stances of play­ing against LA and get­ting hit by Rob Blake and think­ing, ‘Why is he hit­ting you?' ” Black­hawks for­ward Chris Ku­nitz re­called. “You think: ‘Oh, my God, he's just do­ing his job. If you want to be in the lineup, that's what you've got to go do.'

“Those are the mo­ments that make you for­get be­ing a fan and move on to be­ing a player.”

It's hard to for­get your first love, though. Hawks coach Jeremy Col­li­ton re­mem­bers go­ing up against Jaromir Jagr and Peter Fors­berg dur­ing his 57-game NHL ca­reer and un­der­stands what some of the young Hawks are go­ing through now.

“That's part of the tran­si­tion when you get to the league,” Col­li­ton said. “You end up play­ing against guys who you grew up watch­ing or you've been idol­iz­ing, and it can be a chal­lenge. There's some ex­cite­ment you get out of it too. You can use it in a pos­i­tive way and get en­ergy out of it. It's im­por­tant not to show too much re­spect. But ev­ery­one goes through it.”

Dy­lan Strome went through it in his first NHL game in 2016 with the Coy­otes. Grow­ing up near Toronto, Strome was heav­ily in­vested in the ri­valry be­tween his Maple Leafs and the hated Se­na­tors. Dion Pha­neuf was with the Leafs when Strome was grow­ing up but had joined the Se­na­tors by the time Strome made his de­but in Ot­tawa.

Strome, 21, has still never played against the Leafs and has been eye­ing a March 13 game in Toronto since he joined the Hawks a cou­ple of months ago.

“It's pretty cool to play against the guys that you're watch­ing grow­ing up,” Strome said. “You try not to get starstruck and re­al­ize you're in the same league as these guys. At one point you were one of the top play­ers in the league you were in be­fore, so I'm sure younger guys were think­ing of you as that type of player. It kind of goes both ways. It takes get­ting used to.”

Young player have to get used to be­ing around not only op­pos­ing play­ers, but also their own team­mates.

“I re­mem­ber walk­ing into a locker room and rid­ing a bike and Paul Kariya walks by and says some lit­tle com­ment to me be­cause I'm wear­ing my col­lege shirt,” Ku­nitz said. “That wasn't on the ice but kind of that re­al­iza­tion like, ‘Oh, my God.' Even though I was a lit­tle bit older, you're still a fan of the game and play­ers that are in it. It took me a lit­tle while to fig­ure out that it's a job and it's not just a glo­ri­fied (way) of watch­ing other peo­ple play the game.

“Once you fig­ure that out, then try to make a place for your­self and try to earn a job ev­ery sin­gle day. And when you do that, you for­get about be­ing a fan or be­ing a child watch­ing these guys play. Un­til you re­al­ize that, you don't really put your­self in a great spot to have suc­cess.”

Shar­ing the joy with friends and fam­ily mem­bers who will never come close to play­ing in an NHL game is also part of the ex­pe­ri­ence for a young player. Hawks for­ward Drake Cag­giula re­mem­bers his brother's re­ac­tion when Cag­giula played against Sid­ney Crosby for the first time.

“My brother's got like five jer­seys of Crosby's in his closet,” Cag­giula said. “My brother's tex­ting me be­fore and after the game: ‘How was it?' It is a pretty cool feel­ing the first time you play against these big su­per­stars that have been around the league for a while and done some pretty big things. Even­tu­ally it wears off and you get used to play­ing reg­u­lar hockey against them.”

And then some­thing un­ex­pected hap­pens. You get traded and you get a chance to play with your he­roes. Cag­giula, 24, was a huge Hawks fan and grew up near Toronto watch­ing video high­lights of Patrick Kane on YouTube be­fore head­ing to the base­ment to try to copy Kane's moves. Cag­giula says he even chose to play col­lege hockey at North Dakota be­cause Jonathan Toews went there.

Has he had a chance to share this with Kane and Toews?

“No, I won't tell them,” Cag­giula said. “Maybe down the road. That's some­thing I may keep to my­self for a lit­tle while.”

Well, un­less it ap­pears in the paper.




Young play­ers like Chicago’s Chris Ku­nitz have to get used to be­ing around play­ers they idol­ized while grow­ing up. “It took me a lit­tle while to fig­ure out that it’s a job,” he said.

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