Getting used to playing against boyhood heroes is part of life in the NHL
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.
IT’S PRETTY COOL TO PLAY AGAINST THE GUYS THAT YOU’RE WATCHING GROWING UP. Dylan Strome
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.