I've never been a world-class athlete. But, I certainly know what it is like to be a kid with a dream. Mine was being a rock star. I had the drum set, I actually got pretty good at it, and I met some friends who could play guitar and bass. I was sure it was going to happen.
20 years later, I work a normal job, and write about hockey on the side. The irony is that when I got to a point in my life where I could have made the choice to truly give up everything else and follow the dream, I chose not to. I've made my peace with it, but that's neither here nor there.
What is front-and-center, however, is that for three rookie players tonight is the culmination of all of those dreams they had as kids growing up: tonight is the night they play their first NHL game. For Cam Atkinson, Ryan Johansen, and David Savard, tonight is the night they get to live the dream. Sure, they've donned the sweater in exhibition games, but tonight is the first one that counts.
Tonight, the dream becomes real.
I had a chance on Wednesday to briefly chat with all three, to get a sense of their emotions coming into tonight's game as it got closer and closer. While each was guarded and measured in their responses about their expectations, there was still a gleam in their eyes when they talked about their first NHL game coming up.
To a man, it was all about a dream coming true. "Obviously, I'm very excited for the game," Savard said. "I've been waiting for that moment all of my life. It's a dream come true to play a game in the NHL."
Likewise, for Atkinson, it's the realization of a moment he's dreamed about and gets to share with his family. "Obviously, a lot's going through my head right now," Atkinson told me. "I'm excited; it's a dream come true. It's a day-to-day process for me, and I'm just excited that my family's coming out [to the game] and going to be here to support me."
Johansen was the most diplomatic, but still said what everyone in the room was thinking as the opener neared. "There's obviously a lot of excitement in the room and around the league," Johansen said, "and everybody wants to get things started. It's finally here. We're just preparing and doing our finishing touches on our game plan, and come Friday night it's going to be exciting."
Lest you think that these rookies are going to be stashed low on the roster, let's not forget that these guys are all being asked to play important roles. For Savard, he sees the importance of the first stretch of games without big ticket free agent defenseman James Wisniewski. "I think I'm just going to go [out] and do my best and see what happens," Savard said. "It's a big opportunity for me to show what I can do while James [Wisniewski] is out [on suspension]. He's a big Power Play guy and a big part of this team. It's an opportunity for me."
The rookie with the biggest potential impact--and role--is winger Cam Atkinson. Slated on a line with veterans--and team leaders--R.J. Umberger and Antoine Vermette, Atkinson reflected on his position. "I'm so fortunate," Cam said. "I've been lucky enough to play with those guys, and they've been showing me the ropes from day one. I feel confident to go up and ask them a question if need be. From day one in camp, I've been fortunate enough to play with every great player in this locker room. I think we [he, Umberger, and Vermette] had some good chemistry the past couple of games, and I'm just excited to get it going."
This is not to leave out Ryan Johansen, who will be centering the third scoring line, commonly thought of as the fourth--or "energy"--line. He will also be working with newly-minted winger Derick Brassard. "It's a very skilled fourth line right now," Johansen said, providing some emphasis of what his responsibilities are as the center of the line. "I've gotten the privilege to play with [Derick Brassard] and [Maksim Mayorov] in the pre-season a little bit. They're tremendous players and it's nice to be on the ice with them."
In addition to filling a spot in Wisniewski's absence, Savard will also find himself filling the shoes vacated by Wiz on the Power Play. But, worry not; he's not an overwhelmed rookie. "Since I was a little kid, I've been on the Power Play quite a few times," he said. "It's a part of my game. I think it's one of my strengths. I'll try to use it as much as I can, and if I can help the team to win some games I'll do it."
Finally, these players are obviously skilled, or they wouldn't be on the roster. But, for those of you who haven't seen much of them, what can you expect? Savard feels that he brings a couple of things to the table that really help Scott Arniel's vision for the blue line going forward. When I asked him to share what his biggest strength is, he said, "Probably moving the puck. I think I've got pretty good vision. That's probably my best asset."
For Atkinson, he's always been a truly skilled scorer, but has always had one question follow him wherever he's gone. At 5'7", questions about his size always seem to pop up as he moves to a new level. "It's never really been an issue [for me]," he said. "I use it as motivation to work even harder. I don't really care what they say. I just play my game." And, if you got to see him in the pre-season, you know that it doesn't slow him down, and it certainly doesn't affect his hands or scoring touch.
Johansen probably has the most in terms of expectations piled upon him. But, he's doing his best to keep a level head, and to go out and just play his game and let the rest fall into place. "You want to bring energy and be physical, and do everything you can to help the team win," Johansen told me. "We have our system to follow, and we have to make sure that we're on the same page. As long as we're doing that and working really hard, everything should go well."
One might think that Scott Arniel would be a bit nervous to have three guys making their debuts in such important roles, but he thinks these guys will more than hold their own. "We'd like to think that the young guys we have have all earned the opportunity, and they have," Arniel said Wednesday. "They've played very well in the exhibitions, some of them played well last year to earn the opportunity to get a good shot this year."
Along with all of the other additions to the team this summer, Arniel thinks it's been an injection of excitement to have so many new--and young--faces. "It's brought new stories," he said, "and a little different look to our team."
Indeed. We've all been burned by young players of whom much was expected and not as much was delivered. This group feels different. In addition to confidence, there's been play on the ice that seems to merit the spot on the roster. In addition, another influx of legitimate, veteran NHL talent is on the ice and in the room to help keep things moving.
At the end of this day, however, win or lose one thing will remain the same. For these three young men, it's the first step onto the summit of a tall mountain. It's the realization of a life-long dream.
Welcome to the NHL, men.