The Kids Are All Right
We’re right back into the routine here. Paul Rovnak and I went out and had a very nice dinner together last night, then we wandered into a terrific sports bar where we were able to sink into giant recliner chairs and watch the MLB playoffs while enjoying a cold drink. Then back to the hotel to do some work while the late game played in the background.
Up early, off to find coffee and something light to eat. On the bus, off to the rink. Renewing acquaintances with the Atlanta media types, and after the Thrashers’ skate was over, several of their players. The Thrashers have three players making their NHL debuts tonight, forwards Bryan Little and Brett Sterling and defenseman Tobias Enstrom. I chatted them up a bit after the skate.
Little was Atlanta’s first choice (12th overall) in the 2006 NHL Entry Draft. After playing the last four seasons with the OHL’s Barrie Colts, Little — who is 11 days older than Nicklas Backstrom, is set to turn pro.
“I am kind of nervous,” he admits. “I think everyone would be nervous before their first game. Surprisingly I slept pretty good last night. I went to bed pretty early and slept good. I think I am going to get more nervous as the game gets closer. It’s going to be a big night for me and a special one.”
Ex-Caps defenseman Ken Klee has taken Little under his wing. He is staying with Klee, his wife and their three sons. Klee referred to Little’s accommodations as “a suite.”
So far, the Klees haven’t pressed upon Little to babysit the boys. But the teenaged rookie did have to endure an 8th birthday party for the middle son the other day.
“Not that yet,” laughs Klee when queried as to the babysitting angle. “We’re trying to break him in slow as far as that goes. He’s a nice kid. He’s obviously got a promising future. He’s young, quick, energetic. It’s hard to predict when a young kid comes in how he is going to be as a pro year after year but he certainly has a good head on his shoulders. The conversations we have now are things that you hear from more mature players. He is not worrying about what kind of BMW he is going to buy and that sort of thing, but what he is going to do to be a better player.”
Like all good vets, Klee is just giving back as the veterans gave to him when he was breaking in with the Caps more than a decade ago. Klee doesn’t hesitate when asked which Caps of that era helped him through his early days in the league.
“Dave Poulin and Mark Tinordi,” he says. :Tinner was my roommate for the first four years and I learned a lot from him about being a pro. I would say those two guys stand out.”
Sterling is part of the oncoming wave of Californians who latched onto the game during Wayne Gretzky’s days with the Kings. Born in 1984, Sterling is an L.A. dude with a laid-back nature. The 5-foot-7, 180-pound winger tore up the AHL in 2006-07 and was that league’s Rookie of the Year with 55 goals and 97 points in 77 games for the Chicago Wolves.
“I slept great last night,” Sterling exudes, before following up with a disclaimer. “I had about half hour where I woke up and couldn’t get the mind to stop racing. But I kind of settled down and went back to bed. I can’t wait. I’m excited. This is the start of my dream coming true and I just cant wait for tonight to get going.
“I think it’s going to be what I thought it would be and more. Growing up in California, you dream of it but you never know how close you’re actually going to get. There aren’t many of us who have been able to do it. To be able to share it with friends and family and to be able to share the experience with the people back in California is going to be great for me.”
Almost 23, Enstrom is a veteran of five seasons in the Swedish Elite League in his native country. He played for league champion MoDo in 2006-07.
“I’m really looking forward to it,” he says. “I’ve been here for a month now and practicing with the team and the camp and everything. It’s great that the season starts today. It’s going to be fun.”
Enstrom is bunking with goaltender and countryman Johan Hedberg, who has helped him adjust to life in the States, on and off the ice.
“Both of these guys – Hedberg and Nick [Havelid] – have been very, very nice to me,” says Enstrom. “When I came over it has been great for me to have those two. It’s been perfect.”
Enstrom is familiar with the one member of the Capitals who will be making his NHL debut tonight, center Nicklas Backstrom.
“I played against Nicklas a couple of years and I played with him in the World Championships, too,” says Enstrom. “I know him pretty good. He’s a really skilled player and he is a skilled passer. He has almost everything. You have to watch out for him.”
As for Backstrom, he says he slept well last night. The Caps went out as a team for dinner last night and Backstrom was back in his room and in bed by 10 p.m.
“I’m real excited to play the game and get started,” he says. “I look forward to this game and this regular season. Maybe I am going to be a little bit nervous in the beginning. But I can only do my best so we’ll see what happens out there.”
He also has a good handle on Enstrom’s abilities.
“He’s a very good player,” says Backstrom of Enstrom. “He’s good on his skates and he reads the game really well. He is a really good defenseman and he might be one of their best players.”
When asked of his memories of his own first NHL game and his adjustment to the smaller North American ice surfaces, Viktor Kozlov needs but one word.
“Nervousness,” says the big Russian center. “That’s the one thing I remember. I was very nervous the first game.”
He goes on to say that while it is an adjustment coming to the smaller-sized rinks, once you get used to it, it’s actually preferable.
“If you’re here [in North America] and you beat the guy one-on-one in the offensive zone you have a very good chance to score,” Kozlov observes. “In Europe if you beat the guy one-on-one you’ve got a long way to go to the net, and he can [recover and] get the puck.”
Caps captain Chris Clark says he’s aware of what Backstrom is feeling, and he’s making an effort to help ease him in and calm his nerves.
“I talked to Nick before and I will talk to him again,” says Clark. “[I told him] just play the way that got you here and don’t feel out of place because you’re part of the team and you’re going to be a good player for a long time.”
Clark also admits to feeling a few opening night jitters of his own.
“Yeah, absolutely,” he says. “I don’t get as nervous any more but I’m still more nervous for the first couple of games just because it’s been a while. Not making the playoffs, it’s been five months or so since we’ve played a real NHL game. The nerves are there but they go away a lot quicker than they used to.”
We’ll let Atlanta coach Bob Hartley have the last word here. He addressed the media after practice this morning, shortly after addressing his players in a team meeting.
“You’re an NHL player, there’s a game tonight, let’s be ready to go. Just have fun. Just remember when you were a kid and you were going to the rink to play at six o’clock in the morning. It’s the same game, I tell them.”
Hartley also had a good quip about the Southeast Division.
“If you look at the five teams in our division, it’s almost like cranking a jack-in-the-box. You don’t know what is coming out of it.”