BROSSARD - Associate coach Kirk Muller was flattered to learn that Jesperi Kotkaniemi would be representing him at the upcoming Captains' Reunion.
The 19-year-old Finn will sport a special warmup jersey featuring Muller's name and number ahead of the December 3 game against the New York Islanders at the Bell Centre.
"It's quite the nod, because I'm in pretty good surroundings with some pretty special people," said Muller, who will be among the 11 retired captains taking part in the festivities to mark the franchise's 110th birthday. "Looking at some of the ex-captains and the guys I've played with - and the guys I've played against and respect - along with the guys before me, KK picking me from that group is a pretty nice gesture."
Why did Kotkaniemi choose Muller from the bunch? Having worked closely with him since joining the NHL ranks last season, the former third-overall selection has developed a deep appreciation for his mentorship.
"He works with a lot of the younger guys like myself, Nick [Suzuki] and Cale [Fleury]. We always do a little extra practice session after the other guys. We do some shooting and passing, and work on the little things," explained Kotkaniemi, before shedding some additional light on the tasks Muller has him perfecting. "One of those things is getting the puck along the boards, which we use a lot in North America. Kirky is good with that, and he teaches me a lot about it. I've also learned a lot about the power play. He teaches me new things every day."
Muller isn't just a good coach, though, according to Kotkaniemi. He insists there's a lot more to the 53-year-old Kingston, ON native than that.
"I appreciate that he's a good guy. He's always there for us. He's always there to help the guys. He's also in a good mood every day, and he brings a lot of good energy to the room," praised Kotkaniemi. "I think he's good for everyone. He's there for everyone. He treats everyone like he would treat his own kids."
Speaking of kids, Muller and his wife, Stacey, raised four daughters over the years - all of whom are in their 20's. And he believes his parenting skills give him a bit of an advantage in the communication department with Kotkaniemi and company.
"I've got one daughter around his age. The rest are older. I talk to them all the time, and because of that I think I can relate to what a kid his age is thinking. It's that new generation, but I have first-hand experience because of the girls. That helps with understanding what they think and what's different today than when I was 21 years old," said Muller. "I think that helps me understand where they're coming from."
Admittedly, it didn't take Muller long to become a Kotkaniemi fan. He appreciates everything the Habs' sophomore brings to the table hockey-wise.
"I wish I had his size when I was playing. He's going to be a good two-way hockey player," praised Muller, who has watched Kotkaniemi register 14 goals and 39 points in 97 career NHL games. "If I look back at my career, that's what I wanted to do - be a good player offensively and strong defensively. And I see that he definitely could be that type of player. He won't be one-dimensional, he'll be a good two-way guy. He has the ability to do that."
Kotkaniemi's insatiable work ethic quickly caught Muller's attention as well. The former Finnish Elite League standout's drive to steadily improve has earned him serious points with the 1993 Stanley Cup champion.
"That's the biggest thing, his attitude. He wants to get better. He wants to work on the areas of his game that he hasn't been accustomed to in the North American style. He's had success overseas, and there's a little bit of a difference here, and he's learning day by day," said Muller. "But, he's got the right approach mentally to acknowledge that and work on his game after practice to get better and better. He knows that I'm in his corner, and everything I critique with him is just to make him a better player because we want to see him evolve and be a big piece of this team moving forward."
So what can you tell us about KK that people might not be aware of, Kirk?
"He comes across as a free-spirited guy and likes to have fun, people watch him during the game and he has that excitement, but he's a very competitive guy. I think sometimes when people have that type of personality, they get misinterpreted in terms of separating being competitive and enjoying what they do, but when it comes down to the real push and shove and the competitive level, it's inside of him. There's a fire in his belly," explained Muller. "But, there's also that young kid in him that still that loves the fact that he's playing and doing something that he loves to do, and he's playing in the NHL for a great franchise and a great hockey city. He's enjoying it, but understands that it's a real test."
Fans are invited to be in their seats by 6:45 p.m. for the pregame ceremony on Tuesday night, which will feature 11 of the team's 12 retired captains - plus current captain Shea Weber. Henri Richard won't be in attendance due to health issues, but will be honored during the festivities.
Tickets are still available for this historic evening and can be purchased HERE.
The jerseys will be auctioned off and all proceeds will be donated to the Montreal Canadiens Children's Foundation in support of the 11th annual #ourGOALtoASSIST RadioTéléDON, which will take place during the game.