In hockey, like in everything else, there's a first time for everything and players remember some of those like it was yesterday.
After hours of practice, years of perseverance, and countless games, they've made it to the NHL and their first game is something that will remain with them forever. Players talk about their experience.
Centre, 713 NHL games
TEAM: New York Rangers
FIRST GAME: October 10, 1998 @ Montreal Canadiens
SCORE: 7-1 L
Wayne Gretzky, Brian Leetch, Adam Graves, John MacLean, Petr Nedved, Marc Savard... Should I keep going? Needless to say the New York Rangers were stacked in 1998 and 18-year-old Manny Malhotra can be added to that list too.
“It was kind of a surreal experience going into my first camp. It was the first exhibition game that it became real that I was in my first NHL game with my family in the stands. Playing on the same team with the who’s who of hockey so it was a surreal experience to have the guys I grew up watching and idolizing in the same room.”
Fresh from the draft floor that year at seventh overall, Malhotra cracked a lineup that wasn’t easy to break. As the only rookie to make regular appearances that year, Malhotra played in 73 games and registered 16 points (8-8-16).
The Mississauga-native knows what hockey is all about in Canada and to debut in Montreal, that’s a big deal. After just two years with the Guelph Storm in the OHL, Malhotra didn’t have much time to adjust from major-junior to the NHL and the nerves were just stirring but he wasn’t the only one.
“I was sitting beside Wayne Gretzky - I was really quiet and didn’t say much - he looked over at me and said, ‘You nervous kid?’ and I said, ‘Yes’, and he said, ‘So am I.’ I don’t know if he was just trying make me feel more at ease the fact that the greatest player ever is nervous about the first game of the year after 20 years in the League. You know it’s okay to feel nervous, it was just a good feeling to have him try to calm you down.”
“It did [help]. I just started thinking about it more and thought that it’s alright to be nervous. It didn’t take it away completely and obviously, I was nervous about playing but once I got on the ice and got my first couple of shifts, it went away and it just became another game.”
He played 17:25 against the Habs that night but didn’t get his first point until his fourth game in New York, where he scored in a Rangers 3-2 win over the Edmonton Oilers.
The Rangers finished 10th in the Eastern Conference with 77 points - 13 points out of the eighth post-season spot taken by the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Biggest wow moment: The first NHL wow moment for me was the first day of camp. I was getting ready, tying my skates and I saw this pair of white and blue Nike skates walk over to me and I knew exactly who they belonged to. I looked up and Gretzky had his hand stretched out and said, ‘Welcome to camp, Manny. Good luck out there.’ After he left the room, I must have had a huge grin on my face because I look up and all the guys were laughing just because they knew how excited I was about that moment. That was my first real, ‘Wow this is the NHL, this is cool’.
Looking back on it now, I can’t believe... How fast it’s gone.
Defence, 79 NHL games
TEAM: Anaheim Ducks
FIRST GAME: January 2, 2007 @ Detroit Red Wings
SCORE: 2-1 L
The first game is always a big one and no doubt the nerves are through the roof but on top of that, it’s Steve Yzerman’s retirement night - now that’s a big deal. But Aaron Rome played on the other side for Anaheim at the Joe Louis in front of a crowd and a team that’s always tough to play, let alone on Yzerman night.
“It was a pretty crazy night. There was a lot of anticipation. We had a long break after warmup for his ceremony so it was pretty nerve-wracking.”
“I was so nervous and I had butterflies and I just wanted to get out there and start. The more time I had to sit there and think about it, the tougher it is but it turned out to be okay and you tend to build things up more than they really are. I got on the ice and it was the same game I’ve always played so it was fun.”
Rome was called up from the Portland Pirates of the AHL after an injury to Chris Pronger but that was the only game he played for Anaheim in the regular season.
“I got the call and I had a little trouble getting from Portland, Maine to Detroit because I missed a flight and got one delayed but got in on time and things worked out.”
The distance from Portland to Detroit is about 1071 kilometres or an approximately two-hour direct-flight.
He was paired with Shane O’Brien, who was in his rookie season, that night. Rome finished a minus-1 in 14:31 of ice-time. Later that season, he was re-called again and dressed for one playoff game, where the Ducks were the eventual Stanley Cup champions.
Biggest wow moment: I probably had a couple. Sitting in the dressing room with guys like Scott Niedermayer and Teemu Selanne and then getting on the ice and skating against players like Henrik Zetterberg and Nik Lidstrom, guys like that. The game being on CBC on Hockey Night in Canada was also special and it was Steve Yzerman’s retirement night.
Looking back on it now, I can’t believe... That it was Steve Yzerman’s retirement night. What a great night.
Left Wing, 184 NHL games
TEAM: Los Angeles Kings
FIRST GAME: November 30, 2005 @ Chicago Blackhawks
SCORE: 3-2 L
Pre-game naps are part of the hockey player game-day ritual and it’s sacred. But for Jeff Tambellini, it wasn’t as peaceful as it should’ve been but that’s not a bad thing.
“I was sleeping for my pre-game in Albany and for some reason I didn’t turn my phone off and it started ringing. They said, get on a plane, you’re leaving in an hour.”
No, literally. This is how the phone call went:
“’Yup, you’re going up. You’re playing in Chicago. Your flight’s in an hour.’ It was pretty brief. He wasn’t sugar-coating anything.”
He played three years with the University of Michigan before making his pro debut with the the Kings AHL affiliate, Manchester Monarchs. While Tambellini scrambled to get on a plan for Chicago, the Monarchs ended up winning 3-2 in a shootout against the River Rats.
Tambellini saw a Blackhawks team that was quite different than the Stanley Cup champs today and hosted just 14,833 fans, which is almost 6,000 short of the numbers the United Center boasts now.
“The building was not what it’s like today - it was empty and there wasn’t a lot of hype with that team so it was a different place than today for sure.”
Nothing for Tambellini in the 24-hour span moved slowly and the rookie had to adjust quickly - from the travel to the ice.
“They threw me on the point on the powerplay my second shift in the NHL and I thought ‘Oh, wow, they’re really throwing me into it’.”
“They had the most aggressive penalty kill in the League so I was just trying to get through it and I think it was a great way to get thrown into it.”
He played 5:02 of his 9:23 total ice time on the powerplay that night.
He played four games with the Kings, before returning to Manchester and finishing the year, playing 21 games with the New York Islanders, where he got his first goal in the third game with the club against Martin Brodeur and the New Jersey Devils.
Biggest wow moment: I think it was the call. I think when you get the call and they tell you that you’re going to play in the NHL, it’s such a crazy feeling because you’ve waited for so long. It’s such a great feeling to know you’re going to get to play the NHL so that was probably the craziest thing. Once you get going in the game, it’s just the game and what you do but that was the one moment that kind of got me.
Looking back on it now, I can’t believe... I can’t believe I made my flight. I was more impressed with myself about that than anything else.
Centre, 736 NHL games
TEAM: Vancouver Canucks
FIRST GAME: October 5, 2000 @ Philadelphia Flyers
SCORE: 6-3 L
Ten years ago before Henrik Sedin became an Art Ross and Hart Trophy winner, he was just another rookie with an unknown future ahead of him.
“I was nervous and excited. Mostly nervous though. We played Philadelphia and they had a really big team. A strong team. I was nervous to play them.”
He didn’t get any points in that game and played just over 13 minutes - quite a bit shy from the 19-plus minutes that he’s averaged for the past four seasons (including the eight games from this year so far).
Everyone knows the Sedin story. Henrik was drafted third overall in the 1999 NHL Entry Draft, behind (or actually simultaneously with), brother Daniel, who was second overall.
Sedin came from playing in the Swedish Elite League with Modo, where he had 47 points in 50 games in his final season with the team. The Twins played with Trent Klatt, who was in his eighth NHL season.
“It was a long training camp and a lot of preseason games and then the game so there a was a lot of buildup.
“It was a big step for me. It had been a long journey to that point and my first NHL game was another part of that.”
He finished the year with 29 points in 82 games, which was 13th amongst rookies and fourth for rookie centremen, behind Brad Richards, the Calder trophy runner-up, who had 62 points. Steven Reinprecht (36 points) and Serge Aubin (30 points) were second and third, respectively to round out the top four.
Sedin was just one of three NHL freshmen to play 82 games through the 2000-2001 season. The others being Richards, who was with Tampa Bay at the time and Colin White of the New Jersey Devils.
Biggest wow moment: I think the crowd. Playing in Philly they had a big team back them and they were physically very strong. I think that was amazing.
Looking back on it now, I can’t believe... I didn’t score.