"I put my helmet back on, and I kind of looked around and went, Wow. It's Honda Center. I'm here right now and this is unbelievable," Kerdiles says. "Believe it or not, when I first stepped on the ice for warmups, I didn't look around at all, but after the anthem I looked around and thought, This is pretty crazy."
For the 23-year-old Kerdiles, this was much more than a first NHL game. It was history in the making. When Kerdiles stepped on the ice for Wednesday night's game against the Boston Bruins, he became the 350th player in Ducks franchise history -- but the first raised in Orange County. (Appropriately enough, Kerdiles and the rest of the Ducks happened to wear their orange third jerseys last night, a nod to the team's OC roots.)
Kerdiles was raised in Irvine, where he and his family moved when Nic was a young boy. His parents, Michel and Nathalie, met in France when they were both in business school and it was there they had Nic's two older sisters, Mailys and Marine. The family moved to Dallas when Nic was six, then back to France for a short time before eventually settling in Orange County for Michel's career. It was there that Nic first took up the game.
"My neighbor played roller hockey and I thought, I'll try this out," Kerdiles says. "My mom's brother played some hockey, so she knew about hockey, but I never really knew anything about it. I ended up playing at a local [Gretzky Roller Hockey Center] for a year and a half, and eventually I tried ice hockey. I watched it on TV and loved the game, and I just wanted to keep advancing. I wasn't the best player, but I worked hard and eventually progressed."
Kerdiles grew up watching the Ducks, rooting for players like Paul Kariya and Teemu Selanne while attending "about 30 or 40" games at Honda Center in his lifetime, including Game 2 of the Final in the team's 2007 Stanley Cup season.
He attended Beckman High in Irvine as a freshman and sophomore, just a couple years before the Anaheim Ducks High School Hockey League was founded as part of a dramatic expansion of the game in Orange County. In fact, just last week the Ducks broke ground on a massive 280,000 square foot ice facility in Irvine that is scheduled to be completed in June 2018.
"That will be great for the Ducks organization and all the kids growing up playing ice hockey around here," Kerdiles says. "It's just great for Irvine and Orange County. I'm really happy. It's a cool project."
Ice facilities and high school leagues weren't as abundant in Orange County when he was growing up, so to develop his game he moved to Ann Arbor, Michigan to play in the U.S. National Team Development program. He went on to a productive two-year career with the University of Wisconsin after the Ducks selected him in the second round (36th pick overall) of the 2012 NHL Draft.
That June day he became the first Orange County native drafted by the Ducks, but the road to his debut with the team became a bumpy and painful one. He endured a pair of concussions, the most recent coming in a rookie game last September after taking a hit from Colorado defenseman Nikita Zadorov. A lengthy recovery process kept him out of action until last month, and he racked up four goals and five assists in 10 games for the San Diego Gulls.
"There was definitely a lot of adversity I had to go through," Kerdiles says. "The injuries that I dealt with can tear you down mentally. I had a good support group around me, and they kept my head on straight and kept me positive. That's why I was able to come back."
When the Ducks recalled Kerdiles, he got a phone call from Gulls GM Bob Ferguson, who has often kidded the youngster about how he wears his baseball caps. Ferguson urges him to wear the bill forward because, as Kerdiles tells it, "He says that's the direction your career is going." Just minutes after leaving the rink for that day's practice, he heard Ferguson on the other end with a message that rang loud and clear: "He said, 'What direction's your hat right now?'" Kerdiles recalls.
He flipped a quick U-turn ("illegally," he admits) to the rink to pick up his gear and drove the short trip to Anaheim, where he made his Ducks debut the very next night.
"I definitely had butterflies, a little bit of nerves going through my body, and it was kind of evident out there for awhile," Kerdiles says. "But after the first intermission, that's when I got to sit down and relax and be like, Listen, you worked hard to get here, so just do what you do and see what you can do for the team. At that point, I settled in a little bit."
Kerdiles skated with linemates Rickard Rakell and Corey Perry last night, two veterans who helped him keep his composure. "Raks looked at me a couple times and said, 'Hey, you've got this, buddy,' and Perry is a great leader for us too," Kerdiles says. "So having those two guys on my line, they didn't have to say much, but they were there to keep my head on straight, even when I made some mistakes."
Kerdiles was on the ice for two goals - both by Rakell - in Anaheim's 5-3 victory over the Bruins, after which he was reminded exactly where he'd come from to get to this point.
"Looking at my phone finally after everything was done, most of the comments and text messages I got from my friends were things like, 'You made Irvine and Orange County proud. Happy to see you on the big stage,'" Kerdiles says.
"So it's awesome that I was able to grow up here, play my youth hockey here and eventually get a chance to put on a Ducks jersey, the team I watched growing up. That's a big honor for me."