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The diminutive winger turned heads in his NHL debut on Sunday

by GEORGE JOHNSON @GJohnsonFlames /

13 and a half years have flown by since his own cameo-keepsake night, April 5, 2004.

Now 34, closing in on a millennial game, Matt Stajan can still relate to first-time NHL experience.

"It never gets old,'' Stajan is saying as the Flames' reconvened Tuesday. "Seeing a guy play his first game.

"Like you did, once upon a time, right?

"It's a special night. I don't care who you are or what you go on to do in your career. You always remember that first one.

"So watching guys play that game always brings back the emotion, the adrenalin, you felt.

"Mine was against Ottawa in Toronto. It all happens so fast. I was playing junior only a week earlier, then one game in the AHL and all of a sudden, I'm at the ACC and get put right beside Ed Belfour.

"You kinda get the call and time flies but you really have to take it all in while making sure you bring that energy.

"Mentally, you have to consciously try and slow it all down because first of all you want to remember it and secondly you want to be in the moment.

"I mean, this a big deal. People always say that, I know, but it's so true.

"You've been waiting your whole life for this chance."

Over to Stajan's right, a few stalls down, Andrew Mangiapane, 963 games in arrears of the centre on his line Sunday, was tugging off a practice jersey, two days removed from his NHL debut.

"I was in shock,'' concedes Mangiapane.

"I'm still in shock.

"It was just … surreal.

"You get the call and then you're out on the ice, doing that lap alone. You know its coming but it's so special. I was laughing. An unreal feeling."

For support, Mangiapane's parents, Peter and Patricia, flew in from Toronto with daughters Caitlin and Lauren for his big-league curtain-raiser.

But they had to hustle to get here.

"We didn't arrive until the second period,'' reports Peter.

"We were scrambling all day. When he told us he'd been called up, we were obviously excited but didn't know if he'd be playing or not.

"He'd only arrived in Calgary at 5 a.m. and they'd lost his sticks. So we weren't really panicking too much. I said to him: 'You'll probably have to practice with the team before they play you.'

"His roommate at one time, Ramus Andersson, had been called up, and then had sit a couple of weeks before he got into a game. His mom came to Calgary and she had to wait. So, as I said, we weren't really panicking. 

"Then Andrew called and told us: 'I'm in.' And it's like: 'Oh, crap!' We had to rush to the Toronto airport and start looking for tickets to try and be there in time for the game.

"So we missed the first period. That was kind of disappointing. But it's all about him, not about us, anyway.

"It was still exciting. He'll always remember it. We will, too."

For Mangiapane, the path has always been one of overcoming.

"You'd always hear people say: He's too small. He doesn't have the physicality,'' acknowledges his dad. "They're always looking at size first, right?

"But skill-wise, he had it. He just needed the right person to kind of mentor him. And that person turned out to be (Barrie Colts' coach) Dale Hawerchuk. That was the eye-opener for me, that first Barrie camp. Here are 30 prospects, all in line, waiting to make the team because it was already mostly set. They also had draft picks to look at it.

"And the first name Dale calls out is 'Andrew Mangiapane.' There were guys 6-4, 6-5 towering over him and I remember him peeking around the wall and pointing to himself, like 'Me?!'

"After that, he worked his way on and up. That's how it all kinda really started."

Given the lateness of his arrival, the mixmaster of emotions everyone goes through in a similar situation, Mangiapane's debut went smoothly.

"He played great,'' enthuses Stajan. "Really well. He's got a lot of skill. We knew that from camp, pre-season and what he's been doing in the AHL. It's no secret that he's got that offensive upside.

"He's a little sparkplug. He gets in there and doesn't shy away from anything. And as move along here he's only going to get more comfortable.

"It's a completely different game. Time and space is limited. But he played well."

Now that No. 1 is in the books, that first jolt of adrenaline, the next, vital order of business is getting down to the day-to-day reality of being an NHLer.

"Now I'm going to be able to get few practices in, get to know your teammates better, getting more of a feel for the NHL lifestyle.

"I'm just so happy to be here."

And so determined to stay.

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