As the puck drops on the Carolina Hurricanes' 2017-18 regular season, so too will the puck drop on two players' National Hockey League careers.
Forward Janne Kuokkanen and defenseman Haydn Fleury will both skate in their first NHL games tonight, a moment perhaps made even more special by the emotions and anticipation surrounding Opening Night.
"Oh yeah. All my life I've been dreaming about this," Kuokkanen said. "Now it's today, and I'm really happy."
Kuokkanen, 19, was selected by the Hurricanes early in the second round of the 2016 NHL Draft. He made the jump from Europe to North America last season, skating with the London Knights of the Ontario Hockey League. He tallied 62 points (26g, 36a) in 60 games and followed that up with 10 goals and 16 points in 14 playoff games. After an impressive summer, which included an eye-catching performance at the World Junior Summer Showcase, Kuokkanen made a lasting impact in training camp and secured a spot on the Canes' 23-man roster.
"I have good feelings now. I'm pretty focused on the game," said Kuokkanen, who will skate on a line with Derek Ryan and Jeff Skinner. "I'm ready."
Video: Janne Kuokkanen: "I've been dreaming about this"
"He's just a real good player," head coach Bill Peters said on Friday. "He's a real smart player and good defensively, also."
For Fleury, this moment has been a longer time coming. The 21-year-old defenseman was a seventh-overall pick of the Canes in 2014. Following two additional seasons with the Red Deer Rebels of the Western Hockey League to round out his junior career, Fleury turned pro with the Charlotte Checkers in 2016-17.
"I think it really paid off. The process since I've gotten drafted has been pretty patient," Fleury said. "I had to put my head down, work hard and continue to get better at every level."
"The maturity off the ice and on the ice has really increased and improved. He's playing the way he needs to play to be an effective NHL defenseman. He's solid defensively and makes the good first pass, but he's added the compete and bit component to his game," Peters said after Saturday's morning skate. "Now that he's here, I think he'll be in the National Hockey League for a long time."
In his NHL debut, Fleury will skate alongside Trevor van Riemsdyk, who is also making his first regular-season appearance in a Canes' uniform.
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"I think I've put in the work. Now it just comes down to just going out there and playing. It's just another hockey game, but I'm definitely really excited," Fleury said. "A lot of family members and friends have been texting me. The support you get as a hockey player is second to none. My parents and aunt and uncle will be here tonight. It will just be really special to share this with them."
Once the puck drops and the first few shifts help settle the game, so too will the nerves ease for Kuokkanen - who said he "got a good sleep yesterday" - and Fleury. It's the same game they've been playing their whole lives, only this time the lights are brighter and the stage is bigger.
"Everyone just says to take it all in. You get to play your first game once," Fleury said. "Everyone talks about their first couple of shifts being a bit nervous and you can't really feel the puck because your hands are shaking. Everyone goes through it. I've just got to enjoy it."