Mathew Barzal made his debut at Rogers Arena on February 27, 2011.
Barzal was 13-years-old, a star bantam player with the Burnaby Winter Club Bruins, participating in the Vancouver Canucks Superskills competition. BWC won the Danone Skate with the Canucks contest, which meant they got to skate in the team's skills competition in front of a packed house.
"Their players would do the fastest skater and the hardest shot and then we would go do it right after," Barzal said. "We got to meet the team, hang out and have some fun."
Not surprisingly, Barzal competed in the fastest skater competition and figures he made it around in about 14.5 seconds.
Barzal categorized his younger self more as a fan of individual players like Jarome Iginla, Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews than as a Canucks fan, but skating with Henrik and Daniel Sedin was a pretty good way to spend a day.
Now, nearly seven years to the day, Barzal is back at Rogers Arena for his first NHL game in his hometown. For a kid who usually plays things pretty cool, it's hard to contain the excitement for this one.
"It's going to be right there in magnitude," Barzal said of the top moments of his rookie season, which include things like scoring his first goal or facing off against Sidney Crosby. "It'll be one of the biggest of the year. I'm just excited to go back home. I'm going to have some fun with it."
Barzal grew up in Coquitlam BC, about 20 miles east of Vancouver and estimates that a hundred friends, family, former coaches and teammates will be in attendance when the Islanders take on the Canucks. It's the Islanders only stop in Vancouver this season and there will be a sizable pro-Barzal contingent at Rogers Arena, if the group of kids and parents at Sunday's practice were any indication.
"I'm pumped," Barzal said. "I've never had this many people coming to a game. I'm excited, I'm a little nervous, but it's going to be fun. I'm going to have a blast."
Barzal isn't just coming home as a good local boy or the pride of BWC - the same youth organization that produced Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Karl Alzner. He's returning as the Islanders leading scorer, with 67 points and a Calder Trophy contender. The fact that he's facing off against another top rookie in Vancouver's Brock Boeser only adds to the intrigue of the homecoming.
It's easy to forget that Barzal is just 20 years old. He's having the third highest-scoring season for an Islanders rookie ever and has become an essential part of the team.
"He's one of the guys that kind of how he goes, we go," Isles Head Coach Doug Weight said last week in Montreal. "It's a great compliment to him, but also a great responsibility. I told him earlier in the year he doesn't get to go through 9th, 10th and 11th grade before he graduates. He's graduating now. It's his rookie season, but he's 60 games deep and we need him to be his best every night and be consistent and he's worked at it."
While it looks like the game comes easy to Barzal, who's good for at least one sweeping circle of the Isles end before flying through the natural zone per game, Weight said he's been impressed with the rookie's habits and commitment to improving.
"He's in the office all the time, he wants to see things, he wants to learn, his practice habits have gone through the roof in all the zones," Weight said. "He's loving what's happening and he wants to be better and better. It's great for his teammates and great for him."
It's been an exciting first year for Barzal, who has provided fans with plenty of wow moments. When he takes the ice back home in Vancouver, the site where he watched games and once skated as a kid, he'll enjoy a moment of his own.