Throughout the season, tampabaylightning.com will periodically talk to Lightning players or coaches to get their first-hand account of a critical moment from the season or just what's on their mind currently.
In this installment, we hear from Tampa Bay's 24-year-old rookie forward Carter Verhaeghe. In one week, Verhaeghe made his National Hockey League debut after securing a spot on the Lightning roster in training camp, recorded his first NHL point (an assist) in his second career game and returned to Toronto to play a game in front of friends and family against his childhood team and the franchise that drafted him with the 82nd overall pick (3rd round) at the 2013 NHL Draft.
As told to tampabaylightning.com beat writer Bryan Burns, Verhaeghe discusses that whirlwind first week in the NHL, the atmosphere inside AMALIE Arena for his League debut and his biggest fans who have traveled all over North America to be there every step of the way.
"Following our last preseason game, we had a day off. Coop [Lightning head coach Jon Cooper] asked me to come into the office for a little bit. We had a meeting and he told me what he expected from me this season and that I'd made the team. I think I blanked out a little bit after that. I was pretty excited. Playing in the National Hockey League is a dream come true. We talked for a while and he asked a lot of questions to learn about me. It was a great meeting. After it was over, I had that moment where I thought about how far I'd come and all the people who'd helped me reach that point. The first thing I did was tell my girlfriend Mekaela. She's been there for a lot, and I couldn't wait to let her know the good news. Then I called my parents. They were ecstatic. That day, they booked a flight and hotel to come to Tampa so they could be there for the season opener. They were really excited and wanted to be there for it. It was awesome to have them there.
The day of the season opener was nerve-racking. I took the approach of just trying to go in and enjoy it. Live in the moment. I feel like the preseason helped take the edge off too. I played in almost every preseason game, six out of the seven. I think I was more nervous for my first preseason game than the regular season opener. Don't get me wrong, I was still really nervous about making my NHL debut. It helped too we were playing Florida for the fourth-consecutive game, so I kind of already knew what I would be up against. I tried to take it as just another game and enjoy it. It's tough to manage the nerves. But once you play a couple shifts, you kind of just get into the game and the nerves go away and you just play, play the way you've played your whole life.
I had probably 15 friends and family in the arena for that first game. And then a lot of them drove to Fort Lauderdale for our second game two nights later at the Panthers. My parents were there every step of the way. They stopped on their way home to Toronto in Carolina to watch that game too. The next game was in Toronto, so that was an easy one for them to get to. They even made it over to Ottawa for our fifth game of the season because, again, it's not too far for them to get to. They've come to every game so far. I don't know if they'll be able to keep that up, but it's been nice while it's lasted.
Making my NHL debut at AMALIE Arena was awesome. The rink was packed. I've never played in front of that many people before. During the pregame player introductions, the stands were dark except for the blue-lighted bracelets the fans were wearing. It got pretty loud in there. I think that might have been the loudest arena I've ever heard. When they announced my name and I skated out to the center circle with the rest of my teammates, it was surreal. Absolutely a dream come true. It took a while for it to set in, that I'm on the team, that I'm playing in the NHL. Even when Coop told me I had made the team it still didn't really feel like it was happening. But I think it finally sunk in at that moment. It still kind of hasn't, but at that moment when they introduced my name and I skated out in front of the fans, I kind of felt like, 'I'm here.' I was amped up too.
It took me a couple shifts in that game against Florida to finally settle down and play. I was a little more nervous than usual, but once you get on the ice a few times, you realize, 'Hey, I can play here.' Then you're like, 'Okay, let's play.' You see these players on TV all the time. They're so hyped up. I've been hearing Stamkos' name on TV since I was a kid, you know what I mean? And then you get here and realize he's a great guy and you're playing at the same level in the same league as him. It takes a little bit but then you get into the game and some things go your way and you're like, 'Okay, I can play at this pace.'
Playing in my first NHL game was surreal, but then going to Toronto and playing there was an even different level because that's where I grew up watching games. I have so many memories as a kid going there and watching my favorite team as a kid. I've probably attended five games at Scotiabank Arena, or the Air Canada Centre as it was called when I was going there. Tickets are pretty expensive. I couldn't go every year as a kid, but it'd be Hockey Night in Canada and you'd watch the Leafs. They were my favorite team, and I used to root for them. And then they drafted me in the third round. It was crazy to play so soon in my career against the Leafs in Toronto. It was quite the journey I had between getting drafted by Toronto and then traded, bouncing around between the AHL and ECHL, making my way to the NHL and playing against the team that drafted me in front of my friends and family. A lot of people who had been along for that journey wanted to be there for that game. I think I got 10 tickets, but so many more people got their own tickets. I had a big fan club at that game, probably around 25 people.
Before the game in Toronto, the guys had me take the solo rookie lap before warmups. That was an awesome experience, getting to do that in Toronto. My parents got a kick out of that. They were laughing about it when I saw them after the game. It was great to be able to share that experience with them. After the game, I said hi to all the people there to watch me play. It was a pretty quick turnaround though. We had to fly to Ottawa immediately after the game. There's probably like 20 people down near the locker room wanting to see me after the game, and I need to talk to all of them in like 10 minutes. It's tough, but it's part of our job. Play and move on to the next city. A lot of those people have seen me play a lot of times, but it's definitely different watching me play at that arena. Sometimes, it's hard to believe it's the NHL, that I'm here in the NHL. I've been dreaming about it for so long. I spent a lot of time in the minors. I've moved around a lot. It's tough to believe that now I'm in the NHL. But I'm here and I'm enjoying every minute of it."