Rasmus Asplund visited the hospital every day in the month leading up to his draft. It was May 2016, and Asplund's grandfather was in the midst of an aggressive bout with cancer that coincided with his pre-draft process.
Asplund was selected by the Sabres in the second round of the draft on June 25, 2016. His grandfather passed the next day.
"He basically waited for me to get home from the draft and show the draft jersey and all that," Asplund said Saturday morning, not long after he found out he would make his NHL debut against the Ottawa Senators during Hockey Fights Cancer Night at KeyBank Center.
"This is pretty big. ... Emotional for me and my family."
Asplund's grandfather and grandmother - who also passed away from cancer - were both on his mind when he joined the team for practice on Thursday. The Sabres welcomed two pediatric cancer patients as guests for the day, leading him to realize his debut could coincide with Hockey Fights Cancer Night.
Video: Sabres in :50 - Meet Emmett and Andre
It was confirmed this morning, when the team decided that forward Johan Larsson would not play due to an upper-body injury. Asplund will take on Larsson's role, centering a line with Zemgus Girgensons and Kyle Okposo and eating minutes on the penalty kill.
The Sabres will welcome one of the children who attended practice on Friday - 4-year-old Andre Sanders - to the ice for a ceremonial puck drop. Prior to that, Asplund and his teammates will take the ice in commemorative lavender jerseys for warmups, which will then be auctioned off to support Roswell Park Comprehensive Care Center.
"All this is very emotional for me as soon as somebody mentioned cancer and all that, because I know how tough it is for families and the people nearby," Asplund said. "It's really tough. Cancer is something close to my heart."
Video: Ralph Krueger's "I Fight For" placard
Along with thoughts of his grandparents, Asplund's debut will conjure memories of all the workouts and long summers that made this day possible. He spent two seasons in the Swedish Hockey League after being drafted, then endured a year of growth in Rochester last season.
His rookie campaign with the Amerks ended with him scoring 23 points in his final 22 games. He was one of the last players sent to Rochester at the end of training camp this fall but left the impression that, when called upon, he could be a player who the Sabres could count on at both ends of the ice.
"He's definitely somebody in the preseason that showed us some strong awareness away from the puck," Sabres coach Ralph Krueger said. "We expect he can add offensively more than anything, pretty well filling the shoes of Larsson here today."
"I really try to put pride in my defensive game," Asplund explained. "That's the thing I really have to focus on first, because if I play good defensively my offense comes with that. That's something I'm always trying to remind myself every time I go out to play a game."
Asplund had not yet told his family he would be in the lineup when he met with the media this morning, though he expects staying up until 1 a.m. for puck drop in Sweden won't be a problem for them. It will be an emotional moment for all of them, though it's far from the end of his journey.
"I'm just trying to keep my eyes on the goal, which is the NHL, and it's still a process and I still have to respect the process because I'm not a regular NHL player yet," Asplund said. "I've just got to keep working hard and keep working for it."
Scouting the Senators
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Ottawa has won four of its last five games after starting the season 4-9-1. Jean-Gabriel Pageau has scored five of his team-leading 11 goals in that span, including a hat trick in New Jersey on Wednesday.
The Senators held opponents to two goals or fewer in all four of those victories, including a 2-1 win over Philadelphia on Friday. The exception was an 8-2 loss to Carolina on Monday.
"We were able to watch them quite clearly last night," Krueger said. "I think it's a hard-working group with a lot of youth and some high skill in a few players. They're maybe in a lot of ways like we are, still looking for consistent structure within that.
"They have a good coaching staff over there and what we're expecting is a team that's going to come at us hard. They're playing confident right now and have a nothing to lose situation tonight for them coming off the back-to-back. We need to be on our toes and play our best game today."
Craig Anderson will start in net for the Senators.
Linus Ullmark will get the nod in net. With the exception of Asplund filling in for Larsson, who is day-to-day, the rest of the lineup will stay the same as in Thursday's overtime loss to Carolina:
68 Victor Olofsson - 9 Jack Eichel - 23 Sam Reinhart
53 Jeff Skinner - 71 Evan Rodrigues - 43 Conor Sheary
13 Jimmy Vesey - 37 Casey Mittelstadt - 27 Curtis Lazar
28 Zemgus Girgensons - 74 Rasmus Asplund - 21 Kyle Okposo
19 Jake McCabe - 55 Rasmus Ristolainen
26 Rasmus Dahlin - 62 Brandon Montour
6 Marco Scandella - 10 Henri Jokiharju
35 Linus Ullmark
40 Carter Hutton