Matt Niskanen is a rare breed. In just seven months, he went from living in a dorm room at the University of Minnesota-Duluth to having a regular shift every night as a defenseman in NHL games.
Dallas’ first round pick (28th overall) in 2005, Niskanen was expected to eventually become an everyday NHL defenseman. But who knew it would come this quickly?
“Matt was a very good player when we drafted him and he has just gotten better and better in a short time,” said Stars co-General Manager Les Jackson. “There’s no doubt he’s got a bright future ahead of him and we’re very excited about that.”
Niskanen turned 21 last week, yet he plays like a seasoned veteran on the ice. He averages over 17 minutes per game, co-leads the team in plus/minus with a +5 rating and has played a lot recently with veteran Sergei Zubov.
“Nisky has been great, and I feel reborn playing with him,” said Zubov.
High praise from one of the best defensemen in the league.
“Matt is just a very smart hockey player,” said Stars Head Coach Dave Tippett. “He plays with poise and has some great talent. His attitude is excellent and he has impressed a lot of people.”
Niskanen certainly has made a good impression on all of his teammates. He arrived for training camp in his gray 2001 Pontiac Sunfire that he has owned since he was 15. Niskanen, showing his maturity and being responsible, was fine with continuing to drive the car despite making plenty of money to get a new one.
But his teammates had other ideas, most notably Marty Turco.
Turco and his teammates devised a plan to have Niskanen’s car totally re-furbished while the team was out East just after Thanksgiving. While the Stars were busy going 4-2-0 on the trip, a Dallas area body shop was at work on a new interior, new rims, a new sound system and of course a new paint job.
The gray was replaced with Stars black and white, complete with the team logo on the hood, and “NISKY” affectionately placed on the back and above the doors. Niskanen’s number 5 is displayed on both of the doors. And the top of the windshield is lined with, “GO STARS GO.”
“I’ve called the car ‘My Old Girl’ for years and I think it looks really good now,” said Niskanen. “I can’t believe they would do something like this for me. But the whole point was to get me to get out there and buy a new car I guess. It’s got 90,000 miles on it and still runs great but maybe it’s time for a new one.”
Niskanen’s teammates unveiled the new look for Niskanen’s car at practice last Saturday at the Dr Pepper StarCenter in Euless.
“I was on the ice right after practice and it came rolling out of the Zamboni tunnel,” said Niskanen. “I was dying laughing and was in absolute shock. But it was great. I was floored.”
The end result of a plan that was conceived months earlier.
“This whole idea started when he actually showed up with this car for (training) camp and was taking a little heat for it,” said Turco. “We joked that it probably cost more to ship it than what the actual car was worth. The first idea was just to trick it up a little bit with maybe a fuzzy steering wheel or some fuzzy dice, and then it just grew from there. It got a little out of hand but it turned out very nice.”
The bottom line is that it really shows what Niskanen’s teammates think of him.
“He’s such a good kid and a great teammate,” said Turco. “We all think the world of Nisky and he has been great for the team. It was nice to have an icebreaker like this to make him even more of a part of the team. We’re all in this together – to win and be successful and he’s a big part of it.
“He was excited when we rolled it out and it was pretty funny. I think we may have to weed out the girls that he dates now, cause some may be out just for the car. It’s a pretty nice vehicle now.”
The team is talking about several options for the new “Old Girl.” Turco and Niskanen are discussing possibly putting it up for auction to raise money for charity.
“I think there’s a good chance we’ll put her up for auction and I may be the one who steps up and buys it so I can keep her,” joked Niskanen. “I plan on driving it for a little while though and having some fun with it. I’ve gotten some funny looks on the highway though.”
Niskanen’s career is just beginning and he’s hoping that it continues to bloom. He has two goals and nine assists in his first 31 NHL games and just wants to contribute.
"I can't believe everything that’s been happening in my life lately," Niskanen said. "Every day I'm in shock. I cannot believe how lucky I am. It's been a lot of fun."