Jesperi Kotkaniemi had only taken about two steps into the Canadiens’ locker room after Friday morning’s practice in Brossard when Andrew Shaw — who was already sitting in his stall — shouted out: “Hey, Kit Kat! Get over here … right now!”
It turns out the Finnish rookie had lost a bet at the end of practice during a shooting competition in which players had to fire pucks off each goal post and then hit the crossbar. The loser had to untie the other players’ skates.
“I went two-for-two (on the posts) and then it took me about 17 more shots to hit the crossbar,” Shaw said. “The kid couldn’t do it … couldn’t handle the pressure. He’s going to undo Lehky’s (Artturi Lehkonen’s) and (Charles) Hudon’s (skates), too.”
I witnessed a similar scene two seasons ago when the Canadiens were in Calgary and Lehkonen was the rookie who had to untie Shaw’s skates after a practice because he lost a game of rock-paper-scissors to the veteran.
Not surprisingly, Kotkaniemi was smiling the entire time he was down on his hands and knees untying Shaw’s skates.
Does this kid ever not smile?
“You’ve got to make him feel comfortable,” Shaw said afterward. “He’s 18, he’s in a new country, he’s away from his family for the first time. So make him have fun, make him smile, make him enjoy himself. I think it makes him feel more comfortable and when he’s more comfortable he won’t be stressed and he can just focus on hockey.”
Kotkaniemi obviously gets a kick out of the 27-year-old Shaw.
“He’s an awesome guy,” Kotkaniemi said with another big smile. “I like him a lot. He’s funny all the time.”
Being a character guy in the locker room is one of the big reasons Canadiens general manager Marc Bergevin signed Shaw to a six-year, US$23.4-million contract with an annual salary-cap hit of $3.9 million after acquiring him from Chicago on June 24, 2016. Going the other way were two second-round picks at that year’s draft, which the Blackhawks used to select forward Alex DeBrincat and defenceman Chad Krys.
DeBrincat, who posted 28-24-52 totals as a rookie last season, leads the Blackhawks in scoring this season with 6-4-10 totals in six games, while Krys is playing at Boston University. While DeBrincat makes the Blackhawks look like winners in the trade, Shaw has come as advertised.
“Five seasons in the NHL, two Stanley Cups,” Bergevin said after acquiring Shaw. “We talked a lot about helping our dressing room with character guys, guys that have won. It’s one of the reasons why it was important for me to look for a player like Andrew Shaw. In Chicago, I was a part of the team of scouts when we drafted him. We liked his character. He’s a guy who knows what it takes to win, who has scored big goals in the playoffs. A player like Brendan Gallagher who takes his teammates with him into battle.”
Shaw said Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane were the players who took him under their wings when he first arrived in Chicago after being selected in the fifth round (139th overall) at the 2011 NHL Draft. The Blackhawks would win the Stanley Cup in 2013 and 2015 with Shaw in the lineup.
The Canadiens are off to an impressive 4-1-1 start this season and Shaw sees one very important thing they have in common with the Blackhawks teams he won two Cups with.
“We’re all buying into the system,” he said. “We’re all working together and we all compete. So those are things that can create a winning atmosphere and then it’s a snowball effect. You build on it and you keep pushing and keep working. Everyone has a chip on their shoulder because we struggled last year. We had a bad year and all the negativity around the team. We’ve just kind of shut that out this year and (have) more of a positive atmosphere in the locker room. The locker room’s a lot more relaxed and more refreshing instead of being toxic.”
Kotkaniemi has provided a breath of fresh air and is well-liked by his teammates. It’s impossible not to like this kid with his constant smile, mixed with his hockey sense and talent on the ice.
“Having a few Finnish guys around helps him out,” Shaw said about teammates Lehkonen, Joel Armia and Antti Niemi. “Like I said, he’s miles and miles and miles away from home, 18 years old, you can get homesick when you’re a kid like that. So making him feel comfortable and making him feel part of the team I think is a big part of that.
“I play Fortnite with him from time to time,” Shaw added. “He’s surrounded by Lehkonen and the young guys who live downtown that keep him busy, hanging out with him. We have our team events, too.
“He seems very happy.”
Even when he has to untie a veteran teammate’s skates after practice.