VANCOUVER — The Canadiens held an optional practice Friday afternoon at the University of British Columbia arena with 11 players taking part.
Guess who the last player off the ice was?
Wouldn’t you be if you were an 18-year-old playing in the NHL?
“It’s pretty fun,” Kotkaniemi said while sitting in a tiny dressing room afterward, still in his equipment. “I’m living my dream. I think that’s the only thing I can say.”
Before leaving the ice, Kotkaniemi threw his stick against the glass after being stopped on a shootout attempt by goalie Antti Niemi, who was the second-to-last player to leave the ice.
“Now, I owe him a lunch … that’s bad,” Kotkaniemi said while flashing his big, innocent smile.
Turns out the 18-year-old Kotkaniemi lost a bet with Niemi that he could score two goals on his fellow Finn on shootout moves before the 35-year-old goalie could stop him twice. Earlier this season, Kotkaniemi lost a bet to Andrew Shaw in a shooting competition and had to untie the veteran’s skate laces after practice.
Being around this kid puts a smile on your face — whether you’re a teammate or a journalist. Kotkaniemi really is living a dream and he’s cherishing every moment of it.
Heading into Saturday’s game against the Canucks (7 p.m., CBC, SN1, TVA Sports, TSN 690 Radio) at Rogers Arena, Kotkaniemi has 3-7-10 totals in 19 games while averaging 13:35 of ice time and is plus-1. He has never looked out of place.
When asked earlier this week what he has seen from Kotkaniemi so far this season, coach Claude Julien said: “An 18-year-old, young player who seems to have a lot of confidence with the puck, offensively makes things happen. Right now, the only thing an 18-year-old has to do is with time is get stronger and learn the little details of the game that makes a player better in this league. That’s where he’s at and he’s got a great attitude, so we feel that before you know it he’ll be there at that level that everybody expects him to be.”
Kotkaniemi’s teammates love him — how can you not? — and they also protect him like he’s their little brother. During the second period of the Canadiens’ 3-2 win in Calgary on Thursday night, the Flames’ Garnet Hathaway went after Kotkaniemi and the 5-foot-9, 184-pound Brendan Gallagher — whose heart is way too big for his body — came to the rescue, challenging Hathaway back.
Gallagher is Kotkaniemi’s little big brother.
“KK’s going to have his first fight, eventually,” Gallagher said with a smile after the game. “I don’t think tonight was the night. That’s just kind of what you do. I’m sure he’d do the same for me. I had some fun with him, though. I’m not the biggest guy … but I think I got a couple of pounds on KK, so I guess I got to look out for him when I’m out there.”
Kotkaniemi smiled — again — on Friday when the subject of Gallagher coming to his defence was brought up.
“I’d say to Gally: ‘That was my moment and you ruined it,’” Kotkaniemi said with a big laugh.
The teenager then added: “I have a locker room full of big brothers who take care of me. That’s fun. I like that.”
The 6-foot-2, 184-pound Kotkaniemi hasn’t been afraid to stand up for himself, either, when it comes to physical play and giving back what he gets in the corners or in front of the net.
“Everyone in this league tries to play a tough game, so I need to be ready for that every night,” he said. “I try to be that kind of player, too.”
The Canucks have a special young player of their own in 20-year-old Elias Pettersson, who leads all NHL rookies in scoring with 10 goals and seven assists.
“They’re elite players that are going to be great players for a long time in this league,” Julien said. “You don’t want people taking advantage of a young player, so you stand up for your teammate and I think that’s what guys are doing. It’s like a little brother and nobody’s going to touch my little brother, and I like that approach from our guys.”
So much about the NHL is still new to Kotkaniemi as he visits cities he has never seen before and plays and practises in new rinks. Imagine what a thrill that must be for a teenager.
He has certainly come a long way in a short time from the player who looked lost on the ice during the first game of the NHL Rookie Showdown in early September at Laval’s Place Bell, when the Canadiens lost 4-0 to the Ottawa Senators in only the fourth game Kotkaniemi had ever played on a smaller North American rink.
“That’s true,” Kotkaniemi said. “It’s a long road behind and a long road ahead.”
It’s going to be a lot of fun to watch him travel it.