No kid grows up dreaming of scoring the game-winning goal in overtime of an NHL preseason game. No kid even grows up dreaming of playing in an NHL preseason game.
(Author’s note: As an adult, I’ve personally had the recurring dream of playing in one NHL preseason game. For the Jim Schoenfeld-era Caps. My therapist has me in immersive dream recalibration therapy.)
All kidding aside, while the maiden NHL preseason voyage is not something to which the hockey youth of this planet aspire, that first exhibition game is a noteworthy step up the development ladder, a rung that should be noted and celebrated.
Tonight against the Winnipeg Jets in the Kraft Hockeyville game in Belleville, Ont., five Caps will take that step. And one of them will do so with an asterisk.
Let’s start with the asterisk. Because NHL preseason records are fairly spotty and only get spottier the further back into the archives you dig, there’s no way of divining how many players have managed to play in a Stanley Cup playoff game before playing in their first NHL preseason game. But we’re betting it’s a wee, little, tiny miniscule percentage.
Caps right wing Tom Wilson achieved that rare distinction last spring, skipping right to the main stage without ever having played in a regular season or preseason contest.
Four other Caps – defensemen Connor Carrick and Nate Schmidt and forwards Chandler Stephenson and Nathan Walker – will be donning a Capitals sweater to play against another NHL-level squad in the preseason for the first time on Saturday.
“It’s really exciting,” says Carrick. “I think it’s just a matter of pulling on that sweater. It’s a good-looking one for sure. I’m really excited about it and I know the other guys are, too. It should be fun.”
After five days of rookie camp and a rookie game against the Flyers, the five young Caps have had two days of practice with and against legitimate NHL players.
“It’s really just their size, speed and skill,” notes Carrick. “The NHL guys are really good; there’s a reason why they’re there. It’s very obvious the moment you step on the ice with them. I don’t try to envy anybody, but there are definitely some plays they make that are pretty admirable.”
Carrick has a healthy view towards Saturday’s game that he believes will keep the nerves at bay.
“What usually helps me is I realize there are the same number of guys on the ice and the puck’s the same size,” Carrick declares. “I’d say the rink’s the same size but Belleville’s got a bigger sheet so that would be a lie.
“I just try to stay calm, play with energy, play with some jam. There is a reason why I’m not at home right now and I’m just going to try to stick to the things that have kept me here so far.”
“Right now,” says Stephenson, “I’m just trying not to think about it. I’m trying to just go day by day and [Saturday] when it comes down to it, that’s when you’ve got to start thinking about it and getting into the mindset of what’s at stake. Hockey Night in Canada is broadcasting it and growing up you always wanted to play on Hockey Night in Canada. And now you’re part of it so it’s something special.”
Schmidt interjects, jokingly: “So it’s a bigger deal for you, huh?”
“I think that it’s a special tie for both of us,” says Schmidt. “But then again, you can’t let it consume you. It’s just another game for us. We’ve played a million hockey games; this one is just magnified a little more. For our careers and where we’re at, it’s going to be against better players, the game is going to be a little bit quicker and the overall aspect of playing in the NHL can frighten some people and can get you off your game. You just have to make sure you remain calm and be as collected as possible.”
Schmidt has his finger on something there; it’s a matter of convincing yourself it’s no different from any other game.
“Like Schmitty said, it’s just another game,” says Stephenson. “You’re not changing anything. You just have to do what you do best and what got you here.”
“It’s a tough thing to do,” admits Schmidt. “It’s really hard to keep those emotions in check, especially when you’re playing. You look around our locker room and see some of the best players in the world and Winnipeg has some great players as well. You look at the rosters and see guys that you’ve watched on TV. But at the same time, you’ve got to just go out there and play. If you don’t, the game can consume you awfully fast. Awfully fast.”
Stephenson and Walker are headed to Belleville on merit to be sure, but they also had a little help. Mikhail Grabovski’s ongoing visa issues opened up a spot on Saturday night’s roster for Stephenson, and when Caps forward Brooks Laich left Thursday’s first session of training camp with a hip flexor ailment, the Caps promoted Walker to fill that spot, the left side of a line with Stephenson and veteran right wing Troy Brouwer.
Both Stephenson and Walker were impressive performers in Monday’s 1-0 loss in the annual rookie game against the Philadelphia Flyers at Kettler Capitals Iceplex.
“He was one of our best forwards on Monday,” says Schmidt of Stephenson. “And that’s coming from a defenseman; and it’s hard for us to give forwards a lot of credit. I thought he played really well. He played himself into a spot and he deserves a chance.”
“We didn’t get the outcome we wanted to,” says Walker of the rookie game against the Flyers, “but I feel like we played a strong game. I definitely think that game had something to do with [playing tonight].”
A native of Australia, Walker was a 2012 invitee to the Caps’ annual summer development camp. After playing two seasons in the Czech Republic, he came to the States last season and played for Youngstown of the USHL. Walker was invited to Kettler for a return engagement this fall strictly on a tryout basis; he is not under contract.
Having been at Kettler before enabled Walker to feel a bit more comfortable with the lay of the land, but he is still susceptible to noticing who he’s sharing the sheet with.
“It’s probably helped me feel comfortable,” says Walker of his 2012 camp experience, “but I still have nerves out there. I was just on the ice with the leading goal scorer in the league.”
Like most of the other 67 players on Washington’s camp roster, Walker came to hockey as a youngster. The main difference is he was living on a continent halfway around the globe at the time.
“It all started when my brother started playing,” explains Walker. “We slowly learned the hockey, and from there we went to Toronto for a tournament, went to the Hockey Hall of Fame and bought all the hockey DVDs. I think it just kick-started from back in the day when “The Mighty Ducks” was up and running.”
Walker is pumped to be playing in the preseason, but like everyone else, his eyes are on reaching and remaining in the NHL.
“It’s definitely a step closer,” he says, “but I’m not there yet. I’ve just got to keep kicking and keep pushing and try to get there.”
Walker has a lot of fans from everywhere in his corner. They’d love to see him someday become the league’s first Australian-born player. One fan in particular is especially juiced.
“My brother is actually in Canada at the moment,” notes Walker. “Unfortunately, he wont be able to make it. Me and my brother are really close. He was really happy for me.”
The other aspect of learning you’re about to suit up for your first preseason game is the joyous process of making the calls and sending the texts to share the good news with family and friends.
“I texted friends and family and received texts back,” says Stephenson. “They’re happy, but I’m also happy that I did it for them. Growing up, your parents always did the dirty work for you, driving you to games and just spending the time. They’re living your dream with you. Now I’ve just got to go after it myself.”