By Jim Diamond
Matt Cullen played his first NHL game October 28, 1997.
Kevin Fiala was all of 15 months old at the time.
Friday marked the first on-ice sessions of training camp for the Nashville Predators. With the large number of players here for the start of camp, the team has been split into three different groupings for the first couple of days of practices.
For some, it was their first experience in an NHL camp while others have been at it for close to 20 years.
The first group to hit the ice was the blue group. Among the forwards skating in that collective were Cullen and Fiala, and the coaching staff had them skating on a line together for nearly the entirety of that first practice session.
After they came off of the ice, Cullen was asked how it felt skating on a line with someone who was born in 1996.
“I was waiting for that question,” he said with a laugh. “It’s funny because this is my 17th training camp, and I remember my first one like it was yesterday. I can relate to where these guys are at.”
One should not look too deeply into line combinations and defensive pairings on the first day of practice, but it’s likely that new Predators head coach Peter Laviolette went with someone he knew and felt comfortable with to mentor Fiala, the team’s first round draft pick from June’s Entry Draft, as he was put through the paces of his first training camp practice. Laviolette coached Cullen with the Carolina Hurricanes, where the pair won the Stanley Cup in 2006.
Cullen’s first camp in Anaheim was an eye-opener for him, especially when he was on the ice with a future Hall of Famer.
“Seeing guys like Teemu Selanne skating on the ice with me and for these guys to get out with Shea Weber, it’s your realization of a dream that you are finally there,” Cullen said. “You’ve been dreaming about playing in the NHL your whole life and to get on the ice the first time, it doesn’t matter if it’s just practice the first day of training camp, it’s hard to believe. You can see it in these kids, you can see the big eyes and the excitement. It’s pretty cool.”
But do those big eyes ever shrink back down to normal size when you are playing alongside a player of Selanne’s caliber?
“Eventually you kind of settle in, but still you find yourself at times thinking, ‘Holy cow, I’m playing on a line with Teemu Selanne right now. This is pretty cool,’” Cullen said.
It’s rare for a player to make an NHL roster in his first training camp, but once the awe factor dies down, the rookies are trying to do exactly the same thing as the veterans.
“You are a little intimidated at first, but at the same time, you know that you are going to have to be better than one of them if you want to get a roster spot,” Viktor Stalberg said. “Maybe the first day you are impressed, but then you just go out there and play your hardest. You’ve got to get the coaches to know you. You can’t be too friendly with guys just because they have been in the league for very long.”
NHL teams can carry a maximum of 23 players on their active rosters. Over the course of the couple of weeks, it will be interesting to watch which young guys make their case for those jobs.