You can say you don’t get attached to players. That you’re a Montreal Canadiens supporter in general. A fan of the team. The game. The skill. But I’m willing to bet there isn’t one little piece of you that doesn’t smile when Brendan Gallagher flashes his evil grin on the ice. When Carey Price hugs a little boy who just lost his mother to cancer. Or when Max Domi gives a pep talk to a young boy who was diagnosed with Type 1 Diabetes.
Jesperi Kotkaniemi is a prime example of not just appreciating a player’s talent, but also being sucked in by his personality.
We all know it was a bit of a surprise that young-pup rookie Kotkaniemi not only made the cut last year, but also suited up for 79 games and finished eighth in points with 34 (11G, 23A) and was the youngest player in the NHL. The best part of it all was he clearly enjoyed every moment of it. He was having the time of his life, and he took us along for the ride.
His charm also got to GM Trevor Timmins during the 2018 Draft. Looking for the obvious — confidence, drive, playmaking ability — as the draft approached, there was one other aspect of Kotkaniemi that got him picked third overall. “We really fell in love with his personality.” Timmins said in a conversation with Stu Cowan of the Montreal Gazette. “He’s outgoing, but he’s humble yet confident.”
In a 3-1 victory over the New Jersey Devils during the pre-season, Kotkaniemi scored a goal on his first shot in a competitive match, making a play that had him looking like a seasoned vet. Not bad for someone who claimed he had no idea what was going on during warmups. When asked how it felt and what he thought of the crowd’s supportive cheering, his giggly response was, “That was sick.”
As the season progressed, and video clips of the Habs leaving the ice was posted to social media, I started to look forward to watching the high fives as the players walked down the tunnel. You could already see a flash of Kotkaniemi’s grin when he was still about five players behind and nowhere near the camera.
Admit it. You smiled, didn’t you?
With each passing shift, his confidence grew as he became more comfortable with the level of play and aggressiveness of the NHL. It was clear that his enthusiasm was not only starting to rub off on his teammates, but the fans as well.
RANDOM POLL TIME!! Which Hab has the most contagious smile? #Habs— Eyes on the Prize (@HabsEOTP) November 16, 2018
During a matchup against the Washington Capitals on November 1, Kotkaniemi showed off his hands by opening the scoring 2:28 in the first period. He found the back of the net once again in the third period to tie it at four. The Canadiens came away with a 6-4 win and Kotkaniemi was named first star of the night. What was his response when he spoke to the media, sporting the player-of-the game Game of Thrones cape? The usual it was a team effort or we have a great group of guys? Nope. Instead, he gave a big smile and said it was “super fun.”
For a few seasons, Marc Bergevin had been preaching about attitude problems in the Canadiens’ locker room. I think it’s safe to say that Kotkaniemi helped nip that issue in the bud.