MONTREAL – Mike Kostka had waited a long time for a shot at the NHL. It finally came on Saturday night. So what was going through the Toronto defenceman's head when the puck dropped inside an electric Bell Centre?
"Everything and nothing," he said with a laugh. "I mean it was so loud in there it was unbelievable and then you got to just throw the nerves to the side and just play your game."
The moment was magical as the 27-year-old late bloomer suited up for the team he grew up cheering for in Ajax, Ont. The day was everything he hoped it would be.
"Everything and more," he said wearing a huge smile in the victorious Leafs locker room. "It's such a special day. My parents were in town, my sister, brother-in-law, a few of my best friends, my agent, a lot of people came to watch and I know a lot of people were watching back home so it was really special."
Kostka's path to this point has been anything but smooth. (See Jonas Siegel's story on Kostka here)
He starred in Ontario's junior A system, but was passed over in the NHL Draft. He went to school in 2004 playing for the UMass Minutemen in the NCAA. After graduating four years later he jumped to the American Hockey League where he played the last four-and-a-half years, bouncing between the Rochester Americans, Portland Pirates, San Antonio Rampage, Norfolk Admirals and Toronto Marlies.
Kostka won a Calder Cup last season with the Admirals, beating the Marlies in the final. In the off-season the Leafs scooped him up and he thrived with the Marlies during the NHL lockout, racking up 34 points in 34 games. Among defencemen only Justin Schultz had more points.
During the Leafs' shortened training camp he didn't miss a beat and, one year after being the last cut at the Florida Panthers camp, finally made an NHL roster.
Kostka certainly didn't look nervous in his NHL debut, logging 22:59 of ice time, which was second to only his defence partner Dion Phanuef (26:43) on the team. He also registered his first point picking up an assist on Nazem Kadri's power-play marker in the first period. He was on the ice in the dying moments as the Leafs protected a one-goal lead.
"I thought Mike Kostka was a dominant player, played a lot of minutes for us, didn't make too many mistakes out there," said Leafs head coach Randy Carlyle. "He looked like a guy that was comfortable playing in this type of situation and hats off to him. He's had a great year in the American Hockey League and it really is astounding that he hasn't played a game before tonight in the league."
Kostka's emergence has helped shore up Toronto's blue line, which is missing Jake Gardiner (head injury). It has also allowed Carlyle to create a more balanced unit by breaking up Phaneuf and the reliable Carl Gunnarsson, who played together most of last season.
"I think we complement each other well," said Kostka when asked about Phaneuf. "He can play at both ends of the ice and so can I. If he's jumping up I can be the responsible one and stay back and vice-versa. It's still a matter of starting to work together and getting more chemistry, but I think it's a good pairing. And I'm obviously happy [laughs]."
TOP MEMORY FROM A MAGICAL NIGHT
Kostka is trying not to get too ahead of himself. When asked about his assist, for example, he downplayed it.
"That's not exactly my goal to go out there and get points," he said. "I'm just trying to help out wherever I can, but, yeah, it was nice to get one."
In a night full of amazing moments the assist is not the one that stands out most for Kostka. It was those opening moments that he will remember most.
"The anthem is pretty special here," he said. "You go out there and it's so loud you can barely hear yourself think so it's pretty amazing so, yeah, the atmosphere. I've never played in an atmosphere like that so I definitely take that with me."