Detroit — Dylan Larkin knew the NHL would be different. And he’d been warned — repeatedly — that open ice would be harder to come by at this level.
But after the 19-year-old rookie had finally maneuvered through the crowd inside the Red Wings’ dressing room at Joe Louis Arena on Friday morning, with his much-anticipated professional debut still several hours away, he turned to face the throng of media and laughed about the suddenly-tight quarters.
“I didn’t expect this many,” he said. “But it’s pretty cool.”
Pretty cool, indeed. And on an Opening Night when the generations were destined to collide — new faces in old places, young legs skating with old hands — this was where the wide-eyed focus was centered.
Not on the coaches, with Mike Babcock behind the visitors’ bench and Jeff Blashill assuming his former perch. And not on the Original Six rivals in blue and white, or at least what passes for the Toronto Maple Leafs these days.
No, all eyes were on Larkin, a native son who made himself right at home.
The team’s first-round pick from a year ago skated out to a thunderous cheer in pregame introductions Friday night, outdone only by the salutes for Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk.
“The crowd was pretty loud — I was just trying not to fall,” laughed Larkin, who a year ago was suiting up for the University of Michigan’s exhibition game against Wilfrid Laurier University, a far-less storied Ontario hockey club. “But it was a moment I’ll never forget the rest of my life.”
One of a few on this night, no doubt.
The Waterford native was on the ice for the opening faceoff as well, skating on Detroit’s top line with Zetterberg, the captain celebrating his 35th birthday Friday and a player whom Larkin has long admired.
“Ever since I can remember watching the Red Wings,” he said, “he’s been on the team.”
Breaking the ice
Now the kid they call “Larks” is as well. And though he tried the past few days to downplay this moment, calling Friday’s opener “just another game,” the rosy-cheeked rookie couldn’t hide his excitement once it arrived.
“My whole life I’ve been dreaming about this,” said Larkin, who was wearing a Wings jersey when he was a toddler just learning to skate, trying to keep up with older brother, Colin, in the family driveway in Waterford Township. “Even when I was drafted, I never thought I would be here (this soon.) But it’s something that I wanted. And I’m lucky enough to have it work out.”
He made his own luck early in Friday’s game, spinning away from Leafs defenseman Jake Gardiner in the corner once to feed linemate Justin Adbelkader in front of the net, and then again after hustling to retrieve the puck a moment later. Abdelkader took the second pass, wheeled and fired from the slot to give Detroit a 2-0 lead at 8:20 of the period. The crowd erupted, Larkin gave a little fist pump, and the ice was officially broken.
The Leafs were, too, by the opening shift of the second period. Larkin ripped a shot from a sharp angle over the shoulder of Jonathan Bernier just 20 seconds in to make it 3-0. This time, he gave it a full-throttle fist pump along the boards as the crowd roared and a scowling Babcock yanked his goalie.
So much for Blashill’s concerns about how Larkin, a natural center, would fare playing on the wing, eh?
“I thought Dylan played very well,” Blashill said of the rookie, who finished a plus-3 — with a game-high six shots on goal — in 13:42 of ice time. “I talked to him before the game, and he seems to be pretty unflappable. He’s extremely mature as a young guy. And he seemed ready to go. I didn’t think he pressed, I didn’t think he tried to do too much. I thought he played hockey — and he does it very, very well.”
Friday night, that top line scored all three even-strength goals, the last coming on a mini-rush as two Leafs covered Larkin and Abdelkader took advantage to complete his hat trick. The game was officially a rout at that point, less than 4 minutes into the second. Hats littered the ice, and laughter filled the Wings’ bench.
Christmas in October
There may have been some tears earlier in the week, when Larkin phoned his parents, Kevin and Denise, to tell them he’d made the Opening Night roster. And just as Blashill admitted to soaking in the significance of this night before the puck dropped, Larkin did the same, with his body a bundle of nerves and a couple dozen relatives in the stands.
“My mom was telling me they haven’t had this much family together since their wedding,” Larkin said.
When Larkin was a kid, his father would occasionally fill the holiday stockings with Red Wings tickets.
“And right where we used to sit was where they were sitting tonight,” Dylan said. “So just to look up and see them up there … I guess Christmas came early this year.”
For the fans as well. It has been a long time since a rookie’s on-ice arrival was so eagerly awaited — and expedited — in Detroit, maybe going all the way back to Steve Yzerman in 1983.
Larkin’s the first teenager to play for the Red Wings since Jiri Hudler played a dozen games as a 19-year-old early in the 2003 season. The last teen to dress for the Red Wings in a season opener was Mike Sillinger in 1990. And the last to skate in a home opener for Detroit came a week later when Keith Primeau made his NHL debut at 18. (Yzerman, by the way, is the last Red Wings teenager to score in his first NHL game.)
Larkin hardly looked out of place in the preseason, skating against lineups that included the likes of Sidney Crosby and Jonathan Toews. He played with the same poise — not to mention the same speed and skill — he’d showed throughout his career, from the Lakeland Hawks through his time in Ann Arbor, first with the USA National Team Development Program and later with the Wolverines as the Big Ten freshman of the year.
He turned pro this spring after a whirlwind stretch that included a dominant performance at the world junior championships, and solid contributions for Team USA at the world championships and the Grand Rapids Griffins in the AHL playoffs. And he left the Red Wings little choice but to keep him in Detroit with the way he played in training camp. Datsyuk’s injury might have earned him the nod on the No. 1 line but Larkin forced his way onto the roster.
“All the steps and levels he’s taking, he’s proving that he can handle it,” Zetterberg said. “He looks like he’s been playing here for a couple years.”
Zetterberg, of course, has been playing here for a decade longer than that. He remembers his NHL debut in 2002, and how could he not? The young Swede was joining the defending Stanley Cup champs and, like Larkin, he started his first game on the top line, playing right wing alongside Sergei Fedorov and Brendan Shanahan.
“The difference is me and Pav were 22-23 when we came in,” Zetterberg said. “There was no chance we’d be able to do what (Larkin is) doing when we were 19. It is impressive.”
It’s also imperative, as the Red Wings try to bridge the gap and get over the hump, cheating Father Time while chasing the Stanley Cup.
But if Friday was any indication — caveats about the competition obviously apply here — they’re on the right track. And Larkin’s in the right place at the right time.
“There’s a lot of hype around him so I was a little worried that way, how he’d respond,” Abdelkader said. “But he proved every bit as good as everyone had built up.”