It was short and sweet, but it got him into the history books as an NHL player. On January 18, 2014, Joonas Nattinen played two shifts totaling 1:45 of ice time at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto as his visiting Montreal Canadiens lost to the Leafs by a 5-3 score.
For the 23-year-old, it was the realization of a childhood dream and continues to inspire him to make it back for more ice time and a longer stay.
Nattinen became the 23rd Finn to play in the league this year and the eighth to make his NHL debut.
“I don’t remember too much about the moment I stepped on the ice,” he said back in Hamilton, where he has played with the Bulldgos, Montreal’s AHL affiliate, for three years. “Maybe for a second I realized I was now in the NHL, but then I got right into the game.”
Wearing number 28, he centred a line with George Parros and Travis Moen and after the game was returned to Hamilton, but the call-up alone was important. “The GM told me after it was difficult to see how I played because I wasn’t on much, but he said just being here meant I was in their plans, so that was good,” Nattinen continued.
Nattinen was awakened by Hamilton’s head coach Sylvain Lefebvre on Friday morning and told to pack his bags and drive to Toronto for an NHL practice. “It was only a 40-minute drive, and after the practice the coach [Michel Therrien] told me I’d be playing the next night. And then I was in the game. Everything happened so fast, but I wasn’t complaining!”
Of course, it doesn’t get any bigger than a Toronto-Montreal game on a Saturday night, and the moment wasn’t lost on the young Finn. “It was a pretty cool atmosphere at the Air Canada Centre, and what a great rivalry.”
Nattinen had been playing well in the AHL, and when the Habs ran into injury trouble with the loss of Alex Galchenyuk and Ryan White, the team recalled Nattinen and Nathan Beaulieu.
“I want to bring speed, size and a good defensive game to the team. Hopefully, I’ll also be able to create some offence,” Nattinen said after his first NHL practice.
“He’s got size and he’s playing well defensively,” Therrien explained of the roster move. “We’re looking forward to giving him his first chance in the NHL. … Every time we play the Leafs on a Saturday night, you can’t ask for better excitement.”
As a kid, Nattinen explained, Finns cheered for one of two NHL teams: “There wasn’t much coverage of the NHL, but it was either Montreal because of Saku Koivu or the Mighty Ducks because of Teemu Selanne,” he explained.
Imagine Nattinen’s delight when he went to the 2009 NHL Entry Draft in Montreal as part of the team’s 100th anniversary celebrations and heard the very Canadiens management call his name with the 65th overall pick that year. “That was one of my best hockey memories,” he enthused.
But from childhood dreams to being drafted to making that first 1:45 of ice time in the NHL was no easy matter. Nattinen played in two U18s for Finland, in 2008 and 2009, winning one bronze medal, and he appeared in three U20s as well. “Those World Juniors were very special,” he acknowledged, “because two were in Canada and the third was in Buffalo.”
Once his junior eligibility was over, he went to Hamilton and worked hard. It took him the better part of three years in the minors to get to “the show,” a determination that is not common. “Not a lot of Europeans are willing to put in the effort and play in the minors for so long,” he admitted, “but it was worth it for me. Playing in the NHL was a dream come true, but it has also made me hungry for more.”