Friday, January 25, 2008

'Star' player shares story

By Candice Norrell
Co-Sports Editor

Over Christmas break, Candice Norrell caught up with Dallas Stars rookie Matt Niskanen to get the scoop on growing up, playing hockey and dreams coming true.

Memo to self: dreams can come true. And some come sooner than expected. For Dallas Stars rookie Matt Niskanen, this was evident. In just seven months, Niskanen went from his sophomore year of college hockey at the University of Minnesota-Duluth to a defenseman in the NHL.

Niskanen was Dallas’ first round pick, 28th overall in 2005.

“I’ve always wanted to be an NHL player,” Niskanen said, but he also said it was a tough decision for him to join the professional ranks. “I left behind some good buddies and teammates to turn pro. We still keep in touch, but things sure have changed.”

Hockey, hockey, hockey
Niskanen started playing hockey when he was six years old and was instantly hooked.

“That’s all I wanted to do and all I wanted to talk about,” Niskanen recalled. “I remember spending hours upon hours playing shinny hockey on the outdoor rink.”

Niskanen’s father had a key to the warming shack because he drove the zamboni, so Niskanen basically had unlimited access to the rink.

“I remember always asking for just five more minutes...that was the place to be,” said Niskanen.

Back then, one of Niskanen’s best friends was Andrea Nichols, former captain of the Minnesota Gopher women’s hockey team. The two would skate for hours on weekends at the rink. Then they would play floor hockey in Niskanen’s basement for another hour or two.

“At the time it never seemed like we were working hard, or trying to develop or anything. It was what we loved to do, and my parents were awesome about letting me spend time at the rink,” Niskanen said. In fact, Niskanen said they have always been very supportive of him.

“I’ve already been through some tough times in my career [but they’re] always very positive and remind me to keep things in perspective. Their basic message is nothing new, but is so important to keep in mind: the game is fun; enjoy it.”

Off the ice, with the team and living the dream
Like many hockey players, Niskanen enjoys fishing for walleyes. When he arrived in Texas, he was disappointed that he couldn’t go walleye fishing.

“There is bass fishing I suppose, but that just doesn’t do it for me,” said Niskanen.

What does do it for him? Niskanen said it’s definitely playing on a winning team, as the Dallas Stars are consistently among the NHL’s best and always in the hunt for the Stanley Cup.

“I really have a ton of respect for the coaching staff, as they are on our side, and [not only] fun to play for, but tough when they need to be,” Niskanen said. “It’s all a player can ask for.”

As for his teammates, Niskanen said they’re great guys.

“They’re all real supportive of the young players to make sure they’re comfortable. They also always hassle the young guys a bit. It’s all in good fun, but it’s kind of tradition to razz the rookies.” Niskanen is sure to be speaking about the stunt that goalie Marty Turco led a couple months ago.

Turco devised a plan to have Niskanen’s 2001 Pontiac Sunfire totally refurbished while the team was out east just after Thanksgiving. While the Stars were on the trip, a Dallas area body shop was working on new interior, new rims, a new sound system and, of course, a new paint job.

The grey was replaced with Stars black and white, complete with the team logo on the hood. “Nisky” was affectionately placed on the back and above the doors, with his number (5) displayed on both of the doors. The top of the windshield is lined with, “GO STARS GO.”

In an article posted on the Dallas Star’s website, Niskanen said, “I was on the ice right after practice and it came rolling out of the zamboni tunnel. I was dying laughing and was in absolute shock. But it was great. I was floored.”

When it comes to the game, Niskanen knows how to mentally prepare himself, although he has tried it all: getting really psyched up, screwing around, being loose, being super focused, visualizing.

Since skill level is what Niskanen believes is the biggest difference between each level of hockey, especially in the NHL compared to college hockey, he said this season he finds that he plays his best when he has a clear head.

“Certain players are so dangerous with a puck on their stick, which makes defending very tough,” Niskanen said. Therefore, like many hockey players, he tries to mentally prepare himself for a battle, without over-thinking things.

“It’s a balance,” said Niskanen.

In order to prepare himself physically on game days, Niskanen always eats pasta and chicken and takes an hour-long afternoon nap, finishing with the same warm-up routine before each game.

Coming from a Star
“[Playing for the Dallas Stars is] everything I thought it would be and more,” Niskanen said of his new lifestyle. “The travel, my teammates, and the hockey...everything is just awesome.”

What advice does Niskanen have for Saint Mary’s athletes?

“The best advice I can give to any aspiring athlete is to train and practice with the same intensity and urgency that you want to play games with [and] to remember that the game is fun,” he said.

As for the advice he gives to specifically the Cardinal hockey players?

“The most successful players in every league just happen to be the guys who love hockey the most.”

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