Earning His Place
Thursday, 12.27.2007 / 8:15 PM / Feature
By Ken Sins
Matt Niskanen grew up with a Mike Modano poster on his bedroom wall in the northern Minnesota town of Virginia, a diehard NorthStars fan who didn’t bail on the team when it moved to Dallas. As a youngster, Niskanen watched in awe on TV as his favorite defenseman, Sergei Zubov, weaved his magic on the Stars blueline.
Now the 21-year-old rookie defenseman calls Modano and Zubov teammates.
“I had that ‘Starman’ poster up for 15 years,” Niskanen said. “I’ve been watching ‘Mo’ play since I was five, when I started playing. When you’re that age, it was so impressive how fast he was, what a natural scorer he was, how he stood out.
“And ‘Zubie,’ you don’t appreciate how good he is until you’re older and see the finer parts of the game. He amazes me every day in practice and games, the things that he does so well, how he makes it so easy. I’ve always followed Dallas. It was Minnesota’s old team. I followed those Cup runs and I loved to watch them.”
And so, while his high school buddies attend college classes and search for jobs, Niskanen is living his boyhood dream. The third NHL game Niskanen saw in person, he played in.
His parents took him to a Minnesota Wild game in St. Paul and he later attended a Colorado Avalanche game. No. 3 was Dallas’ regular-season opener in Colorado, with Niskanen taking a regular turn in the Stars’ defensive rotation.
He stunned many Stars watchers by winning a regular slot on the Stars blueline out of training camp as by far the team’s youngest defenseman. Niskanen should have been awestruck in his Stars home debut against the Boston Bruins. But he was calm and collected, earning two assists in the 4-1 victory, turning family and friends back home in northern Minnesota into instant Stars fans. On Oct. 29, he experienced another thrill, notching his first NHL goal against the San Jose Sharks.
“It’s all been a real eye-opener,” Niskanen said. “Everyone’s thrilled. All my family and buddies back home are so happy for me and it’s nice to know everyone’s following me. My parents went to Colorado for the first game, and family and friends drove to Chicago for another game.”
The Stars drafted the 6-0, 194-pound Niskanen in the first round (28th overall) in 2005. Niskanen had already accepted a hockey scholarship to attend Minnesota-Duluth, Brett Hull’s college, but after two seasons, Niskanen felt he was ready for the pros and agreed to a three-year contract with the Stars on March 19, 2007.
Last season, Niskanen gained 25 games of pro experience with the Iowa Stars of the American Hockey League. He registered seven points in 12 playoff games, and then raised his profile within the Stars organization with a solid training camp.
He’s been paired with Zubov and veterans Philippe Boucher and Stephane Robidas at various points, and he’s been able to adjust to each partner despite being a right-handed shot, skating on the left side.
Niskanen entered camp well aware of the long odds he faced. Niklas Grossman, Vadim Khomitski and Nolan Baumgartner figured to have more realistic chances at a roster spot, but Grossman got injured and Niskanen simply beat out the other two.
“In camp, I just wanted to have a good showing and set myself up for a call-up later this year,” Niskanen said. “But the injuries gave me a window of opportunity and I happened to have a good camp. Now I'm trying to take full advantage.”
Coach Dave Tippett said Niskanen hasn’t been overwhelmed.
“He’s had a few hiccups here and there that any young defenseman is going to have, but he’s been a pretty solid player for us,” Tippett said. “He finds the open guy and shows a lot of poise with the puck. That’s just instinct of playing. That’s why he’s a good player.”
Said Boucher: “He's making all the good plays and keeping it simple. I'm sure he had a few nerves. First couple of games in the NHL, you'd better be excited, but he handled it very well. It’s in his demeanor. Around the locker room and on the ice, he’s very calm. I’m sure he has to be nervous, but he’s been playing well. Obviously he has a lot of skill, a lot of upside that we’re seeing. I don’t know if I’m really surprised. You see a lot of young guys in camp and he stood out to me from Day One. He’s been good every day since then.”
Niskanen’s ancestors came to the United States from Finland and settled in North Dakota. So he is not a native Finn as many presume based on his last name and on the fact that the Stars have several natives of Finland in their organization. The “Are you a Finn?’’ queries are become a running joke.
“It’s happened quite a few times where people ask, ‘Where you from in Finland? How long you been over here?’” Niskanen laughed. “I get a good chuckle out of it. I’m just a northern Minnesota kid.”
Niskanen hails from a mining town of 7,000 tucked into Minnesota’s Iron Range. The U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame is located in nearby Eveleth, designated as “The Capital of American Hockey.”
“It’s been a hockey hotbed over the last 30 years,” Niskanen said. “There are a lot of good players from there, like Jack Carlson, who played for the North Stars. There is tons of hockey in The Range”
Chuck and Linda Niskanen’s only child started playing sports before he was in kindergarten. His dad, a lineman for the power company, and his mom, a foundation director for a non-profit organization, are hard-working middle-class folks who sacrificed to make sure Matt was given every opportunity to excel in athletics.
“They’ve always been supportive,” Niskanen says. “They were always there with a ride to practice, to help out any way they could.”
Hockey wasn’t his only sport. He was an option quarterback on his high school football team that twice reached the quarterfinals of the state tournament, and also excelled at baseball.
“Up there, it’s encouraged to play as many sports as you can,” he said. “It keeps you busy and helps you stay mentally fresh, makes you a better athlete.”
Hockey was his first love, and one of his proudest achievements was when his tiny high school team (150 students) reached the state tournament for the first time. But football was a close second.
“I loved high school football,” said Niskanen, who received some interest from colleges before opting to concentrate on hockey. “I wasn’t the speediest guy, but I had good athletes around me and ran it pretty well. We put up a lot of points and had fun.
“When we made the state hockey tournament for the first time, that was a special year. We got knocked out in the first round, but for a high school kid in Minnesota, playing in the tournament at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, an NHL rink, on live TV, that’s a real big deal. A special memory.”
Playing at Minnesota-Duluth gave him the opportunity to meet Hull, now the Stars’ interim co-general manager.
“He’s the guy there,” Niskanen said. “I met him a couple of times, and when they retired his jersey, there was a special ceremony and I was on the ice for that. Watching him on TV growing up, he probably had the best shot ever.
“In college, we didn’t have the best team. We were real young, had some growing pains, but we made a good second-half run my second year. We weren’t overly skilled but were tough to play against, a real blue-collar team. It was great for development. We had a great following and the buildings were great.”
After his two-year college career and his brief stint in Iowa, Niskanen came to Stars training camp in September as virtually an unknown quantity.
“We didn’t know a lot about him here because he was in college and wasn’t in training camp before this year,” Stars associate coach Rick Wilson said. “Then he was in Iowa late last year so we didn’t see him. We had reports from scouts but this fall was our first real look at him.”
Niskanen knew deep inside he’d probably start the season in Iowa, but he held out hope that somehow he could break camp with the Stars.
“That was definitely my goal,” Niskanen said. “You think there’s a chance if things go right, but it seemed far-fetched because it’s the NHL and there’s a lot of great guys playing. I came in with the attitude that I would try to turn some heads and make it hard for them to send me down. I wanted to show them I was capable of being an NHL player. I wanted to knock on the door, come in and make a good impression. But as the preseason games started going along, I was playing better and better. I gained more and more confidence. Toward the end of the preseason, I realized there was a shot. You never know what the coaches are thinking but I felt I played pretty well. At the end of camp, I was in for a big surprise.”
In the first month and a half of the season, Niskanen watched and learned from veteran teammates, especially defensive partners Boucher, Robidas and Zubov.
“He makes the game so much easier, he makes everyone around him better, simplifies things for me,” Niskanen said of Zubov. “He does things so well. It’s a privilege every time you step on the ice with him. What he does with the puck, the positioning, he’s so sound.”
Collecting two points in the Stars’ home opener “gave me a lot of confidence. It felt good to start contributing. I feel like my game gets better each night.”
The kid continues to impress with how well he’s handled this rise to the big stage.
“What impresses all of us is his poise on the ice for his position, with his puck work, how he thinks and how he sees things,” Wilson said. “He attracted everybody’s attention early. Are we surprised? Yeah, maybe that he had that much poise. And he had a couple of breaks because of injuries to other guys. That gave him a window, and he took advantage of that, ran with it and doesn’t want to release it.”