In a dizzying week for Calgary Flames call-up Yan Kuznetsov

‘My brother, my mom, my dad, my first coach, my coach from St. Petersburg… A lot of people were watching, people who helped me along the way. And that means a lot to me’

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What would have happened if Yan Kuznetsov had already turned off the light and closed his eyes?

Would the Calgary Flames have called anyone else? Would Kuznetsov have missed his first taste of NHL life, his chance to make a positive first impression?

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Fortunately for the 21-year-old Russian, things didn’t come to that.

Late last Thursday, after a scary injury to one of their regular rearguards, the Flames staff was scrambling to make arrangements to recall a defenseman for the remainder of a road trip.

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They decided that Kuznetsov, a second-round pick in the 2020 NHL Draft, was most deserving of this nod.

As I was about to find out, I was traveling to Philadelphia on Friday. The travel itinerary would require a 6 am arrival at the airport.

“I was about to go to sleep, honestly. “I was about to put my phone on silent,” Kuznetsov said. “And then (Flames assistant general manager) Brad Pascall called. I was really overwhelmed when I got that call. I started sweating for no reason. It was quite surprising.

“It was hard to sleep after that, I’m not going to lie. It probably took me a couple of hours to fall asleep after that.”

When he finally fell asleep, he was presumably dreaming of a night like Tuesday.

After seeing two games as a healthy scratch, after being reassigned to the farm team for a 24-hour span, Kuznetsov was chosen for his NHL debut.

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Flames coach Ryan Huska provided a positive review in his postgame press conference, saying, “I thought he did a good job,” although it was unclear whether the new player in the tough-to-pass No. 37 tall at 6-foot-5 and 220 pounds – would remain in the lineup for Thursday’s clash against the Coyotes in Arizona.

“So many emotions,” Kuznetsov said after Tuesday’s home win over the Ottawa Senators. “It was crazy. Hard to describe. I started out pretty nervous, for sure, and then it went away, but still not completely. I think I got into the game and felt pretty good, but at times it felt surreal to be in it. There were a couple of moments during the game where I thought, ‘Wow, this is really happening.’ I used to watch those games and highlights on YouTube, and now I’m playing? I was looking in the stands, so many red shirts. It was amazing.

“Those moments of realization started to feel good and I wanted to absorb the energy and I just wanted to stay present and enjoy it. And it’s excellent that we got two points. That makes it 100 times better.”

There were no mistakes in his solo return, although Kuznetsov was very nervous as he led the home team through Tuesday’s pre-match warm-up.

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He then recorded a pair of shots in his first shift, a reminder that while he has a reputation as a stay-at-home guy and has scored just seven goals in 117 minor league games, he wants to be a factor in the offensive zone.

Yan Kuznetsov
Yan Kuznetsov #37 of the Calgary Flames skates during a break in play against the Ottawa Senators in the first period at the Scotiabank Saddledome on January 9, 2024 in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. Leah Hennel/Getty Images

That doesn’t mean the entire evening followed an ideal script.

On his second shift, Kuznetsov was standing near the edge of the blue paint when Jacob Markstrom kicked away a low blow. The rebound bounced off his left knee and he leaned in for Ottawa’s first shot.

Argh.

“This game is fun. The puck can do a lot of fun things and it can challenge you mentally from the get-go,” said MacKenzie Weegar, one of Calgary’s blue line leaders. “He came back to the bench and said, ‘Forget it.’ It’s a bad bounce. Just wash that one off. I know it can be difficult for a young man, for someone playing in his first game, but I think he did a good job of recovering and playing a pretty solid, consistent game. So I’m happy for him.”

In fact, to Kuznetsov’s credit, that was his only hiccup in 11:58 of ice time in his major league debut.

Now he is waiting for a second opportunity to show that he can provide simple and stable minutes in a third couple role. (He was one of 10 defensemen to suit up for the Flames in the first half of the season, which already matches the total for all of last season.)

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While he’ll likely return to the minors when Dennis Gilbert clears concussion protocol, this rookie rearguard is certainly relieved he didn’t miss that call from Pascall last Thursday.

A few nights later, it was his loved ones and followers at home who were operating on limited sleep. In Russia, it was around 5:10 a.m. when Kuznetsov recorded his first NHL shift.

“My dad, maybe he lost a little sleep,” he said with a wide smile. “My brother, my mom, my dad, my first coach, my coach from St. Petersburg… A lot of people were watching, people who helped me along the way. And that means a lot to me.”

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