Winnipeg Jets veterans offer advice for rookie Ville Heinola, recall own NHL debuts

NEW YORK — You always remember your first. For 18-year-old Ville Heinola, his first time suiting up for an NHL game will just happen a lot sooner than most expected.

Three months removed from walking across the stage in Vancouver and donning a Jets jersey as the team’s No. 1 pick, Heinola is slated to patrol the blue line for Winnipeg in game No. 1 of the season.

“I didn’t know what to expect before camp,” Heinola said when asked if he was surprised to be with the big club. “But things go well and now it’s time to just play hockey.”

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Head coach Paul Maurice said he wasn’t shocked that the Finn is where he is; the Jets did draft him 20th overall, after all. On Wednesday, the bench boss gave the rookie “the speech,” which includes encouraging the player to call his family and tell them thank you, as they’re “so excited you’re playing in your first NHL game, they’re even more excited than you are.”

Ahead of Heinola’s NHL debut, Sporting News asked some Jets veterans about memories from their first games.

Patrik Laine

NHL debut: Oct. 13, 2016, Winnipeg Jets vs. Carolina Hurricanes; scored goal, assist

“I think it was just the excitement. Kind of didn’t know what to expect. I think it was just, kind of before the game a little bit nervous but as soon as the puck dropped it was just playing the game. Not worrying too much about the emotions and just playing the game and being relaxed. I think that’s going to be pretty important for him, too. 

“Hopefully [he’s] not too nervous. I’ve been talking to him about it already, that you’re only going to play your first game once. There’s no better place to play your first game than here tonight for him.” 

Mark Letestu

NHL debut: Nov. 14, 2009, Pittsburgh Penguins vs. Boston Bruins; plus-1, 8:16 TOI

“I think everybody in this room could probably vividly remember their first game. Mine was a little different circumstance; I got called up a little ways into the year. So for him to go through the training camp and be with the guys the whole time, probably a little bit of comfort in that. But everybody just kind of throws it out the window once you get out there, the emotions and the excitement of it. Happy for him that he gets this chance and he should try to soak it in because not many guys get to have their first one at Madison Square Garden.

“You try to enjoy it. Kind of knowing him, I’m sure he’s going to be pretty serious about trying to play his game and probably reflect back on it afterwards a little more fondly than when he’s in it. Everybody tells you just go play, but it’s just not [so easy]. You’re on a big stage, 18 years old, but I think he’s up to the moment.”

Blake Wheeler

NHL debut: Oct. 9, 2008, Boston Bruins at Colorado Avalanche; scored goal

“Of course. Those are things you never forget. You’re terrified, you’re anxious, you’re scared, you’re excited. You’re pretty much every emotion in the book, you know what I mean? So, those are good memories. We’ll make good memories for him tonight.

“He doesn’t need to prove anything else. He’s earned a spot here for a reason and I think overall you just want to play a good team game around him so that he can just kind of blend in and be himself.”

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