Tomas Tatar celebrates his first NHL goal on Dec. 31, 2010
Griffins players and coaches remember the excitement of scoring their first NHL goal – with one exception.
Story by Mark Newman/Photo by Getty Images
It’s a dream-come-true for every hockey player. Scoring your first NHL goal is a memorable experience that has been visualized over and over in the minds of hockey enthusiasts in a variety of circumstances.
"Ice, street, backyard, basement with mini-sticks, even playing NHL video games," said Cory Emmerton. "It’s a great feeling when it goes in."
Emmerton scored his first NHL goal on Jan. 22, the latest in a number of Griffins who have experienced the magical moment. It wasn’t the prettiest of goals, but all of them look the same on paper.
His achievement came in his NHL debut when he became a last-minute replacement for Valtteri Filppula, who was out with the flu.
"I was skating in the morning, not thinking about much other than playing against Chicago again,"v Emmerton said. "(Griffins head coach Curt Fraser) pulled me off the ice and told me that I needed to get to Detroit fast for a 2 o'clock game."
With 10 o'clock fast approaching, he knew he had little time to waste. "I grabbed my suit and my girlfriend and went as quickly as I could. I didn't want to speed since getting pulled over would make me late."
He was about 15 minutes from Detroit when one of the Red Wings' trainers called to inquire about his whereabouts. "I hadn’t had time to get anything to eat, so I asked them if they could find me some food, which they luckily did."
When he arrived at Joe Louis Arena, there was chicken cordon bleu, cheese tortellini and vegetables waiting for him. "It was better than what I would have gotten if I had stopped," he said. "I was pretty hungry, but it was a little heavy before a game, so I tried not to eat too much."
Caught in the whirlwind of the news, it wasn’t until he got dressed for the game that the momentous nature of the occasion hit him. "When I got the equipment on and pulled the jersey on, it was a real special feeling."
Having played the previous night, Emmerton said his legs felt heavy during warmups, but he felt better once the game started. His big moment occurred midway through a scoreless first period against the Chicago Blackhawks.
“We had a 3-on-2 rush, but they had a backchecker so I didn’t have time to make a decision,” he recalled. “I was just trying to shoot for a rebound – it was almost more like a pass – but the goalie misplayed it and I saw the puck go up in the air and roll in.”
He couldn’t believe that Blackhawks goalie Corey Crawford had miscued on the puck, but he was glad to be the recipient of the gift. “I had a nice smile and chuckle after it because I knew I was going to get a few comments about how lovely it was,” he said.
“But it was a shot on net and it went in, and good things happen when you shoot the puck, so it was a beautiful goal.”
Emmerton celebrated on the ice with Tomas Tatar, who had scored his first NHL goal less than a month earlier, also in his initial NHL appearance. The pair joined eight other Red Wings since 1990 – most notably Sergei Fedorov and two former Griffins, Ville Leino and Brett Lebda – who lit the lamp in their NHL debuts.
Like his Grand Rapids teammate, Tatar learned he was going to Detroit while he was on the ice preparing to play for the Griffins. He made his Red Wings debut on New Year’s Eve against the New York Islanders.
“I was surprised because I didn’t expect to be called up this early, but I was pretty happy,” Tatar said. “I was singing in the car on the way to Detroit because I was so excited about the game.”
Nerves aside, Tatar admits that he was pumped for the occasion. “It was my dream to come here and play hockey in Detroit,” said the Slovakian native. “The more I played, I started to get more confidence and feel good on the ice.”
The Red Wings were trailing 3-2 in the third period when Tatar got the crowd on its feet.
“I just tried to go to the net and Darren Helm took a shot and I felt something hit my stick,” he recalled. “I had my stick on the ice, exactly as I was taught all of my life, and I saw the puck in the net and I started celebrating.”
Tatar raced around the net, tugging on the winged wheel crest on his jersey. “I tried to show the people that my heart belongs to the Red Wings and that I would like to play hard for them and someday help them win the Stanley Cup.”
He never imagined scoring in his debut. “I would have been happy, no matter if I scored or not because it was my first game, but scoring the goal made playing the next game so much easier.”
That same sense of relief was felt by Jan Mursak, who had to wait longer to experience the thrill of scoring his first NHL goal.
Mursak’s milestone came in his eighth game, on Jan. 10 in Denver. He scored after battling in the corner then going to the front of the net to catch the rebound. His goal tied the game 1-1 against Peter Budaj and the Colorado Avalanche.
“My agent was at the game, so I wanted to have a good game,” Mursak said. “I had scoring chances before, but I wasn’t getting any lucky bounces.”
That changed after he was aggressive on the forecheck, helping to force a turnover that was collected by Justin Abdelkader, who passed the puck to Drew Miller, who shot the puck toward the goal.
“I turned, but I turned the right way and there was a good bounce,” he said. “I had an open net and took the shot. I got hit after it, but I don’t think I ever got up so quick because I was so excited.”
Mursak is only the second NHL player from Slovenia, following in the footsteps of Los Angeles Kings forward Anze Kopitar.
“People were really excited back home,” he said. “A lot of friends sent me messages after the goal. They know I have worked really hard all of these years and they were happy that I got a chance to see what I can do in the NHL.”
Mursak felt the goal helped his chances to return to Detroit. Indeed, he was recalled a second time in February after his initial month-long stint. “I had a good time up there. I hope that I will get the chance to play there again soon.”
Making a positive impression was on Chris Minard’s mind when he was playing for the Pittsburgh Penguins late in the 2007-08 season.
On March 12, 2008, he was sitting on the bench when teammate George Laraque was ejected from the game for a hit from behind. “The coach came down and told me to get ready. ‘We might need you,’ he said. My first shift came with about eight minutes left in the second period.”
Four shifts into the 10th game of his NHL career, Minard’s moment in the spotlight arrived.
“Jordan Staal went to shoot, fanned on it, and the puck came right to me and I had an open net,” he recalled. The goal gave the Penguins a 6-2 lead over Buffalo and chased Sabres goalie Ryan Miller to the bench for a replacement.
“It was a dream-come-true,” Minard said. “You play the game to play in the NHL and when you get that first goal, that’s the one you’ll always remember.”
Minard had grown up shooting pucks against his older brother Mike, who played one NHL game for the Edmonton Oilers. “I remember being in junior and he was in the pros, and our rivalry was pretty intense. When I scored, he’d fire it back at me.”
Getting that first NHL goal is a relief for any young player. “You want to contribute and prove that you can stay there,” Minard said. “I wasn’t putting pressure on myself. I was just trying to work hard and keep a positive attitude.”
Derek Meech had to wait longer than most for his first NHL goal. He was finally able to celebrate in his 50th NHL game when he beat Curtis Sanford of the Vancouver Canucks with a wrap-around backhand shot on Dec. 4, 2008.
Actually, he had celebrated once before. The previous season he thought he had scored his first NHL goal when he beat Roberto Luongo with a blast that trickled past the Canucks goalie and into the net late in the period. It was later determined that Pavel Daysyuk had gotten his stick on it.
“I was interviewed by Scott Oake for Hockey Night in Canada, which was pretty cool,” Meech said. “I saw a bunch of congratulatory text messages on my phone after the game, followed by a bunch that basically said, ‘Oh, sorry about that.’ It was kind of funny.”
Meech was actually playing forward when he scored his first true NHL goal, which was appropriate since he scored on a move that was rather uncharacteristic for him. “I made a move around the defenseman and I saw the goalie on the post, so I thought I’d try to wrap the puck around and jam it in and it worked out pretty well.”
Like the others, Meech has the actual puck, along with photos of the event. “Hopefully I can show my kids someday and they’ll think it’s pretty cool,” he said.
Some players wait until big games to make their mark.
Doug Janik was playing for Buffalo when he scored his first NHL goal in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals against the Carolina Hurricanes on June 1, 2006. His slapshot beat goalie Cam Ward to tie the score 1-1 late in the second period.
“We won a faceoff and I took one step and let a high shot go and it never hit anything and found its way into the net,” Janik recalled. “I was definitely excited because the winner of the game was going to the Stanley Cup Finals.
“I don’t think it gets any better than playing in a Game 7, never mind scoring your first goal in it.”
Unfortunately, Carolina scored two unanswered third-period goals to win the game, which put a damper on any celebration. “It was more of a bitter night than anything,” Janik said.
Griffins assistant coach Jim Paek scored his first career NHL goal in Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Finals while playing for the Pittsburgh Penguins against the Minnesota North Stars on May 25, 1991.
Injuries to Paul Coffey, Ulf Samuelsson and Peter Taglianetti opened a spot in the lineup for the rookie, who had spent most of the season playing for the Canadian National Team.
He scored the seventh goal – on an unlikely two-on-one with Mario Lemieux – in the Penguins’ Cup-clinching 8-0 victory.
“Mario passed the puck to me and their goalie, Brian Hayward, came out to challenge me, and I stepped around him and I was pretty much on the goal line when I threw it in,” Paek said.
“It was absolutely fantastic – you’re about to win the Stanley Cup and you score your first NHL goal, assisted by the best player in the world. How do you write a story any better?”
Paek has the framed game sheet. “A buddy found it online and gave it to me as a present,” he said. “How cool is that?”
Griffins head coach Curt Fraser might wish that he had the game sheet from Oct. 11, 1978. That’s when he scored his first NHL goal in Vancouver’s season opener at home against the Colorado Rockies.
Asked to describe the goal, Fraser thinks for a moment, then says he doesn’t remember.
Pressed to remember anything about the goal, he thinks again.
“I remember I went back to pick up the puck behind the net and I came out and I went around (Joe) Sakic and (then) Forsberg,” he states matter-of-factly before cracking a mischievous grin.
At the time, Sakic would have been nine years old, Forsberg only five.
The NHL record book shows that Thomas Gradin and Stan Smyl assisted on Fraser’s goal, the first of 16 that he scored during his rookie year with the Canucks.
“If it was with those two guys, it was probably on a play where I was going to the net,” he said. “I was usually finishing a good play by one of those two guys.”
Fraser played on the same line with Gradin and Smyl until he was traded to the Chicago Blackhawks in December 1982. “We were together right from the start of training camp that first year and we stuck together,” Fraser said.
But he really cannot remember a thing about that first goal, which may be understandable since it was more than 32 years ago.
None of the current Griffins had been born yet.