28 of the NHLs 32 teams have opened
their 2021-22 campaigns with games which started on Tuesday evening. The San
Jose Sharks are one of four teams that have to wait until Saturday to
officially start their season. For the four rookies who have been named to the
Sharks opening night roster, its been more than a waiting game.
Theyre officially roster players, but until their names get inked onto a
game lineup, they're simply names on a list. They may or may not be included on
San Joses list of players who officially participate in Saturdays
game against the Winnipeg Jets at SAP Center. One of those rookies is
defenseman Santeri Hatakka, a 20-year-old from Riihimaki, Finland, who is
hoping his name is on the lineup sheet.
I spoke with Hatakka on the eve
of what could be one of the biggest nights of his life. Hes about to
fulfill a lifelong dream of playing in the NHL. Hatakka has been playing hockey
longer than he can remember, but things have moved quickly for the young
defensemen this past month. After a stellar training camp, the Sharks named him
to the active roster last week. Now just hours away from potentially his first
game in the NHL, he makes little attempt at masking his joy.
Im excited of course. This is so fun and a dream come true making
the team. Hopefully I can play soon with the big boys. Its unbelievable,
Im so happy to be here.
While he was named to the Sharks
official roster, the team can only dress 20 players for a game, so there is no
telling when he will make his NHL debut. Hatakka is one of 40 Finnish players
who have been named to an NHL roster to start the season, which is not lost on
Its a big thing, because Finland is a small
country and hockey is the number one sport there. Its an unbelievable
feeling because I didnt think I would play in the NHL this
Making the transition to the NHL is still something very
much in progress. Hatakka had been to North America previously for a couple of
tournaments in his junior days, but other than that, hes really only been
here since the beginning of September, and since his arrival, its been
all hockey, all the time.
Hes looking forward to acclimating
himself to the Bay Area. Hes hoping there will be plenty of time for
that. He and fellow rookie William Eklund are in similar situations, in that
they are both under 21, they hail from Scandinavian countries, and were both
good enough to make the NHL club when few thought they would when training camp
Naturally, Hatakka and Eklund have gravitated towards one
another for support. Theyve not had much time away from the rink, but
when they have, dining and shopping are the two things that seem to help them
pass the time.
Its easy to forget that Hatakka is still a very
young player. Hes not short with his words. The answers flow easily from
the blueliner which isnt something you typically get from young
professional athletes. Young players can be reserved, because they have been
counseled to be that way. They are tentative because they don't want to make
Theres no denying the youthful enthusiasm in
Hatakkas demeanor, but theres also a level of maturity that will
serve him well in the NHL. The Sharks have struggled the past two seasons and
you have to look no further than their issues with defending their own net to
understand why that's been the case. Developing home grown blueline talent is
something the Sharks desperately need to succeed at if they are going to return
to the competitive end of the NHL standings. That will require more maturity
than a prospect who is being groomed by a team that has the luxury to take its
time. The Sharks are not that team yet.
Hes trying to figure it
all out. Hes in a foreign land. His life a year ago was much different.
He was rooted in Tampere, Finland where he played for Ilves in the Finnish
Elite League. He has an apartment there, a girlfriend, and the familiarity of
his native land. Thats all been turned upside down, and he couldnt
He says all the right things, but its still
easy to see that his promotion is the biggest thing to ever happen to the kid
form Riihimaki. His focus this season is simple.
I need to be
ready for every battle. I have to win 50-50 pucks. Get the puck out of our own
A simple plan, not easily mastered at the NHL level. He
considers himself a stay-at-home defenseman, but his goal is to evolve his
When I get more experience in the NHL and the
North American game, I can be that two-way defenseman, he retorted with
the conviction of a seasoned veteran. Im a good skater, and I can
win pucks over forwards, so I can be a two-way player.
some very good mentors to help him evolve the development of an offensive skill
set in guys like Erik Karlsson and Brent Burns, but he also understands that he
has an obligation to keep the puck away from his own net. San Jose needs to
make big strides this season, but it sounds like they understand that they will
need to be patient with their brood of youngsters.
They told me
to play how you can play. Theyre not expecting magic from me. Be yourself
and dont be afraid to make mistakes. Everyone will make mistakes, so if
that happens all you can do is focus on your next shift.
Sharks know the learning curve will be steep for their younger players, but
especially so for a defenseman, because blunders on the backend are magnified.
Hes soaking it all in right now. Having teammates like Karlsson and Burns
are guys that he wants to learn from.
When I asked him to compare
himself to other Finnish defensemen, Philadelphia's Rasmus Ristolainen
immediately came to mind.
Hes a tough guy but he can play
with the puck too, so I watch him a lot.
I like to play
tough. I like to hit, so lets see what happens.
thats true, he will quickly win the favor of Sharks fans. Not since Kyle
McLaren have the Sharks had a true heavy hitting defenseman. And fans love the
When I asked him about what success means for the upcoming
season, his answers were not surprising.
My biggest goal was to
play in the NHL. Now I want to play here the whole season with NHL players. I
want to get better every day.
Playing an entire season at the NHL
level will allow him to square off against the leagues top talent. He
doesnt shy away from the opportunity to try and stop some of the
leagues marquee players. He relishes the opportunity to play against
Connor McDavid and Austin Mathews. When I pointed out that those two guys get
paid a lot of money to make defensemen look bad, he understood the challenge,
but the Sharks need more confidence when it comes to playing against guys like
McDavid and Mathews.
I want to see how good those guys are, and
how I can play against guys like that.
Hopefully he will have the
opportunity to face lots of the leagues top talent. Hes looking
forward to visiting other NHL cities, which is where the team veterans will
need to keep tabs on the young new talent. His description of a preseason trip
to Vegas was a reminder that hes very much still a kid.
Vegas was sick! he said with the wide-eyed exuberance that one
would expect from a 20-year-old who was visiting Las Vegas for the first time.
It was a pre-season game and there was 16,000 people watching. That was
It will be nice if Hatakka will have 16,000 fans cheering
him on in his first NHL game. That could come as soon as Saturday night in San
Jose, or when the Sharks hit the road for a five-game road trip through
Montreal, Ottawa, Toronto, Boston and Nashville.
Whenever that is,
its sure to be sick!