Shortly after 6 p.m. last Saturday, Niko Huuhtanen became the final signatory to the NHL Draft. Not that anyone truly asked him to sign off on the two-day event.
Huuhtanen, a slow-footed, strapping 18-year-old Finnish right winger, forever will have his name attached to the 2021 teenage mixer as the final pick, selected No. 224 by the Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning.
“He’s not Patrick Maroon,” said Al Murray, the Lighting’s director of amateur scouting, during his post-draft Zoom session, “but he’s a Finnish [teenage] version of Pat Maroon.”
OK, there are similarities to Maroon, who has become somewhat of a Cup talisman of late, having won it with the Blues in 2019, and then twice more now in the Lightning’s back-to-back titles. Both players are big, shoot a heavy puck, have a way of making themselves useful, somewhat productive nuisances on the ice.
If Maroon’s path proves to be Huuhtanen’s compass to land work in a 32-team NHL, then the Lightning may again have plucked an ace out of the deck of cards that too often deals out jokers. They have a history of getting high performance out of those framed by low expectations (see: Martin St. Louis and Yanni Gourde, both of whom were passed over entirely by the draft).
Personally, though I’ve never met him or seen him play, I’ll be rooting for Huuhtanen (pronounced: HOO-tah-nen). I always silently cheer for the last guy picked, though history proves my support means little. They’re typically last for a reason and it’s not a good one.
Example: In the 10 drafts, 2007-16, encompassing players today ages 23-32, only two of those “last” picks have played in the NHL. One was a Bruins pick, Zach Trotman, selected 210th in 2010, and the other was Jacob Middleton, No. 210 to the Ducks in 2014. Those two have played a combined 105 NHL games. Both spent last season, all of it, in the AHL.
I once was a last pick, and had it spelled out for me, in capital letters. Early in February 1973, I’d interviewed with Globe sports editor Ernie Roberts, a delightful, kind, soft-spoken man with a laser eye for writing talent, having recruited the likes of Bob Ryan, Peter Gammons, and Leigh Montville, To Roberts’s lasting credit, he shaped the top daily sports section in the country. No one wrote like those guys, along with revered columnist Ray Fitzgerald.
On the afternoon of Feb. 28, one of Roberts’s assistants called, asking if I could fill in a shift as a copyboy. My chance! I arrived early for the shift (6 p.m.-2 a.m.), shook hands, settled in to do what copyboys did in those days — run for coffee, fill glue pots, take dictation, tear copy off wire machines, scurry down to the composing room to be placed on the rack by the printers (only a slight exaggeration).
Amid my near delirium that night, I found a handwritten note from Roberts that he’d left on the copyboys’ desk, deep in a heap of that day’s Globes, carbon paper, and empty coffee cups. It included my name, number, and the words, “LAST RESORT.” Yep, if they could find no one else, call yours truly. Incredible that it took me only 12 more years to land a staff writing job here, right?
So, it’s not anyone’s number in a draft, or how we get sized up in our advanced adolescence (I was a 20-year-old last resort) that shapes our destiny. There is so much more, including ample dollops of luck and the help and kindness of others, mixed in with all the basics such as determination, resilience, willingness to adapt, hard work, and plenty more.
Todd Angilly, TD Garden’s superb anthem singer, is a virtuoso in the bend-and-adapt club. He grew up in Warwick, R.I., not dreaming of belting out “The Star-Spangled Banner” in front of 18,000 on Causeway Street. He wanted to sing opera.
Yep, Angilly was that kid, the one kid in Rhode Island, who wanted to sing opera.
“Yeah, I suppose,” said the ebullient Angilly, schooled at the New England Conservatory.
Now in his mid-40s, Angilly improvised along the way and carved out a career he loves as probation officer, a Garden bartender, and as the signature voice that lights up the Garden with the luminosity equal to a rocket’s red glare.
If you’re 17 or 18, like No. 224 Huuhtanen, and thumbing through college catalogs, it might be a challenge to find a school that offers a major in probation, bartending, and anthem singing. But hang in, and maybe keep one of those Angilly fist pumps in mind as you navigate your way through it. There is always a path.
For what it’s worth, here is a scouting report on Huuhtanen, reported by EPRinkside.com:
“Brings a heavy release, good skill, and a heavy dose of meanness and physicality to the table.”
OK, so maybe not a guy to have over to lunch. But he is in a line of business where surliness often pays dividends. It’s paid big time for Capitals winger Tom Wilson, though it’s also cost him a ton in dividends he’s been forced to pay in the Player Relief Fund for his myriad bad acts.
It will be at least two or three years before we begin to learn if Huuhtanen has a shot at the big time. He’ll begin his North American experience this fall when he joins the WHL’s Everett (Wash.) Silvertips.
Zach Hamill played his junior hockey in Everett. Highly touted, he was selected No. 8 overall by the Bruins in the 2007 draft, only a year into Peter Chiarelli’s stay as the club’s GM. It was a brutal swing and miss, a failed chance to bring elite talent into the Boston lineup. Logan Couture (768 NHL games) went No. 9 to San Jose.
Hamill played 20 NHL games, the last one with the 2011-12 Bruins, and has spent the last eight seasons playing in Europe, last season with Angers (France). Fact is, he adapted, too, and at 32 still making a buck off a game he loves.
Not exactly what Hamill expected. Not what anyone thought of him or his trajectory. Now Niko Huuhtanen gets his chance to shape whatever narrative he cares to around that No. 224 pick. Like Hamill, like all of us, that’s up to him to decide.