Jesperi Kotkaniemi is no longer a teenager.
The Canadiens’ — or the Laval Rocket — centre turned 20 on Monday.
I admit I have a soft spot for Kotkaniemi, partly because I have a son who is 19 and I find it remarkable how well Kotkaniemi has handled all the pressure he has faced since being selected third overall by the Canadiens at the 2018 NHL Draft. He has had to adjust to a new country, a new language, a new team and a smaller rink since leaving Finland as an 18-year-old and has done it all with a smile, a great sense of humour and an intelligence, both on and off the ice, beyond his years.
There are times while adjusting to his new life that Kotkaniemi has made me forget he was still a teenager — until I remembered he was the same age as my son.
Earlier this year, my son, who is in CEGEP, was working part-time at a grocery store near the Canadiens’ practice rink in Brossard, packing bags, etc. One day while packing bags, my son looked up and realized it was Kotkaniemi’s groceries he was packing. Kotkaniemi was wearing a toque pulled down low and, surprisingly, nobody else in the store, including the cashier, had recognized him.
My son nodded at him and said quietly: “You’re Jesperi Kotkaniemi?”
Kotkaniemi smiled back and said “yes,” seeming quite happy that my son hadn’t blown his cover.
My son told me the story after he finished work that day and it put a smile on my face. Two teenagers — one packing grocery bags and going to school, the other already a millionaire hockey player and basically a rock star in Montreal.
But they were both still 19. My son is 6-foot-5 and Kotkaniemi is 6-foot-2, and it can be an awkward age physically when you’re tall and still growing into your body.
That might partly explain Kotkaniemi’s struggles this season, posting 6-2-8 totals and a minus-11 in 36 games with the Canadiens after gaining 10 pounds during the off-season before being sent down to the AHL’s Rocket. With Laval, Kotkaniemi had 1-12-13 totals in 13 games and appeared to be finding his game before suffering what was supposed to be a season-ending spleen injury during a game in Cleveland on March 6.
Kotkaniemi has now recovered and looks like he will be available if the Canadiens want to use him if the NHL playoffs ever get started. When coach Claude Julien was asked about Kotkaniemi’s status during a conference call last Thursday, he said: “ I think a lot of things have to fall into place before I can make those kind of decisions. What I’m happy about is that he’s actually been deemed healthy. He had an injury at the end of the year that really set him back. So the fact that there was a stop to the season has given a lot of the guys around the league with long-term injuries an opportunity to come back. So we look forward to seeing him back with us and, at that time, I think we’ll be able to assess and decide which direction we’re going with all our players.”
For Montreal fans who might already be writing Kotkaniemi off — or wishing the Canadiens had drafted Brady Tkachuk instead — give him some more time.
In his first two seasons with the Boston Bruins after being selected No. 1 overall at the 1997 NHL Draft, 6-foot-4 Joe Thornton had 19-29-48 totals in 136 games. Kotkaniemi has 17-25-42 totals in 115 games with the Canadiens.
Sometimes it’s easy to forget how young Kotkaniemi is.
Happy birthday, Jesperi.
Price practises in Brossard
Canadiens goalie Carey Price practised for the first time Monday at the Bell Sports Complex in Brossard as part of Phase 2 of the NHL’s Return to Play Plan.
Price had been spending time with his wife and two young daughters at his in-laws home in Kennewick, Wash., since the NHL season was shut down on March 12 because of COVID-19. He returned to Montreal last week.
For the first time since Phase 2 started, the Canadiens had enough players Monday to form two groups for practice in Brossard. Price joined Paul Byron, Laurent Dauphin, Jonathan Drouin, Charles Hudon and Michael McNiven in the first group. The second group included captain Shea Weber, Brendan Gallagher, Noah Juulsen and Jordan Weal.
The NHL and the NHLPA announced Monday afternoon that they have reached a tentative agreement on a Return to Play Plan and Memorandum of Understanding that adds an additional four years to the term of the current collective bargaining agreement, taking it through the 2025-26 season.
As part of the agreement, formal training camps are now scheduled to start on July 13, teams will travel to the post-season hub cities on July 26 and the qualifying round — including a best-of-five series between the Canadiens and Pittsburgh Penguins — will start on Aug. 1. The tentative agreement is now subject to approval by the NHL’s board of governors, as well as the NHLPA’s executive board, followed by the full NHLPA membership.
The NHL also announced on Monday that 396 players have reported to club practice facilities during Phase 2 and that 23 players have tested positive for COVID-19. The NHL added it is also aware of 12 other positive COVID-19 tests that have been outside of the Phase 2 protocol.
All players who have tested positive have been self-isolated and are following CDC and Health Canada protocols. The NHL said it has done more than 2,900 COVID-19 tests on players so far, including more than 1,400 in the last week.
Nice gesture from Bouchard
Tennis player Eugenie Bouchard made a very nice gesture on Sunday when she offered to pay for new hearing aids for one of her fans.
Toronto’s Morgan Jamie took to Twitter in an effort to raise money for new hearing aids, putting up for sale a signed Genie Army prize pack she had won through a contest, which included a signed hat, T-shirt and postcard.
Bouchard saw the tweet and offered to pay for the new hearing aids herself. When the company ProSound learned about Bouchard’s tweet they reached out to Jamie and said they would provide her with “top-quality hearing aids” free of charge.
Bouchard tweeted that she would still send Jamie something.
What might have been for Expos
Steve Gardner of USA TODAY wrote a story that was published Monday on what might have been if there hadn’t been an MLB players’ strike in 1994.
When the season was shut down on Aug. 12, the Expos had the best record in the majors and what looked like their best chance of winning a World Series.
“The Montreal Expos, with baseball’s best record (74-40) at the time of the shutdown, roll into the World Series thanks to one of the great young outfield trios in the game: Moises Alou in left, Marquis Grissom in centre and Larry Walker in right. All age 27,” Gardner writes about what might have happened if the rest of the regular season and playoffs hadn’t been wiped out by the strike.
“Youngster Pedro Martinez, just 22 when acquired the previous offseason, embraces the October spotlight and leads the Expos past the New York Yankees to the 1994 World Series title.”
Gardner also speculates on what might have happened after the World Series title, including a “stunning new stadium in downtown Montreal.”
Baseball in Nashville?
Bob Nightengale of USA TODAY reported on Twitter Monday that former Expos GM Dave Dombrowski i s moving to Nashville and joining Music City Baseball, LLC, in an attempt to bring a major-league team to Music City. Nashville is hoping to land an expansion franchise or have an existing team relocate to Nashville.
Dombrowski was GM of the Expos from 1988-91. He was later GM of the Florida Marlins (1993-2001), Detroit Tigers (2002-2015) and Boston Red Sox (2015-2019).
Now Dombrowski and Nashville will be competing with Montreal when it comes to getting a major-league team in the future.
Photo of the Day
A blast from the past with Jackie Robinson from 1949:
Video of the Day
It must be nice to hit a golf ball like this:
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