Two years ago, Casey Nelson finished his season at Minnesota State then signed as a free agent with the Buffalo Sabres. It was three days later when he was making his National Hockey League debut. He remembers it being an afternoon game and grateful for the early start.
"I played an afternoon game which was nice because I didn't have to sit around or try to take a nap," Nelson said. "I wouldn't have been able to nap."
In many ways, Casey Mittelstadt is living the same experience. With his college hockey season at the University at Minnesota complete, the first-round draft pick signed with the Sabres on Monday and will make his NHL debut on Thursday when the Detroit Red Wings visit KeyBank Center.
Only Mittelstadt is pretty sure he won't have any trouble napping, a key part of game-day routine for many hockey players.
"I'll probably be able to take a nap," Mittelstadt said with a smile. "I have no problem doing that. I should be fine. Once the game gets closer, I'm sure I'll get a little nervous, a little antsy to get out there and get going. But I think for the most part I should be fine. I feel good today. I feel like I belong. So I'm not too nervous."
Wednesday was the first practice as a Sabre for Mitteldstadt, who centered a line with Sam Reinhart and Evan Rodrigues and he looked very much like a player ready to fit into an NHL team. His teammates certainly worked to make him feel at home. Jack Eichel took him out to lunch on Tuesday while Reinhart took him out to dinner.
That's lots of meals out for the 19-year-old who was the Sabres top draft pick, and eighth overall, in the 2017 draft. But it's more than just about food. It's about making him feel welcome.
"I think it's just making him feel more comfortable, making him feel a part of this team right away," Sabres coach Phil Housley said. "We only have six games left, but it's going to be great for him to get used to the players that are surrounding him and getting used to our systems and just getting used to the NHL game. You're playing against bigger and stronger players and just getting up to speed in those areas. Certainly it's great that our guys reached out to him and wanted to make him feel part of this team right away."
Of course they want to make Mittelstadt feel welcome immediately. The players know that he's a key part of the team's future, an important aspect of the turnaround the Sabres hope to make from perennial bottom-feeder to a competitive club with playoff aspirations.
And many of those reaching out to Mittelstadt know what its like to be a high draft pick thrust into your first NHL experience with some heavy expectations lurking in the shadows.
"Whatever he's done in his career so far, he's been pretty successful so no need for him to come here or change things or change his approach," Eichel said. "Just play your game. Be yourself. Play to your strengths."
"Just relax," Reinhart said. "I think if he plays with the speed he's capable of, the ice is going to open up that much more for him. The quicker you're able to do that, open up a little room for yourself, the confidence will grow. One thing to tell him is just to find that confidence early, whether it's that first shift or if it's one play, build off that."
But there's only so much Mittelstadt can be told. The majority of his learning curve as he jumps into the NHL will have to come through trial and error, through his own lived experience rather than from following a playbook. There is no one prescription for translating his success with USA Hockey and Minnesota into the pro game, although young players seem more prepared for it than ever before.
"With the way things are these days, you're seeing younger kids grow up a lot quicker, I guess you could say, with the resources we have," said the 21-year-old Eichel, now in his third NHL season. "I know I was fortunate growing up, I had a lot of resources at a young age to help me grow up a little bit. I'm sure the same goes for him. Even when you get here, there's a lot to learn and a lot that you don’t really understand or learn until you experience it and you're here every day and you're going through it.
"I mean obviously you can talk to him as much as you want and stuff but he's the guy that's going to go through it," Eichel said. "I just want to be here for him. I was in a similar situation a few years ago, Sam as well, with coming in at a pretty young age. We have a lot in common. It was good (at lunch) where we were able to get to know each other a little better. We're both college guys and are able to talk about things other than hockey and get to know each other. That's important. He's going to be a big part of our future and we want the best for him."