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Thrust into adulthood, NHL's youngest players learn as they go

Casey Mittelstadt sat quietly at his spot in the home dressing room in KeyBank Center and looked over to his left, where a dozen reporters were gathered around Jack Eichel.

Mittelstadt, a 20-year-old center for the Buffalo Sabres, had just left the ice following an exhaustive post-practice skate with his fellow rookie teammates – additional work to get young players acclimated to the grind of an 82-game season. He then expressed unbridled optimism about his progress on the ice.

Mittelstadt was more concerned with an off-ice problem on this frigid, late December morning. "I got a flat tire when I got [to Buffalo], and I just got another one somehow," he said. "I have to get that fixed. It's actually been like that for a while. Other than that, I've had no problems."

Young players such as Mittelstadt, who began his professional career last March at 19 years old after one season at the University of Minnesota, often face more challenges away from the rink when adjusting to life in the NHL. They previously relied on their parents or billet families to cook, clean and do laundry.

Suddenly, these teenagers are far away from home and have no experience with the responsibilities of adulthood. Like most NHL teams, the Sabres do not have one position dedicated to helping players, including veterans, with off-ice tasks. However, people throughout the organization – including General Manager Jason Botterill – are available as resources when players are trying to find a place to live or have any other needs.

Mittelstadt and his roommate, 18-year-old defenseman Rasmus Dahlin, have a number of teammates from whom they can seek advice. After all, Eichel, Jeff Skinner, Sam Reinhart, Kyle Okposo, Zach Bogosian, Tage Thompson and Rasmus Ristolainen were also teenagers when they debuted in the NHL.

Though teammates can be a valuable resource, experiences – both good and bad – are typically the only way to learn, Eichel said.

Bogosian, drafted third overall by the Atlanta Thrashers in 2008, shared a duplex with the team's equipment manager, Joey Guilmet, during his rookie season. Bogosian had experience cooking for himself from playing two seasons with the Peterborough Petes of the Ontario Hockey League, but many of his rookie meals came from the arena or local restaurants because he despised cleaning.

"Any hockey player would say when you walk in the rink you feel at home," Bogosian said. "It’s what you do. The off-ice transition was much bigger for me than the on-the-ice-stuff. It's funny looking back now because you don't know about anything. These kids are playing in the NHL and the rest of their buddies are in college – going to school or partying. You live a different lifestyle at 18 or 19 than most kids do. That’s the beauty of it. That’s what you work hard for. I grew up quick. You have to if you want to play this game."

Admittedly, Bogosian's transition was much easier than that of the Sabres' youngest defenseman. Dahlin, 18, had already lived away from home for three years when the Sabres drafted him first overall last June. He previously shared an apartment with "two best friends" in Gothenburg, Sweden – 47 miles from his hometown, Trollhattan – while playing for Frolunda of the Swedish Hockey League. That experience taught Dahlin how to prepare his meals and the discipline of cleaning.

Still, Dahlin's mother, Asa, traveled with him to Buffalo following the draft and lived here for nearly two months as he adjusted to life in a new country. That allowed her to help him move, as well as with off-ice tasks such as filling out paperwork.

Shortly after Dahlin settled in Western New York, the Mittelstadt family arrived at his doorstep. The two bonded in those early days before training camp, and they have helped each other since. When Dahlin does not feel comfortable making a phone call or has a question about English, Mittelstadt is there to help.

"I was nervous when I got here," Dahlin said. "Coming to an NHL club, it’s my dream. ... I was here a month before training camp, so I worked with the trainers and on the ice. No one was really here. It was just me and Casey. It was good to get to know him earlier, so you had one guy before the season started. He's been so helpful."

Eichel had similar help during his rookie season. Shortly after being drafted second overall in June 2015, he received a message from then-Sabres veteran winger Matt Moulson, who offered Eichel a room in his home. Moulson did the same for John Tavares when the two were teammates with the New York Islanders.

Eichel had experience taking care of himself while playing one season at Boston University and during his time with the U.S. National Development Program in Ann Arbor, Mich.; however, Moulson knew such an offer would take some of the stress off Eichel.

"For one, it helps you grow up a lot," Eichel, who was 19 when he debuted with the Sabres in October 2015, recalled of his early days in the NHL. "You see a lot that you wouldn’t see otherwise. The biggest thing is you learn to understand people a little bit better. ... You start to mature. The same stuff you do in college and junior isn’t going to fly around here. You learn to grow up being around older guys. You learn good habits. It’s a lot.

"A teenager’s mentality is so much different. When I was coming in, my mentality was probably so much different than Brian Gionta’s mentality. At first I really didn’t understand that."

Eichel plans a move into Moulson's house and says 'it's starting to get real' as Sabres rookie camp looms

Players eventually figure out how to take care of themselves and most call home for advice. Reinhart and Thompson, both former first-round draft picks, have a unique resource: fathers who played in the NHL. Reinhart credited his family with helping him deal with the mental grind – on and off the ice – of his first NHL season.

But failure can be the greatest learning tool, Okposo said. Drafted seventh overall by the Islanders in 2006, he played two seasons at the University of Minnesota and attended Shattuck St. Mary's, a boarding school in Fairbault, Minn., beginning at 14 years old. As a result, Okposo was accustomed to completing many off-ice chores.

There was one exception.

As a rookie in 2007-08, Okposo shared a house with teammates Blake Comeau and Jeff Tambellini near the Islanders' AHL affiliate in Bridgeport, Conn., and was the last of the three to be recalled to the NHL. Upon being sent back to Bridgeport three weeks later, Okposo discovered their house did not have power. He forgot to pay the electric bill.

"It’s little stuff like that you don’t really think about when you’re on your own," he said with a laugh.

A number of former players have struggled with substance abuse or financial management during their early years in the NHL. For example, the Columbus Dispatch reported in 2014 that current Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Jack Johnson declared for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection after defaulting on more than $6 million in debt – the result of his parents mismanaging his finances.

Many young players were not aware of the possible dangers of trusting someone else with their money or surrounding themselves with the wrong people. In an attempt to remedy the problem, the NHL and its players' association launched the Rookie Orientation Program in 2013.

A three-day event, the program serves approximately 80-90 players each summer with a number of speakers and presentations on the topics of financial education, wealth management, personal branding, sensitivity training, substance abuse and life skills. Former players attend to give firsthand accounts on the struggles they faced.

Sending your son off to the NHL: Dahlin's dad's perspective

Teams are encouraged to send up to three players whom they believe will help their team in the near future – Mittelstadt, Dahlin and Rochester center Rasmus Asplund, a second-round draft pick in 2016, represented the Sabres at the event last summer in Washington, D.C.

"All the speakers were really good," Mittelstadt said of the event. "They did a good job of filling us in on what it's going to be like. It was more about what to stay away from and what to manage, which was really good. It might be a little overwhelming throughout the week since there are so many meetings, but you're prepared for it."

Those principles and life skills are repeated to young players and veterans when players' association officials make an annual visit to each NHL team during the season. That provides players with a platform to raise any questions and concerns about life away from the rink.

When Skinner was drafted seventh overall by Carolina in 2010, his parents, Andy and Chuffy, both lawyers in the Toronto area, questioned how well the league was preparing 18-year-old players for the drastic transition. Before implementing the orientation program, the NHL and NHLPA conducted a session on the first morning of the draft every year.

Early in Jeff's career, Andy would spend approximately one week in Raleigh, N.C., just to be there in the event help was needed.

"One thing about the NHL and going to Carolina when he was 18 – that was another thing that was important to us – we didn’t really want other people parenting," Chuffy said. "We wanted to make sure we still had our oar in the water. You want to be available if they need you or need to talk to you, they have a dilemma or whatever. The NHL doesn’t provide a lot of that for 18-year-olds going into this. They’re playing with men who have families and so on."

Mittelstadt's father, Tom, has taken a similar approach, though his trips to watch the Sabres are more frequent. Like most teenagers moving into a college apartment, Casey needed help assembling a bed frame and a few other tasks. His car also encountered a flat tire during that first week, and Tom helped with the second flat tire during a trip to Buffalo last month.

When Casey returned to the Minneapolis area for the brief holiday break in December, his family members asked if he missed living close to home. He laughed at the question. Though Mittelstadt and Dahlin are under immense pressure to perform on the ice and are learning to navigate the challenges of adulthood, neither would trade the opportunity for homecooked meals or having someone around to fix a flat tire.

"There are obviously things you need help with and don’t know how to do," Mittelstadt said. "My parents do a good job of helping me, so I can just call them and ask them for advice at any point in time. I  don’t think it’s been bad. It’s nice having Ras to live with.

"If I was living on my own it might be a little harder, but living with him and helping each other out has been nice."

Roommates Dahlin, Mittelstadt helping each other adjust to life with Sabres

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