P eople keep telling me that I make them feel old. Ever since the NHL draft, I’ve been hearing it from the reporters. Then, when I got to New Jersey, I started hearing it from the older players. I guess they see the year I was born and it blows their minds for some reason.
I was born in 1999. I was eight years old when the iPhone came out. People think that is really funny. I don’t know why.
I’ll tell you another story that people think is crazy. When I was 11 years old, my Swiss hockey team came over for the big pee-wee hockey tournament in Quebec City. It was my first time in North America, and I had never seen an NHL game before. So our whole team drove to Ottawa to watch the Senators play the Oilers. We were sitting up so high that we could barely see the puck. We were like two seats from the roof. So we just kept trying to look for number 4 on Edmonton.
We were all like, Wow, that guy is a big deal.
It was Taylor Hall. He had just been the No. 1 pick in the draft. From where we were sitting, he looked really small. He was basically just like a blue dot. But we all thought it was so cool. It was a big deal for us, because in Switzerland hockey is not the dominant sport, you know? The NHL is growing, but you can’t really watch games on TV. When we were kids, we would just watch highlights on YouTube on our phones. Then when the NHL came out with their their app, that was a big deal. Because then I could watch so many Pavel Datsyuk videos. Datsyuk was my favorite. I loved the way he played the game.
The only NHL game I can remember watching live on TV was Chicago vs. Boston. It was Game 6 of the Stanley Cup finals, so my mom let me stay up. The game started at 2 a.m. so I didn’t sleep at all. That was just four years ago. It’s really … I guess I just still can’t believe it. When I came to Canada to play in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League last year, I didn’t think everything would happen so fast. My goal was just to prove to people that I was a good player. That was it. After the World Juniors, when I started to hear that I was one of the top prospects in the draft, it was unbelievable. Then, you know, the media starts asking you, “What if you go No. 1?”
I got the same question like 100 times. I didn’t know what to say. Like, really, I didn’t know what to say.
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When the Draft Lottery was going on, I was actually on vacation in Italy. I was trying to stream it on my computer, but we were in this little apartment on the ocean, and it didn’t have a good wifi connection, so the feed kept going in and out. In then end, the stream came back and I could just see the board with the logos. I saw New Jersey first, Philadelphia second, Dallas third. But at that point, I didn’t really want to think too much. I figured that anything could happen.
My friends were texting me like, “What do you think?”
And I just said, “I’m gonna be happy however this comes. This is going to be amazing no matter what.”
When I got back home to Switzerland, there was a lot of media attention. Everyone was asking me, “Will you be first? What will it feel like to be the first Swiss player taken first? What are your plans for the next few weeks?”
And it was funny because my big plan was to take the air boat down the river in Bern. I don’t know if you have this in North America. In Bern, we have this very calm river that flows through the city. It goes through all these beautiful mountains and trees and stuff. You just take a train, like, 30 minutes north from the city and you bring some stuff to barbecue with you. And then you pay some money and you can make a boat with air. What do you call this in America? A raft? It’s cooler than a raft, though. It’s really big and you can fit all your friends.
Maybe we only have this is Switzerland. Let’s call it a Swiss boat.
So you go on the Swiss boat and you just float down the river back to Bern all afternoon. Whenever you get too hot, you can jump into the water for a while and then swim to catch up to the boat again. It’s very chill. Then whenever you get hungry, there are little spots for you to stop the boat and do a barbeque.
It’s the best. This is what we do in Switzerland. It’s a pretty relaxing place. And it was really funny because when I was being interviewed by teams before the draft, they try to ask you tough questions, you know? So one of the teams asked me, “Nico, have you ever been in jail?”
I said, “In jail?”
They said, “Yes, in jail.”
I said, “No.”
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Then they asked another question, but it was a totally normal one, like, “What’s your preferred position on a power play?”
It was really funny. I was so confused. So I really did not know what was going to happen on draft night. I felt like anything could happen, and when I got to the green room with my family, we had no idea where I was going. The draft started and we still had no idea. Then the Devils came up to pick and we still had no idea. I thought that was impossible now, with social media and everything, but we really didn’t know.
Then I heard my name.
And I couldn’t remember anything for a minute after that. I hear this expression in America a lot. “Blacked out.” Am I using this right? I blacked out.
My mom was crying a little bit. My dad was very proud. They were teasing me, like, “See? Aren’t you glad you didn’t quit?” Because when I was maybe eight or nine years old, I came home from hockey and told my dad that I was done. I was having a lot more fun playing soccer and I wanted to do that. I actually told my coach I was done! That was it. Retired. I stopped playing for a whole summer.
Then, of course, after three months, it got cold again, and I saw all my friends playing hockey, and I told my parents that I was coming out of retirement.
After the draft, I had some pretty funny voice memos from my friends back home. They were all out in the streets screaming and chanting, “Let’s Go, De-vils!”
They were messing with me, like, “Hey, now you can see Taylor Hall up close.”
It was overwhelming. I think for anybody, it’s hard to think of the words for how you feel when the cameras are on you. It’s harder when English is your third language! So yeah, after my black out, the reporter asked me about myself, and all I could think of was, “I love to hockey.”
It’s true, though. I do love to hockey.
Right away, the media was asking me how I was going to fit into the team, and what kind of player I thought I could be. I’m not sure how to answer this. In Switzerland, we don’t really like to talk about ourselves like this. All I can say is that my game is inspired by Pavel Datsyuk. I really admired the way he played a total two-way game. He was the best in the league defensively, and he forced so many turnovers, but he still created offensively for his teammates. That’s exactly how I want to play.
It’s pretty cool how things worked out because this is kind of the second time that I was picked to wear a Devils sweater. When I was nine years old, there was this awesome tournament in Switzerland — whenever your team entered, you got to be a random NHL team. Like with the full jerseys, with a name and number on the back and everything. For the whole tournament, you were that team. It was sick.
So that year, the team we got was the New Jersey Devils. My mom still has the picture.
I’m not so sure about my haircut. But I’m even wearing number 13, like Datsyuk. At that time, I actually picked 13 because it was my older brother’s number. He was my first idol. I didn’t know Datsyuk yet.
So now I have a number 13 Devils sweater again. It’s a few sizes bigger now.
So that’s it. What else can I say? I’m Nico. I love to hockey. And it’s an honor to be a Devil again.