When the Hurricanes return to play for the first time since last Tuesday on Thursday against the Tampa Bay Lightning, it will hardly be under ideal circumstances. The Canes will be without five lineup regulars in forwards Jesper Fast, Teuvo Teravainen, Jordan Martinook and Warren Foegele and defenseman Jaccob Slavin due to their placement on the NHL’s COVID protocol list.
However, those absences will mean opportunities for others. One of those is rookie forward Steven Lorentz, who is expected to make his NHL debut Thursday, and was grinning from ear to ear at the prospect of it during a Zoom media availability Wednesday.
Obviously, these aren’t the circumstances Lorentz imagined for his first NHL game, but he’s ready to celebrate the milestone.
“I wouldn’t say it’s super, super different,” Lorentz said. “It’s going to be a little bit weird, I obviously haven’t played since March. … But at the same time, hockey’s hockey. So you’ve just got to go out there and be ready to stick to what got you here in the first place. So I’m obviously going to have a little bit of nerves come game time. But right now, I’m just trying to keep it relaxed, stay focused and try and play my game.”
One change from a normal NHL debut will be that Lorentz’s family and friends won’t be able to pack the stands to watch him play.
But we won’t let that diminish the moment for him, and he knows his loved ones will be watching from afar.
“I know they’ll be there in spirit,” Lorentz said. “I’m going to have so many friends and family watching at home and cheering me on. It would be nice to have them there, and be able to see them after the game and what not. But it’s the NHL, and I’m just so happy to be here. I’m just going to do everything I can to contribute. It has been a long journey to get to this point, but I wouldn’t be able to get here without my family. So there’s just as much to thank as anybody else. I’m so happy that they’re going to be able to at least watch the game.”
As Lorentz stated, it’s been a long journey for him. Since being drafted in the seventh round of the 2015 NHL draft, Lorentz played five more seasons across three different leagues before earning a spot on this year’s taxi squad and getting this opportunity now.
Lorentz had his work cut out for him as a seventh rounder, but he never viewed that as a deterrent or obstacle to his goals, but an opportunity to put in the work and prove he belongs.
“It’s really cliche, but if you really do all the right things, things tend to fall into place,” Lorentz said. “I’ve kind of believed that since the word go. … I just tried to enjoy every day of being a player who got the opportunity to be drafted to the NHL, go to NHL camps and learn from some of the best players in the world. That’s kind of what I’ve done throughout the years. I realized I wasn’t that first-round pick who’s going to jump in and contribute right away. But I always listened to my coaches, wherever I was, whether it was the east coast or the American League. I was fortunate that they believed in me and my abilities to put me in all the right situations to succeed. So obviously here I am and I just can’t wait to get in the lineup.”
Throughout his two more seasons with Peterborough Petes of the OHL, a season spent mostly in the ECHL and two full seasons at the American League level, it was that belief in himself, and drive to do whatever was asked of him, that kept Lorentz pushing ahead towards his ultimate goals.
“I think the thing that maybe set me apart from other guys who might have been drafted a little bit higher and maybe had a better season, maybe deserved to be on a team or have a call up before myself, I think I just really want it,” Lorentz said. “Everything I do, whatever it takes, whatever position I’m in, whatever situation the coach puts me in out on the ice, I think I just go out there and try and give it 100%. I know it sounds a little bit cliche, maybe it’s a chip on my shoulder, that internal drive that sets me apart, but I’ve always believed in myself and I tend to block out what other people might be saying and the stuff that’s out of my control. I just try to stick to what I do best.”
Lorentz has had plenty of examples to learn and grow from in his career so far. Between his two seasons in junior, lone season in Florida that included a run to the ECHL’s championship round and being part of the Checkers’ 2019 cup run, Lorentz has tried to take lessons and experience from each of his teammates at different levels and apply them to his own game.
“Playing on these winning teams, you learn so much from the veterans and young guys who have certain types of skills,” Lorentz said. “I like to talk to every guy on the team, whether they’re grinders or skill guys, about what makes them tick. So you just learn so many different tools and stuff that you can learn in the game. I think that’s kind of the game that I want to play, is just be that Swiss-Army Knife where I can be relied on in any situation.”
Being that “Swiss-Army Knife” type has already endeared him to Carolina’s coaches. Rod Brind’Amour knows Lorentz wants to contribute and likely plans to use him on the penalty kill in his debut.
Brind’Amour also wants to make sure Lorentz enjoys the moment. Though it’s been a minute (about 32 years, to be more precise), Brind’Amour remembers his NHL debut, and knows that night means everything to a first-year NHLer.
“Whenever someone has that game, I always remember how exciting it was for me,” Brind’Amour said. “You kind of gloss over it now as not that big a deal, we’re in the big picture, but for him it is. For that person, it’s huge. So you just try to make sure they enjoy it, because you only get one of these. You get one crack at your first game. So you just want to make sure they’re not out there playing apprehensive. Just go play. I find that’s the best message. It doesn’t always work that way. They’re obviously going to be nervous. But he only gets one crack at it, so he might as well put his best foot forward.”
The Hurricanes’ veterans will look to help Lorentz put that best foot forward. As the team’s captain and one of its most-experienced players, Jordan Staal would already figure to be a mentor and steady influence for a young player making his debut.
But that relationship is likely to be even stronger with Lorentz skating on Staal’s wing in both of the team’s practices this week. And, as fate would have it, Staal had an admirer in Lorentz long before the 24-year-old joined the Hurricanes’ organization.
“It’s funny, because I even told him this, and I didn’t mean to make him feel old, but I remember watching his videos when he was a rookie with the Penguins and him and his brothers were sponsored by Bauer,” Lorentz said. “It’s crazy how things do fall into place. Now I’m sitting here and he’s a veteran. I get to look up to him. I do tend to model my game after him a little. I want to play that hard-nosed, up-and-down, 200-foot player that can contribute offensively and be relied on defensively.
“So he told me anytime I had a question I can go to him. It’s so nice to know that you can rely on a guy like that who’s such a respected leader and who’s looked up to in the locker room so much. So I’m very fortunate that I have those guys who have my back and who will assist me step by step. They know I’m going to make mistakes, but they’re going to be there to correct me when that happens.”
The last week and change has been a trying time for the Hurricanes, with, at one point, six players, including Staal (who has since recovered and been cleared) placed on the COVID list. That’s only underscored the uncertainty of this season, and the difficulties each team, coaches and players are likely to face.
It would only be natural for there to be a bit more of a somber mood around the team amid these circumstances. But if there’s one element that could instantly serve to cheer everyone up, it’s being around a guy like Lorentz, and seeing the joy he exudes as his long-awaited dream of suiting up for an NHL game approaches.
“You talk to the guy and you come away with a smile on your face,” Brind’Amour said. “He’s just happy to be alive. He’s happy to have this opportunity to play in the NHL, whether there’s zero fans, nothing, whatever. It’s not the ideal debut, but he’s just happy to be here. He wants to contribute. He doesn’t just want to check the list off that he played a game in the NHL. He wants to do something special. And you root for guys like that. I don’t know what it is about him, but you just do root for him.”