It’s been a wild first half of the 2018-19 regular season for the Dallas Stars. But through the sky-high ups and uncertain downs, there’s been one key storyline that has held it all together: the emergence of Miro Heiskanen. And through 41 games, the kid is simply soaking it all in.
I happened to be wandering through the crowd at the American Airlines Center on Wednesday night as the Dallas Stars battled it out with the New Jersey Devils. I have a part-time job with the team’s production department and my assignment for the night was to wander through the crowd and record clips of fans as well as on-ice action.
As I sat up near the glass next to the Stars’ bench during the second period trying to get some good shots, I began listening to the chatter of the crowd. At one point, Stars defenseman Miro Heiskanen made a spiffy move with the puck at the blue line, shook his defender, and skated in for an open shot. Though he didn’t score, the crowd nearby made sure to let out the inevitable, “Oooooh.” Seconds later, a fan said, “He really turned on the juju for that one.”
Now, that’s not the first time that the crowd has expressed euphoria about Heiskanen’s play. It’s also not the first time that someone has made a sincere comment to the young defender, though the rookie obviously cannot hear them.
A few games ago, I was in the press box covering the game. During an early shift, Heiskanen was checked hard into the boards by an opposing defender. While he got up, shook off the hit, and got back into the play, a fan sitting just outside of the box screamed, “Miro, are you okay? Oh my God!”
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Another fan on Wednesday yelled during the action, “Don’t you dare touch our Miro.” And after Thursday’s practice at the AAC, a conversation about Heiskanen arose in the locker room and Devin Shore quickly added, “He’s perfect. Don’t you dare say anything bad about him.”
He even has his own theme song as Stars music director Michael Gruber blares ‘I Need A Hero’ by Bonnie Tyler every time Heiskanen wows the crowd with a superb play.
It’s clear that the Dallas Stars world has an undeniable love for Miro Heiskanen. And the feeling is mutual, according to Heiskanen.
“Oh yeah,” he said after Thursday’s practice. “It’s nice to have good fans here and it’s fun to play for them.”
Back to Wednesday night’s contest for a minute. Heiskanen went on to score two goals against the Devils (including the game-winner) and put a total of nine shots on net. It was one of, if not his best NHL game to date and helped cap off another strong win for the Dallas Stars.
The performance came just hours after Heiskanen found out that he had been named to the 2019 All-Star Game. And no, being named to the NHL All-Star Game as a rookie is not an easy task. His response to such an incredible feat?
“It feels great. When I was younger, I would look at those All-Star games and now I can go there, so it feels great.”
Subtle and humble, but also effective. That’s typical for most teenagers playing in their first year in the NHL. And with the way he has performed through 41 games this season, it can be easy to forget that Heiskanen is only 19 years old. For Stars fans and for the entire organization, it’s simply another thing to get excited about.
When the 2018-19 season began, the Dallas Stars had a lot of storylines worth following. Would Jim Montgomery‘s coaching style work immediately or take time? Were the depth scoring issues from 2017-18 solved via offseason additions? Was this team ready to compete in a loaded Central division? Would they be able to punch their postseason ticket for the first time since 2016?
But, one of the truly special stories was the debut of Miro Heiskanen. At 19 years old, he had spent the previous few seasons tearing it up in Liiga, Finland’s top hockey league. Heiskanen earned various awards and recognitions in his time in Finland, took the hockey prospect world by storm, and worked his way up to third overall on the 2017 NHL draft board. That’s where the Stars selected him.
After one more season in Finland and an action-packed schedule, Heiskanen made the trek to North America to start his NHL career. That meant leaving his home of 18 years in Espoo, Finland and traveling over 5,200 miles to a new country, new way of life, and new level of competition on the ice. And though he had been to America a few times before for U18 tournaments, the move still brought nerves.
“Of course, a little bit,” Heiskanen said about the nerves of moving. “I think there’s some difference than in Finland, but not that much. I was just ready to go here and see what happens. It’s good that there is a couple of Finnish guys [on the Stars] and those guys helped me. But, a little bit nervous.”
Heiskanen spent the month of September preparing for the NHL. The Stars sent him to the Traverse City Tournament to compete against fellow prospects, put him through his first NHL training camp, and involved him heavily in the Stars’ preseason action. Following that, it was time for his NHL debut on Oct. 4 against the Arizona Coyotes. Heiskanen still considers opening night as the most exciting moment of his NHL career so far.
“My first game,” said Heiskanen. “It was a big one for me, no doubt. That’s probably the biggest one.”
Here we are 92 days later. It seems like such a short span when considering all that Heiskanen has already done with his rookie campaign. But, as the Dallas Stars sit at the halfway point of their regular season, what has it been like for the 19-year-old?
“I’m enjoying everything that happens here,” said Heiskanen. “It’s great to be here and I enjoy every moment that I can be here. It’s nice.”
The thing that gets masked by his production and performance more often than not is the fact that Miro Heiskanen is still a teenager. He cannot legally drink alcohol yet in the United States or gamble at a casino in Las Vegas. And just a few months ago, he uprooted his entire life and headed far west to the Lone Star State. And so far, he hasn’t let it affect him.
“Maybe the weather is the biggest change than it is in Finland,” Heiskanen said about the most noticeable change in his daily life. “I like a little bit warmer weather, so it’s not bad for me.”
Through 41 games, Miro Heiskanen has done a lot. He currently leads all rookies in ice time, is tied for fifth in rookie scoring with 19 points, and leads all rookie defenders in goals with nine. But nine goals and 19 points in an average of 22:58 on the ice per game isn’t all that Miro is about; instead, it’s the little things he does that truly stand out.
Skating deep into the offensive zone while looking for scoring options while also having the speed to get back into defensive position if it breaks down. Handling the puck with immense care and craftiness. Being able to run a power play at age 19 and provide heavy shot support from the blue line in all situations. The list goes on and on.
“I think it’s getting better all the time and feeling more comfortable and stuff like that,” Heiskanen said about his own skills. “It’s easier every time and it’s getting better and better.”
But, we cannot forget that this is his first time doing any of this in the NHL. It’s his first time taking part in NHL practices. It’s his first time going on road trips to other NHL cities. It’s his first time living in Texas. And yes, he’s soaking all of the experiences in.
“I just love playing hockey and it’s always nice to jump onto the ice here [in Dallas],” Heiskanen said.
Heiskanen talked about how much he has enjoyed growing as an NHL player and being a member of the Stars. He gets to hang out with fellow Finns Esa Lindell and Roope Hintz in their own corner of the locker room, and the three are almost always talking and laughing following practices and morning skates.
He’s also enjoyed the traveling aspect of the NHL. And for a Dallas Stars team that has played 21 road games in 20 different locations, the rookie has had a chance to see the NHL in other parts of North America.
“I don’t know,” Heiskanen said when asked about if he had a personal favorite trip so far. “Of course, Montreal and Toronto was great. Great atmospheres there and the weather there was good, too. There’s a couple nice places, but probably those ones.”
Heiskanen has taken the first half of his rookie season and turned it into a work of art. He’s shouldered a lot of responsibilities and is being trusted with more and more as the season rolls along. That speaks volumes to head coach Jim Montgomery, who is also in his first year at the NHL level.
“Incredibly impressed,” Montgomery said of Heiskanen before the team’s game against Calgary in December. “And you know what? He just keeps getting better. His game is becoming more and more dominant as the year progresses and it’s really impressive because we’re playing him a lot of minutes.”
Montgomery also compared the rookie to Hall-of-Fame defenseman Scott Niedermayer based on his skating abilities and his hockey IQ at both ends of the ice.
And what are his plans for the second half of the year regarding his own play?
“Pretty similar game,” Heiskanen said. “Maybe try and do a little bit better and better all the time and just keep going.”
It started with Miro, the third overall pick. Then, it turned to Miro, the Dallas Stars superstar prospect. It then became Miro, the rookie phenom. Then, it turned to Miro, the Calder Trophy challenger. And now, it’s Miro, the All-Star. Not a bad resume for a kid simply doing his thing and enjoying himself in the early portion of his first professional season.
“I don’t know what to say about him anymore,” added head coach Jim Montgomery about the rookie’s All-Star status. “I’m just glad I get the opportunity to coach him.”
`Through one half of the year, the Dallas Stars seem to have found another defensive cornerstone for their lineup for years to come. The team loves him, the fans love him, and his play is quickly putting the rest of the NHL on watch. Not bad for a 19-year-old that’s seen his whole world change over the past few months.
“Oh yeah. It feels pretty unreal,” said Heiskanen. “I didn’t expect all of these things. But, of course, it’s great to have all of those titles and things. I’m happy for that.”
Subtle and humble, but also effective. Typical Miro.