No member of the Toronto Maple Leafs had a bigger smile on his face when the dressing room opened on Friday afternoon at the Air Canada Centre.
Mike Kostka was still there, still a Leaf and, presumably given he had been lining up alongside captain Dion Phaneuf throughout much of training camp, one day away from playing in his first NHL game at age 27.
That’s not something you see all that often.
Kostka, who grew up a Leafs fan 45 minutes east of the Air Canada Centre in Ajax, Ont., has bounced around the minors for years after four seasons with the UMass Minutemen in the NCAA.
He graduated in 2008 at age 22 and stepped right into the AHL, playing two seasons with the Portland Pirates before considering going over to Europe, as many players do when they sense they’re beginning a long, low-paying career in the North American minor leagues in their mid-20s.
Close friend, Marco Rosa, another minor leaguer looking for a break (and now playing in Finland), convinced him otherwise.
“After my first two years in the AHL, I didn’t get qualified by Buffalo and I had an opportunity in Germany and I didn’t have a job here,” Kostka said. “I was about to sign that night to go over to Germany, and Marco told me ‘if you think you have a 1 per cent chance of making the NHL, you can’t leave now.’ For whatever reason, that just made sense.
“I stayed back, I held out for a few more weeks and then in late August, I got that contract with Rochester [in the AHL]. It’s a good thing I stayed.”
Back in 2004, Kostka was considered a budding star in Ontario’s Junior A system, as he was a key member of the powerhouse Aurora Tigers team that went 76-7-0 that season.
He was given the OHA’s Top Prospect Award and was even ranked 165th among North American skaters by NHL Central Scouting prior to the 2004 Entry Draft, which would have made him a seventh or eighth round pick.
Kostka went unselected, however, and went the college route, where he studied psychology and slowly continued to improve his game on the Minutemen blueline.
It wasn’t until three years after graduation, with the Rochester Americans, that he began to really catch NHL scouts’ eyes, as he put up 55 points and was pursued by several teams, including the Leafs.
“I got a ton of ice time and I really started to come into my own,” he said.
Suddenly with a few choices on where to go, Kostka went with what he saw as his best NHL opportunity with the Florida Panthers and signed there the summer of 2011.
A member of the team up until the final day, he had already been given his equipment and thought he made it before learning he was the final cut.
“I was walking out of the trainer’s room with all my new gear and we had already had a team meeting and they had kind of said that ‘this was the team,’ ” Kostka said. “Then I ended up being the last cut the next day. So I’ll believe [I’ve made the Leafs] once I’m wearing the jersey and I’m on the ice, I guess.”
Florida traded him to the Tampa Bay Lightning in midseason, which is how he joined the Norfolk Admirals team that eventually defeated the Toronto Marlies for the Calder Cup last spring.
Kostka’s name became famous in Toronto after he scored the bizarre double overtime winner in Game 3 of that series, a goal he shot from centre ice, banked off the glass and into the net for a 1-0 win.
“I told him I meant to do it,” Kostka said of his conversations with Ben Scrivens about the backbreaker of a goal once they became teammates.
(A few months after the goal, when Kostka went to camp with the Marlies, coach Dallas Eakins had him attempt the shot again on the first day with his new teammates all watching on. He missed.)
“It’s been a long journey to get to this point,” Kostka said. “I played four and a half years in the AHL without getting an opportunity, and I’ve gone through a lot in those four years. It’s definitely been a long road. I’m ready to start the next chapter and keep things going.”
Kostka has been a revelation for the Marlies this season, as he has been one of the AHL’s best defencemen for the third straight season in putting up 34 points in 34 games.
Only average sized and not the most fluid skater, Kostka’s strengths are his ability to move the puck and play the power play, although his defensive game is what has improved the most over time.
“I take a lot of pride at playing at both ends of the ice,” he said.
The trick for Kostka to have success in the NHL is going to be adjusting to bigger, faster players, as he can be caught backing off too much when defending a rush.
The elite players in the NHL can capitalize in situations like that far better than the stars in the AHL, something he will have to be ready for.
As a sixth or seventh defenceman, however, who can stand in for the injured Jake Gardiner, play both sides of the ice and give the Leafs competent minutes, he may be a good fit, regardless of his age.
(He also makes just $600,000 at the NHL level.)
Potentially using him with Dion Phaneuf, meanwhile, could give the Leafs more than just the one solid defence pair, something that was an issue for Toronto all of last season.
“He doesn’t look nervous,” Leafs GM Dave Nonis said of Kostka on Friday. “He’s very good with the puck; he’s incredibly smart. Does that translate to [being] an NHL defenceman? We’re probably going to find out. Randy will play who he wants to play, but Mike doesn’t look out of place right now. And his trajectory has been upwards since he started pro hockey.”
The past two weeks have been a bit of a whirlwind for Kostka, who learned a week ago Tuesday that he was one of the Marlies players going to camp.
During a few nervous days of sitting around and waiting for the collective agreement to be ratified, he had to field call after call from excited family members, many of whom will be in the stands on Saturday in Montreal as he makes his NHL debut.
“To be honest, it hasn’t really set in right now,” Kostka said on Friday, an hour or so after learning he wasn’t among the final cuts. “Definitely exciting times.
“I’ve internally always believed [I could make it]. You kind of have to have that belief otherwise you’re probably not going to get that opportunity. I’ve had a strong belief in myself for a long time, that this is where I belong, and there have been a lot of stepping stones to get to this situation. A lot of ups, a lot of downs, and I’m happy I’m here now.
“To be honest, it’s pretty surreal right now. I’m still waiting for someone from management or something to tell me [I’m going to the minors]. It’s a dream come true, absolutely.”