Growing up in Toronto, Luca Caputi was like many young boys. His favourite hockey sweater read "Gilmour," there was ball hockey in the driveway and he played minor hockey with his friends. Every Saturday night, mom, pop and anyone who happened by would end up watching Hockey Night In Canada on television.
Good times. But nothing that wasn't happening in a million homes from Cornerbrook to Yellowknife.
Even 20 months ago, he was just another kid with dreams playing junior hockey. Last night, in his third game this season as a call-up to the Pittsburgh Penguins, he stepped into nirvana -- his first game at the Air Canada Centre and on Hockey Night In Canada. Instead of watching from the family sofa, the Caputi family and friends -- Luca figured about 35 -- were in the stands. Instead of a couple thousand fans in a St. Catharines ice barn, there were a million eyes from coast to coast.
"I know it's a cliche, but this is something I've always dreamed about," the 21-year-old left-winger said at yesterday morning's pregame skate.
"On Saturday night we'd have dinner as a family and no matter what, when it was seven o'clock it was Hockey Night In Canada. So, this night is everything. I've worked my whole life to play in Toronto on Hockey Night in Canada. It's special. I can't really put it into words right now."
Until last night, the closest Caputi had come to sharing home ice with his boyhood team "was walking the concourse. I've never even been at ice level before."
"Even though it's not Maple Leaf Gardens anymore, you can feel the atmosphere, see the retired sweaters. Awesome. My favourite player was Doug Gilmour and the first thing I did when I went on to the ice was look up to see Dougie's number."
Pro sports is so inhabited by cynicism, inflated egos and paycheques, it's heartwarming to find someone who can still feel the wonder of that world.
Caputi actually made his NHL debut last season against the Habs. On his first shot, he scored -- 21/2 minutes into his NHL career. But that's about as long as his audition lasted. He's hoping to hang around longer now, and the Penguins are giving him every opportunity. When most players break in they get minimal ice time, but Caputi is on the second line alongside NHL scoring champion Evgeni Malkin.
"Some people might look at it as being anxiety and pressure but I look at it as the coach having confidence in me," Caputi said.
Five minutes into the second period last night he cruised through the crease and almost jammed home a centring pass from Malkin.
He also is getting time on the power play and scored in his first game last week against Atlanta. Caputi has to operate in those high-traffic areas, hang around the net and do the dirty work to make goals possible.
'HAS A KNACK'
"Luca has a knack in the offensive zone, around the net," Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said. "Even in the limited amount last year and this year, he has got scoring chances. That's why he is a big prospect for us."
So while Caputi idolized Gilmour, he has to play ugly like Tomas Holmstrom.
"If I can be half as good as (Holmstrom), I'll be happy," Caputi said.
There is wonder in his voice. "(The NHL) is a different world. You go from buses to planes. The players are faster, bigger. The whole atmosphere is different."
Teammate Tyler Kennedy smiles at he next locker. Not so long ago, he experienced the same culture shock.
"Everything's different, from lifestyle where nobody's cooking for you anymore, to not playing against boys anymore. Here, it's a man's world," Kennedy said. "I remember trying to cook my first meal. Chicken and potatoes. Nothing turned out. Pretty much burned everything."
Caputi, meanwhile, is cooking, too. But so far, the only thing he has burned is NHL goalies.