The visiting media from Montreal crowded before Liam O’Brien’s stall, so first the Capitals rookie forward conducted interviews in French. He had learned the language from billet families in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League and Swiss classmates at an even younger age, long before reaching the National Hockey League at 20 years old ever became a dream.
Even now, with his parents and siblings in town, his grandparents fresh off the road from Halifax, swarms of cameras lighting up his thick red beard, it all seemed surreal to O’Brien. Thursday night, the skater who, several weeks back, came to Capitals rookie camp simply hoping to hang around a few more days, will make his professional debut, introduced onto the Verizon Center ice by a booming announcer, illuminated by the glow of the spotlight.
Roughly a dozen family members – plus O’Brien’s agent – came for the big day, so many that he needed to find extra tickets. They watched the morning workout, when O’Brien skated on the fourth line, where he will start beside fellow rookies Evgeny Kuznetsov and Chris Brown.
Among the crowd stood O’Brien’s younger brother, who couldn’t believe his eyes, and later, inside the locker room, O’Brien said it was all hard for him to absorb too. After all, two days ago, the decision to slot him into the opening lineup came as “a complete surprise.”
“Honestly, sometimes I’m just like … I don’t know how I’m here,” said O’Brien, who notched four points and three fights this preseason. “But I’ve worked hard for it. I know I’ve earned it. I just want to keep working hard and try to stay here.”
O’Brien had trouble falling asleep Wednesday night, thinking about what morning would bring. “You’re really not sure,” he said, but eventually his eyes closed and he felt ready to go.
“He’s just gotten better and better from development camp, I think he’s taking in a lot of what we’ve done through training camp,” Coach Barry Trotz said. “He’s come in really good shape. Every game he’s played, he’s made sure that he’s a guy you notice. He’s scored some goals, he’s had some bouts with some of the guys who are well-known around the league and he’s produced. He’s made himself a Washington Capital for tonight and hopefully for a long, long time.”
In the adjacent stall, commanding slightly less attention, sat forward Andre Burakovsky, who Thursday night will become the 17th teenager to ever debut with the Capitals on opening night, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. The 19-year-old Swede blitzed through development camp, then rookie camp, then training camp, all while playing a position he only adopted this summer.
Unlike O’Brien, this moment had never been far off for Burakovsky, one of Washington’s top prospects. But even he, also with his parents in town, seemed giddy as the puck drop drew near.
“It’s going to be awesome for me,” said Burakovsky, who will center a second line with Marcus Johansson and Troy Brouwer. ‘It’s going to be the biggest moment of my life, to play in an NHL game. It’s hard to wait. I just want to go out there and play now. It’s going to be one of the best days of my life.”
Burakovsky picked his parents up Wednesday night at the airport, and like O’Brien, the forward found the moment unexpected. He figured switching to center meant accepting a longer route to the NHL, one focused on developing new skills. Maybe he could skate in the American Hockey League this season, Burakovsky reasoned, getting experience and making the leap later.
“I just thought I should get a couple games then take it from there,” he said. “Not this soon. But I’m real happy with my preseason and my camp. That’s probably why I’m here today.”
In planning for the preseason, Trotz charted when he expected various players to leave, specifically for Washington’s team services department to be prepared. Burakovsky had impressed enough this summer to justify preseason action. O’Brien, on the other hand?
“He was on an early list,” Trotz said, hours before he would write both rookies onto his lineup card.