Photo: Toronto Maple Leafs
For many hockey players, fans and lovers of the game, that memory of strapping on a pair of skates for the first time is a memory forever etched in the mind. When that first desire to be a part of the ice presents itself, connecting body and soul to the game, it forges a virtually unbreakable bond between ice, player and the sport. For Michael Kostka of the New York Rangers, learning to love the game began, as with many Canadians, in the backyard of dreams.
“My father got me started when I was around three. He played Canadian University hockey and coached it as well – So he had a passion for the game.”
With cold Canadian winters, the opportunity to grow a love for the game often begins at home, long before heading to the local rink.
“It all started on our back deck, he put a tarp down, flooded the back deck, it froze and off I went.”
While the back deck introduced him to the joy of gliding on the ice, like many NHL players before him, it would be the chance to play hockey in it’s purest form–on the pond–that would help develop Kostka’s game.
“We had a creek behind our house that would freeze every year, it led out into a big bay which led into Lake Ontario – that of course wasn’t frozen because of the size, but it allowed for us to play a ton of pond hockey behind our house,” Kostka reminisced. “The setup gave us a bit more area to explore. When I think back about playing hockey or being a kid, I remember playing on the creek.”
Hockey, is often a family affair. Kostka has already acknowledged that the passion and hockey knowledge he inherited came from his father. However, when it comes to the athleticism essential to succeeding in the sport, Kostka credits that to his whole family.
“I have an older sister who was a competitive swimmer growing up, my mom also swam and did track, so a pretty athletic family and athletic group. My sister and I were both pretty competitive in whatever we did. Swimming was her sport of choice and I took to hockey.”
Taking to hockey doesn’t mean instant success. Those who have played the sport know it’s a combination of perseverance, dedication and an undying love of the game that is required. While the vast majority of Canadian youth skate a similar path that includes being drafted by one of the Junior teams, for Kostka, his tale to “The Show” was a little different.
“I was a late bloomer, Junior wasn’t even an option for me. I wasn’t good enough at 16, 17, 18 to play in the OHL. I tried to stay the course, play provincial junior hockey and then was recruited by UMass.”
The college path that allowed Kostka to reach the NHL saw him skate through four years at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. UMass-Amherst, a member of the NCAA Division I Hockey East, is a school with a successful hockey history, having produced a handful of current NHL players including Justin Braun of the San Jose Sharks, Matt Irwin of the San Jose Sharks and Jonathan Quick of the LA Kings. A benefit of UMass was skating under storied coach Toot Cahoon, known throughout the Hockey East circles as a coach that transitioned UMass hockey into a skilled, competitive and fun team, season in and season out.
“Coach Cahoon taught us a lot about hockey, something he spoke about was learning about perspective and life.” commented Kostka. “He was a good coach but more than anything, he wanted you to be a good person.”
Though often the path less traveled, the full university experience was a positive for Kostka not just in on-ice development but off-ice as well.
“When you go to university and spend four years there, you do a lot of growing up and I felt like I grew a lot as a person while I was there.”
While university helped in Kostka’s development, two key components have proven consistent since the beginning for the 28-year-old Toronto native and it’s those two constants that deserve ultimate credit in Kostka’s story.
“My parents, they were always pushing me, motivating me and inspiring me. They continue to do so.”
In professional sports, if you haven’t made it to the big show by a certain age, critics may be quick to cut you from the roster. And it can be such negativity that causes a player to consider giving up. However, this was not an option for Kostka, and his refusal to give up allowed his dreams to persevere and his favorite memories to be made. He shared his most treasured of those memories.
“There are two that go hand in hand. One, making the NHL at age 27, getting to play my first game for the Leafs, a team that I grew up cheering for and loving. Then last season when I signed with the Blackhawks, they had just come off winning the cup and they kept seven defensemen, they weren’t sure if they were going to keep eight or not and I went in and found a spot on the roster. Those are things that I definitely cherish.”
A short offseason in terms of professional sports, a hockey player is never really off. Sure the summer may bring a break from the 82-game grind of the regular season, but most players have some sort of training going all the time. When not training though, because they are not rushing from game to game, players have an opportunity for much needed cerebral restoration allowing them to attack the new season with a fresh attitude.
“Usually I train Monday, Wednesday, Friday and I skate Tuesday, Thursday. But once that’s done, I roam around the city of Toronto. I go on adventures and try to seek out new places, new restaurants and that allows me to meet a ton of new people. Toronto is an awesome city and I know so little of it, I really like to get out and explore as much as I can – go to coffee shops, read and write.”
It’s easy for a spectator to see what a player brings to the ice. However, once the team is in the locker room, it’s often harder to see how they impact the team throughout the day to day grind.
“In my training, I take it more seriously, but there aren’t many times where you see me too serious. Even on the ice, I like to have fun. Every guy has what works for them, but for me, if I can crack jokes and talk to guys, it keeps me playing my best hockey. I’m not known for having much of a mean streak. I’m competitive, so don’t let the smile fool you. In general, the guy you see on the ice is similar to the guy you see off of it.”
Since the start of the Thor franchise, it’s become a common occurrence for people to mistake Kostka for a God, at least when it comes to his looks.
“It kind of started a couple of years ago. We were down in Houston, eating dinner one night and someone mentioned it. It may have been around the time that the first movie came out. Once the movies started coming out, the similarities became more and more recognized. I’ve had some fun with it on Halloween. The Blackhawks did a video this year, ‘Blackhawks at the Movies’ – but it’s kind of gotten out of control at this point. But, I get a chuckle out of it.”
Obviously there’s worse people to be mistaken for, and though he is working hard to succeed in hockey and be recognized for being Kostka, he accepts the mistaken identities in good spirit, some of which result in hilarious stories.
“One of the best stories, I was out in Calgary this year and after the game I went out with my sister and her husband to eat. We were sitting in our booth and there was a guy looking over and I got a feeling that he recognized me, not thinking for being Thor… he finally comes over, apologizes for bothering us and asks for an autograph. I of course said, sure, sure and we begin to track down the waitress to grab a pen and a piece of paper, the guy asks, ‘are you in town for a red carpet event or?’. We all start dying laugh and I say, ‘I’m sorry man, you’ve got the wrong guy.’ The guy says, ‘Oh, you’re not Thor, I’m so embarrassed.’ the guy was like “He’s a nobody” and he just walked away.”
One location where the resemblance may become an issue is Kostka’s new home for the season, New York City. On July 1st, he signed a one-year deal with the New York Rangers, a pliable fit as the team skates off a strong season, proving themselves to the hockey world as cup contenders.
“It’s a great hockey market, another Original Six team that’s coming off a very successful season. It’s such a cool city, I’ve been there a handful of times now and I’m excited to be part of an organization that’s so storied in history, they’re at a really fun time in their success right now. But on the other side of the spectrum, when I have days off, I’m excited to explore all that is New York.”
The environment will prove to be a positive setting for Kostka — defending the blueline and adding depth to an already stacked defensive roster, while hopefully bringing the fans a little more of the interaction that they tend to crave.
“I would like to add fun to the team, I did a mic’d up thing for Tampa and that was a lot of fun because it gives people a little more insight into what happens when you’re on the ice. In hockey, fans are behind the glass, you’re wearing a lot of equipment and it’s hard for them to see you as a person. I hope that shines through when I play, I hope they see that I’m getting enjoyment out of what I do.”
Enjoying what you do is a gift, one that Kostka has worked hard for, harboring his father’s advice throughout the years as he worked toward his goals.
“My father teaching me to be a dreamer, chasing anything really and knowing that there aren’t limits,” Kostka said when talking about the best advice he received. “You can write your own story and that’s what I’ve done, literally and figuratively what I’m doing.”
Perhaps Kostka will be helping the Rangers write their story, all the way to hoisting the cup.