You don't get a lot of 27-year-old debuts in the NHL, but with Daniel Walcott's back story, it was a pretty easy one to cheer for.
The Tampa Bay Lightning left winger was a late-bloomer who took a very unorthodox path to the pros and he didn't just get to line up for the opening faceoff against the Florida Panthers Monday night; he got to do it as part of an all-Black line with teammates Gemel Smith and Mathieu Joseph - who also happen to be good friends with Walcott.
"They're all close buddies off the ice and part of the thinking was them having chemistry together," said coach Jon Cooper. "But as we move forward here as a league, you hope it isn't a story - it's a story today, but as the league gets diverse, you hope it becomes the norm; a league for everybody."
It's certainly a positive statement, one coming on the heels of AHL Ontario running an all-Black line of Quinton Byfield, Akil Thomas and Devante Smith-Pelly earlier in the season. For Tampa Bay's NHLers, it was a great opportunity.
"We were pretty happy," Joseph said. "It's a step in the right direction. We want to showcase our sport to our families and other People of Color. It was definitely awesome to be one of the guys for that and it came from the coaching staff, so it's great recognition for sure."
For Walcott, it was a double blessing since it was also his first NHL game ever.
"Coop did something really special," he said. "It's awesome to promote this for the young kids out there, the young minorities. Seeing Jarome Iginla wear the 'C' for Calgary was an inspiration for me and I always looked up to him. I just hope I can have the same effect on people."
Just knowing Walcott's path to the NHL should be enough for any kid dreaming of a future in hockey to believe in themselves.
As a youngster, he stopped playing hockey at one point because of the cost to his parents and played football before returning to the ice. A late bloomer, he played high school hockey in Illinois while living with his father in Chicago (Walcott is originally from Montreal). From there, he played ACHA club hockey at Lindenwood University in the St. Louis area and while skating for the Lions, he was scouted as a defenseman by the QMJHL's Blainville-Boisbriand Armada.
Walcott's success with the Armada the next season led to the NHL draft, where the New York Rangers took him in the fifth round of the 2014 class. Walcott played the next year with Blainville-Boisbriand again and earned himself QMJHL first team all-star honors in the process. In the summer of 2015 he was traded to Tampa Bay for a seventh-round pick and from that point on, Walcott forged his way in the pro ranks with the Lightning's AHL affiliate, the Syracuse Crunch. And now he is officially an NHLer.
"It was a whirlwind of emotion," Walcott said. "It's been a long time coming and I know a lot of people have been cheering me on for the past couple years and to get that starting lineup was pretty special."
Unfortunately for Walcott, one of the lasting images of the game was him being on the wrong side of a fight with Panthers defenseman Kevin Connauton, but as a Good Humble Hockey Player, the Lightning left winger took it all in stride.
"I'm the youngest of three boys so being a punching bag has been in my childhood," he said. "I like to mix it up - he got me with some good ones there, good on him - but I like to be in the middle of the action and that's as close as I can get. I was just happy to be out there, sticking up for my teammates."
The icing on top would have been for Walcott's family to have been in the stands, but the cruel realities of a pandemic landscape made it too difficult for his Canadian kin to travel for the event. But given how long Walcott grinded just to get to that moment, it goes without saying the game was special for all involved, even if they had to watch his debut on TV.
"It felt good, it felt like a relief," Walcott said. "We made it."