VIRGINIA — Matt Niskanen found out Sunday he has a lot of dedicated fans.
The Washington Capitals defenseman and Stanley Cup champion brought the NHL championship trophy to the Miners Memorial Arena for a public viewing and supporters began lining up early.
Ben Harkonen of Virginia arrived at the Miners parking lot about 11 hours before the event was slated to start.
“It was well worth the wait,’’ said Harkonen. “I got here at midnight last night and slept in the car.’’ He added he woke up to a guy putting his chairs out at 6:30 a.m. and Harkonen ended up second in line.
Why was he willing to wait all night?
“I’m a diehard Caps fan, that’s what I am,’’ said Harkonen, who has supported the team for the last 10 years. “And just to see ‘Nisky’ win the Cup for the hometown, it was awesome to see.’’
For an hour before the public session, Niskanen was able to share the cup with family and his closest friends.
The private celebration of sharing photos and stories and receiving a key to the City of Virginia, “was a special, special moment,’’ the 2005 Mountain Iron-Buhl graduate said.
Other than being with his family, Niskanen said “taking a picture with my two high school coaches (Keith Hendrickson and Gary Cornell) is pretty special to me. They’ve been a part of my journey for a long time.’’
Bringing the Stanley Cup back to where his career started as a youth hockey player will be something he’ll never forget, he said at a post-event press conference inside the Miners in Virginia.
“It’s a special, special place. It means a lot to me. I spend my summers here. I plan to retire here. My kids will go to school here. This is home. I come back every year for a reason. Good people live here.’’
“It’s a special, special feeling right now being on this floor,’’ he added.
Getting to see Niskanen bring home the Stanley Cup was a great experience for John Kemppainen, who served as public address announcer at the Miners when the young star was coming up through the ranks.
“It was a pleasure watching him on the ice because you could see in ninth grade there was something there. There was potential. I could see it,’’ Kemppainen said.
He also considered himself lucky coach Niskanen in American Legion baseball for two years, as well. The hockey player was a pretty good baseball player, too, he said. “He could do anything.’’
Kemppainen got his photo with Niskanen and the Stanley
Cup, which was a great moment.
“I’m just thrilled for the young man because of what he’s done for this community. He’s one heck of a gentleman and he’s a very nice person, simple as that. That’s all I can say.’’
While winning a Stanley Cup is a rare occurrence for any team, Kemppainen talked to Niskanen about that.
“I told Matt I hope you bring it back next year. I said don’t forget.’’
What was Niskanen’s reaction?
“He started laughing,’’ Kemppainen said.
Nearly all of the fans on hand watched the Stanley Cup playoffs and finals, hoping Niskanen and the Capitals could win the NHL’s top prize.
“We’re just real proud of Niskanen that’s for sure,’’ said Rick Flatley of Virginia, who had two of his children with him. “I’ve been watching him since high school. These boys have been fans of his. He’s (son Isaac) been a fan of the Caps for many years.’’
“I just thought that was really cool that someone from our town won the cup and could bring it over here,’’ said Flatley’s son Levi, 11.
“It’s just kind of cool that somebody around here that you can look up to won the Stanley Cup,’’ said Isaac Flatley, 13.
Seeing the cup again was kind of a nostalgic thing for Rick Flatley, who was wearing a 1995 New Jersey Devils championship T-shirt. “Twenty-three years Mike Peluso brought it to Greenway. That’s the last time I touched the cup was 23 years ago when he brought it back.’’
Watching hockey over the years has also been a family activity, the elder Flatley said.
“One of the things I like about it is there’s not a lot good stuff on TV these days and we can sit down as a family (he is married with five children) ... We can sit down at night and watch hockey together. It’s great that Niskanen brought that excitement to our family.’’
Speaking about his 1995 experience seeing the cup, he added that it was a special time. “It’s stuff that you talk about for years to come.’’ In another 23 years, he will no doubt be talking about Niskanen’s visit as well, he said.
Deb Manninen of Ely Lake brought her two grandsons to view the Stanley Cup and the two young hockey players were thrilled.
Grandson Nick Manninen of Buffalo, Minn., said he “was really excited. It was a long wait, but it was really fun.’’
“Well worth it,’’ his grandma said.
Jack Manninen, 12, of Virginia, has been fortunate enough to see Niskanen at the Virginia Hockey Camp in the past and at a recent autograph session. One special occasion for Jack was two winters ago when Niskanen showed up to visit his youth hockey team when they were practicing at the Northside rink.
Getting to see the Stanley Cup Sunday took it to another level, he added. “It’s cool’’ seeing the cup in his hands. “It’s good to see people around here winning stuff.’’
The press conference allowed Niskanen to relay just how exceptional the whole experience has been.
“It’s pretty special. I’m a believer in that nobody deserves to win, but it sure feels good that we finally did it. We had some good teams and we finally found a way to get to the finals and win. What a cool tradition that everyone gets to bring it to wherever they want for a day during the summer. ... There’s no other place that I’d rather bring it than right here to the Miners in Virginia. It’s going to be a fun day.’’
He wouldn’t say exactly where the Stanley Cup would be traveling on his day, but he did state it would be going to Lake Vermilion for a private event and to a few other public spots for brief periods.
Asked about being close to winning NHL conference finals in the past, Niskanen said he has been in the playoffs a lot and been on a lot of good teams.
Everything was even better in 2018 for the Capitals.
“What a special group we had this spring in Washington. That’s something I will remember forever, that bond that those guys shared, how well we played.’’
Looking back on June 7th when he and Washington won the Stanley Cup, Niskanen said he remembers one memory the most.
“The moment we won. Jumping around like a little kid. Screaming with all my teammates huddled around the net there. Hugging everyone. That three or four minutes ... I’ll never forget that feeling.’’
He couldn’t predict how winning it all would feel, but it was everything he expected.
“I lost my voice right away, I started crying and all kinds of good stuff. It was quite the feeling.’’