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Former Minuteman Mike Kostka sees NHL dreams come true

Former University of Massachusetts hockey player Mike Kostka skates with the Calder Cup trophy for the Norfolk Admirals last season. Kostka signed with his hometown Toronto Maple Leafs in the offseason and is playing in the NHL for the first time.

Former University of Massachusetts hockey player Mike Kostka skates with the Calder Cup trophy for the Norfolk Admirals last season. Kostka signed with his hometown Toronto Maple Leafs in the offseason and is playing in the NHL for the first time. Purchase photo reprints »

Even after a collection of Toronto media surrounded his locker and asked him how it felt to make the Maple Leafs, the team he’d grown up rooting for, Mike Kostka wasn’t entirely convinced he’d finally made it.

Nobody in management had told the native of nearby Etobicoke, Ontario, anything and he’d been disappointed in the past. Before the 2011-12 season, the 27-year-old former University of Massachusetts defensemen appeared to have survived the last cuts for the Florida Panthers before getting bad news. He was trying out equipment only given to players who have made the team when he found out.

“It was kind of funny. They were giving me some new gear to try out. I came out of the training room with all this new gear in my hands and someone said the coaches want to talk to me,” he said. “I turned around, gave the gear back and I knew exactly what it meant.”

It meant another year in the American Hockey League. While his almost-Panthers teammates were headed for nice hotels, charter flights and the best hockey in the world, Kostka, who played four years at UMass, was headed for San Antonio, his fourth team in five AHL seasons. It was another year riding overnight sleeper buses to towns like Oklahoma City, Houston and Cedar Park (Texas) playing good hockey in relative obscurity.

But Kostka shook off any disappointment and had another strong year with seven goals and 25 assists and an impressive plus-28, splitting time between San Antonio and the Norfolk (Va.) Admirals where he was traded 18 games into the season.

He helped lead the Admirals to the Calder Cup, the AHL’s championship trophy.

Kostka will likely be on blooper reels well after his playing career ends for his game-winning goal in Game 3 of the best-of-seven finals. The Admirals were in a scoreless overtime with the Toronto Marlies. Looking for a line change, Kostka fired the puck from near center ice into the right wing side boards in the offensive zone. Expecting the puck to scoot into the corner, the Marlies goalie came out of his net to play the puck. Instead, it took an odd bounce and caromed back into the open net.

With the Maple Leafs out of the NHL playoffs, hockey-crazed Toronto had gotten behind the Marlies, the Leafs top farm club, and Kostka, who grew up a Maple Leaf fan, was a bad guy in their minds.

“I was part of the enemy at that time in the city,” he said chuckling.

While his one-in-a-million shot got him attention in the hockey world and even a spot in SportsCenter’s top plays, an extreme rarity for the AHL, his overall performance impressed Toronto management.

Kostka signed with the Maple Leafs in July and was in the midst of a strong season for the Marlies when the NHL ended its lockout and invited him to camp. He played well during the week-long session, but was afraid to get his hopes up even though a head injury to Jake Gardiner likely opened up a roster spot.

“After the last practice they made the last two cuts, I still wasn’t sure exactly what that meant because they hadn’t said anything to me,” he said. “When I got in the dressing room, all the reporters swarmed me saying, ‘How does it feel to make the team?’ I said, ‘If you know something that I don’t, please let me know.’ It was kind of a funny moment. I still didn’t entirely believe it. Not until I knew I was playing against Montreal (in the season opener), that’s when it finally kicked in.”

Kostka is one of four former Minutemen to make NHL rosters out of training camp. In addition to Conn Smythe Trophy winning goalie Jonathan Quick, who led the Los Angles Kings to the Stanley Cup last season, defensemen Justin Braun and Matt Irwin earned roster spots with the San Jose Sharks.

After making the team, the nervousness subsided. He had an assist in Saturday’s 2-1 win over the Canadiens and another in Monday’s 2-1 loss to Buffalo, while playing well on power plays, penalty kills and at even strength.

His local-boy-finally-achieves-NHL-dream-after-long-journey story has been a hit in Canada’s most populous city. He’s been featured in the Toronto Star — “Journeyman blueliner Mike Kostka no overnight sensation” — at Canada.com — “Mike Kostka a refreshing change from same old Leafs” — and on TSN (Canada’s answer to ESPN but with much, much more hockey). He’s tried not to focus on it

“It’s still surreal now thinking that’s how it started. I was so focused on what I had to do to play. I couldn’t get wrapped up in all the emotions of what that situation meant. Even now, we haven’t had much breathing room to think about it. Everyday we’ve either played or traveled. I probably won’t think about it until the season is over,” Kostka said from his Pittsburgh hotel room Tuesday night. Kostka had an assist in a 5-2 win over the Penguins Wednesday.

“You can’t get caught up in the emotion. Obviously it’s unbelievable and incredibly emotional for me to be given the opportunity from Toronto,” he continued. “I grew up a half hour outside of the city. They were the team I rooted for growing up. Then playing against Montreal in Montreal and beating them in my first game, I couldn’t have written it any better I guess.”

Even Don Cherry, the iconic, bombastic and colorful analyst for Hockey Night in Canada gushed about him.

“He was the best defenseman for the Toronto Maple Leafs bar none,” Cherry said during a HNIC broadcast. “I love these guys that come up from the American Hockey League. He paid his dues.”

After Cherry’s comments several family and friends emailed and texted.

“It’s pretty surreal because I obviously grew up watching Hockey Night in Canada and all the Don Cherry Rock’em Sock’em videos,” Kostka said.

Kostka’s novelty will wear off quickly. Like any rookie, especially one that the team didn’t invest a draft pick on or a lot of money in, Kostka will have to keep playing well to stay.

“The road I’ve taken has made me appreciate every single day. Moving forward, I still do. It’s a different experience for me than it would be for a kid that goes straight to the NHL at 18 or 19. I went through a lot of hard times and struggles in those years leading up to it. It makes it that much sweeter,” he said. “By no means do I feel comfortable. There’s no room to become comfortable. That’s the nature of the business. I’ve played two games and I feel like I played well but I don’t feel like I can relax. There’s no sense of complacency. Every night is an inner competition to play as well as I can.”

Matt Vautour can be reached at mvautour@gazettenet.com. Follow UMass coverage on Twitter at twitter.com/GazetteUMass. Get UMass coverage delivered in your Facebook news feed at www.facebook.com/GazetteUMassCoverage.

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