STOCKHOLM – Scott Arniel figures he has two chances to make his NHL coaching debut.
The new Columbus Blue Jackets coach takes charge of his first regular-season games Friday and Saturday in a double-header against the San Jose Sharks in Stockholm, part of the league’s annual European tour. Arniel then gets his first game in front of the home fans against the Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks on Oct. 15.
Not exactly an easy start to his NHL coaching career, but Arniel couldn’t be more excited.
“For me I get a couple of big thrills. Playing here Friday night, my first NHL game. My family’s flying in tomorrow for the game,” Arniel told The Associated Press on Wednesday.
“Then we go home, my first home game against the Blackhawks, 10th-year anniversary (for the club) in front of that crowd. I get another thrill going home to do that. I feel like a kid.”
Arniel left the Manitoba Moose of the AHL to become the Blue Jackets’ fifth coach in what is its 10th season in the league. Ken Hitchcock was fired during a disappointing last season in which the Blue Jackets failed to make the playoffs.
Arniel said the playoffs are his goal, even though Columbus has made few changes to its roster. At least the trip to Europe—which included a 4-1 victory over Swedish club Malmo Redhawks on Tuesday—has given him a chance to get more familiar with that roster.
“When you’re out together you get to know the player, you get to know more than the hockey player,” Arniel said. “You get to know the personalities, all that stuff and that’s where the jokes happen and the fun things come about.”
Columbus and San Jose will alternate as home team for the Stockholm games at the 13,500-capacity Globen Arena. With five Swedish players on the ice, there should be plenty of reasons for the local fans to cheer for either team.
The Blue Jackets have three Swedes in Anton Stralman, Kristian Huselius and Samuel Pahlsson, while the Sharks have Douglas Murray and Niclas Wallin.
“It’s always exciting, coming from here and playing in front of the Swedish crowd,” Stralman said. “We’ve got a new coaching staff and a brand new system going on. Obviously it took a little while to adjust to and get everybody on the same page but I think it’s a good system.”
Wallin said that he’s looking forward to putting on a good show in front of his home crowd.
“I’ve got 14 people coming down Friday and Saturday and I got another probably 50 or 60 people who have been asking for tickets,” he said.
Murray said he’s happy to be in Sweden, but acknowledged that an overseas trip can be draining just ahead of the regular-season start.
“It’s exciting obviously. I haven’t played here in a lot of years, and it’s good to have the friends and family around,” Murray said. “It has its positives and negatives.”
Sharks coach Todd McLellan said the success of the European trip will be judged by how many points the team takes back across the Atlantic.
“It’s a game that’s finally going to count,” McLellan said. “The fact that we’re together, there’s not many distractions from home, has been a real positive. With it comes negatives, obviously the time change, the wear and tear of travel, practising in an unfamiliar arenas.”
One of the Sharks’ new acquisitions is goalie Antti Niemi, who helped the Blackhawks eliminate San Jose in the playoffs last season. Niemi said he expects his new team to be challenging for the Stanley Cup and hopes to keep the form that helped him to the title.
“I want to get to play a lot,” Niemi said. “It all just comes if I can play as well as I think I can.”
It’s the fourth straight year that the NHL regular season is opening on two continents. This time a record six teams are getting started with two games outside North America. Carolina plays Minnesota in Helsinki on Thursday and Friday, while Phoenix takes on Boston in a doubleheader in Prague on Saturday and Sunday.