PITTSBURGH—Erik Cernak had to remind himself it's still hockey. The Lightning's 21-year-old defenseman was nervous going into his first NHL game, but a good nervous just like anyone else going into his first day on a new job.
But this wasn't just any first day on just any new job for Cernak. This was the dream.
"I think that was my best feeling in my life stepping into my first NHL game," Cernak said after Tuesday's game. "You're always dreaming about playing in the NHL and today it's come. It's a dream come true."
What does a prospect's first call up to the NHL look like?
For Cernak, it started with a call from general manager Julien BriseBois on Monday afternoon. The first thing he did, of course, was call his family. Cernak started with his parents, then his brother and sister. They are all back in Slokavia and clearly couldn't make the game. They watched his big moment on TV.
"The first call, right away was my parents," Cernak said. "They've helped me so much. That was the best feeling."
Cernak still had support in the stands, though. He played junior hockey in Erie, Pa., about 90 minutes from Buffalo. His billet family, who he lived with at the time, made the short drive for his big moment.
Then Cernak quickly packed for the week, while the Syracuse Crunch staff gathered his hockey gear, and hit the road. Brigid Heslin, the Crunch marketing manager, drove Cernak the two and a half hours to Buffalo.
Driving with someone he knew helped keep the nerves at bay.
"She was asking questions and talking with me," Cernak said. "So I think that was great."
Once he got to the hotel, Cernak found former Crunch teammates Anthony Cirelli and Mathieu Joseph. He knew most of the team from training camp, but having played with a couple of guys last season helps fit in with a new group.
"I was always thinking, 'It is the same game, it is all the same,' Cernak said of game day. "It's the highest level, this is the best league in the world. I was thinking about, 'How is it going to feel, what am I going to do?' I was a little nervous but it was a good feeling."
Turned out, Cernak was going to do just fine. He was paired with Ryan McDonagh and played 17 minutes. The coaches were complimentary of him and his play.
Jon Cooper used the word great. He thought the speed was no problem for Cernak, and that's usually the biggest adjustment for anyone coming up to the NHL from another league.
"He handled it extremely well," said assistant coach Derek LaLonde. "He had confidence, he had poise, he skated, he reacted very well to every situation. We really like him, as a coaching staff, we understand it's a process. He's still young, he's growing. (Defensemen) take a little bit longer. What he went through last night, me coming from the American Hockey League, that never gets old."
LaLonde coached the AHL's Iowa Wild last season, so he relates to someone getting his first NHL game. Most of the coaching staff spent time in the AHL, so they've been on the other side and they know the uncertainty.
Cernak was told to pack for the week, so that's what he did. A player called up never knows how long he'll be in the NHL. Sometimes it's a game and then returning to the less-glamorous life of the AHL. Other times, you end up with the team for a month and need to buy clothes.
He still has an apartment full of his belongings in Syracuse. With Anton Stralman, whose injury led to Cernak's recall, returning to the ice for Wednesday's practice, it's unclear what Cernak's immediate future looks like.
But no matter what happens, Cernak has had a taste and everyone in the organization expects to see more from him.