Home Away From Home
Vermont's Luukko Adds to Interesting Experiences
by Adam Wodon/Managing Editor
PHILADELPHIA Imagine you've grown up with an NHL hockey arena as your second home. Your dad essentially runs the building, is an executive with the NHL team, and you learned to skate while rubbing shoulders with the likes of John Leclair and Keith Primeau.
The team even drafts you.
And then you play your first game at this building, sold out crowd, and you get booed.
Such was Nick Luukko's Saturday night.
"I never really thought my first game at the Wells Fargo Center I'd get booed," Luukko said. "And they said my name, and everyone said 'sucks.' That was pretty funny."
Luukko, a sophomore defenseman for Vermont, was with the Catamounts as they played Saturday against Penn State, a fledgling program, but one with an enormous built-in fan base throughout Pennsylvania.
The game was originally arranged by Luukko's father, Peter, the President and Chief Operating Officer of Comcast-Spectacor, the parent company of the Philadelphia Flyers and operator of the Wells Fargo Center. Penn State's program was born around the same time Nick Luukko committed to Vermont, and it immediately became clear to Peter Luukko how good an idea it would be to bring it all together.
Because of Luukko's connection to Vermont, the Catamounts were made the home team. Problem is, anywhere you go in the state of Pennsylvania, Penn State alumni and fans will come out in droves to support their team. They could care less that a Flyers executive's son is playing for the other team. So when all the players were announced before the game, all of the Catamounts got the same treatment any visitor would get.
"It is what it is, you just laugh at it," he said.
All of that was in good fun as far as Nick Luukko was concerned, even if his team lost 4-2. Although it was undeniably silly for the Flyers' brass to treat Vermont as the home team (even if it technically was), going so far as to have the PA announcer whoop it up while saying "your Vermont Catamounts." With 95 percent of the crowd cheering for Penn State, who were they kidding?
But it was still "home" for Luukko, no matter what.
"It was a great experience," Luukko said. "I had a lot of fun with it. We didn't get the outcome we wanted, but it was something I'll always remember.
"My dad used to bring me into work with him and just throw me on the ice and he'd got to the office. ... It was a ton of influence (on me). You grow up around it. I loved being on the ice, being in the locker room, seeing the guys and their lifestyle. You say, 'I want to be like that one day.'"
Luukko will potentially have a chance at redemption one day, this time in the uniform of the home team. Luukko was drafted by the Flyers in the sixth round of last year's NHL Draft.
That might seem like a storybook tale, but it was more of a nightmare for Luukko at first. With his father essentially the boss of Flyers general manager Paul Holmgren, albeit one who stays out of hockey personnel matters, it was easy to make charges of nepotism in the selection. But anyone who knows Paul Holmgren, knows that he wouldn't kow-tow to anyone, not even his boss.
"It was definitely a different experience compared to everyone else's draft," Luukko said. "It was a little awkward at first but I kinda got used to it. I just play the way I play, and try to prove everyone wrong.
"Throughout the whole year, I was on the rankings (lists) and stuff, and (Peter Luukko) just told Paul Holmgren, 'Hey, we don't want to draft him. I want him to make it on his own.' On draft day, he didn't have much of a say on that. He was (actually) pretty pissed off about that at first."
It took just one phone call, however, for things to change.
"I was kinda down at first," Luukko said. "I remember (Holmgren) called me and he said, 'Hey, we think you're a great player. We didn't draft you because of your dad and we're really looking forward to your future.' So that made me feel a lot better."
Luukko didn't feel great, though, about losing the game Saturday. Penn State, in its first season as a Division I program, has shown a propensity to get up for big games, and it certainly did so against Vermont.
"It's tough. We've had some injuries this year and there's some games we'd like to have back," Luukko said. "But we're a pretty young team. We're learning from our experiences and our future is bright."
But like the Wells Fargo Center is a second home, Burlington is certainly now a home away from home for Luukko.
"I definitely want to stay in school. I love Vermont, I love the coaching staff, Burlington's a great town. I'm in no rush."