Keegan Kolesar has officially ‘made it’. Cracking the National Hockey League’s Vegas Golden Knights as the 13th forward out of training camp, the 23-year-old has since found his place within the lineup of one of the league’s very best teams.
No, it’s not a first-line offensive role alongside fellow Winnipegger Mark Stone. Nor is it on a shutdown defensive pairing with Sioux Valley Dakota Nation’s Zach Whitecloud.
For now, the 6-foot-2, 230-pound winger is nestled in tightly with the team’s bottom-six forward group. Fitting well into the Vegas mold, Kolesar continues to learn how to play a full 200-foot game at the NHL level, while maintaining his particular skillset that actually landed him the job in the first place.
“I take pride in defending myself and my teammates,” Kolesar told Game On. “I respect anyone else who plays that same way too. In one of my earlier fights, (Austin) Wagner didn’t like the hit I put on (Lias) Andersson, and a couple games before that I didn’t like the hit that (Dakota) Joshua put on Reavo. So there is kind of a code with that for sure. If someone is willing to do that for me, I am definitely willing to do that for someone else.”
Luckily for the former Winnipeg Thrashers U-18 AAA star, the Golden Knights organization is one to treat all of its players with incredible levels of care, no matter their age, experience, skillset and most importantly, their race. As a Black hockey player in Vegas, Kolesar has been able to turn to fellow Manitoban Ryan Reaves, when it comes to issues that he is facing – both on and off the ice.
“It’s awesome to see what Reavo has done in the community,” Kolesar reflected. “He has done a lot of charity work here and he’s trying to build the game for all races. And it’s very inspiring to see. He is someone that, if I ever have a question, I will go to him right away and he’ll have an answer for me. He’s a very approachable guy, very easy to talk to.”
Inclusion has become a hot topic within the many professional sporting leagues in both North America and overseas. But inclusion within one’s team is also an often under-appreciated attribute when it comes to seasonal play. In taking Kolesar under his wing, the 34-year-old Reaves has shown the rookie just how much it means to have another truculent role player waiting in the trenches.
“Reavo definitely gives me some tips if he sees something that he likes or doesn’t like,” the first year forward laughed. “I think in one of the fights he was kind of coaching me. He was like, “uppercut, uppercut! Hit him high!” so he was kind of teaching me my way around that. But yeah, we know some of the same people from Winnipeg as well too, so it didn’t take too long for us to talk about those things and get to know each other better. And again, being teammates, you just get to know guys better and you become closer with them on a personal level.”
Unfortunately, with COVID-19 putting a halt to the better half of all team bonding activities that NHL players tend to participate in when on the road, teams have had to get creative in the process.
“Some places on the road we actually have to take our meals and eat them in our room, or we have to eat them outside on what would be considered a patio,” he said. “We just try to be around each other as much as we can be, because most other times we have to be alone in our rooms. I do miss that though; going out on the road is usually the best time to really get to know a guy. You go to dinner with them, grab a few beers, have some food, and just kind of shoot the breeze. But we have just had to find ways around it here.”
Kolesar, who has been known to tee-off a time or two from Manitoba’s beautiful Larters at St. Andrews is just thankful that governing officials have allowed the Golden Knights to enjoy some down time while hitting the links in the desert.
“Honestly, we try to do as much as we can as a team within the COVID protocols,” he added. “Luckily enough, being in the desert we can golf year round, so we try to take advantage of that as much as we can whenever the schedule allows it. We got approved for that, thank God, because at the start we were allowed it, but then it was taken away, and then we just got it back not too long ago. So it’s very nice to get that back as it’s just starting to heat up here in Vegas.”
With Manitobans currently enjoying record highs with the earliest spring thaw in recent memory, Kolesar doesn’t need to be reminded what he is missing back home.
“Oh trust me, I know.” he said of many Manitoba-based golf courses setting opening day records in late-March. “I’m in like 12 different group chats back home in Winnipeg, and the boys are just going crazy with this warm weather from what I’m seeing.”
But it’s not like he’s missing out on much. Rather, it’s his friends who haven’t been able to watch Kolesar skate at Bell MTS Place this season, due to the closure of borders and the NHL’s divisional play structure.
Within the newly-formed West Division, the Golden Knights are currently one-point clear of the second-place Colorado Avalanche, while maintaining a league-best 24-8-1 record and .742 points percentage on the season.
“We have been playing very good hockey and are hoping we hit our stride right now,” he said. “We are finding ways to win on different nights in different ways; we want to keep that going forward. Obviously, with the trade deadline coming up soon, teams are going to start adding depth to their lineups, but we want to still be a top contender in our division and push that to the playoffs and accomplish our end goal of winning a Stanley Cup.”
Personally, Kolesar has been able to dress in 28 of the team’s 33 games to date, collecting five assists, 30 penalty minutes (by way of four fighting majors) and his very first NHL goal – a memory that the former Seattle Thunderbird will not soon forget.
“It was surreal,” Kolesar reflected. “I’m still going through all the texts and messages that I have received the past couple days. “Hockey is small brotherhood but it spans very far. People I’ve played one game with in my career, guys I played bantam and AA with, they reached out. All my coaches have reached out; veterans in my rookie year who I thought would never remember me reached out and gave me a congratulations. I feel really honoured to have that much support from everyone.”
And on the goal itself, the soon-to-be 24-year-old said that with emptier arenas, more chatter can be heard from the bench, which just so happened to be the first place he looked upon potting career tally No. 1.
“Oh it was an unbelievable feeling, and I’ve had a lot of chances this season, so it felt really great to get it finally,” he laughed. “I think the reaction from myself and the bench said it all. The boys knew how excited I was; it looked like the crowd cheering for Rudy when he gets into his first play. Everyone was just really happy for me, so it just shows how tight of a team we are and how great it is.”
Unbeknownst to Kolesar, 72-year-old Dan Ruettiger – whose story inspired the 1993 classic ‘Rudy’ – was actually in attendance at T-Mobile Arena and dressed in a green Golden Knights No. 45 sweater for Kolesar’s goal.
Talk about coincidence.
Now with 23 games left to play in the shortened 2020-21 regular season, Kolesar and his Vegas running mates will look to keep the ball rolling as the team enters a new stage in which players have begun receiving COVID-19 vaccinations. With the potential for some mild side effects on the horizon, the Golden Knights’ youngster isn’t showing any signs of intimidation. And considering where he’s come from, it’s justified.
“Looking back from now to the start of the year, from being the 13th forward to now playing as many games as I have, scoring my first goal and getting the opportunity that I have, it feels amazing,” he said. “As a kid you dream about making the NHL, and I’m in that spot right now. I couldn’t be more happy.”