As far as summer signings go, Michael Kostka’s announced arrival on July 19 didn’t make many headlines. Since training camp opened, however, the 27-year-old defenseman has quietly played his way into contention for a spot on the Blackhawks’ opening-night roster—just like he did last season with the Toronto Maple Leafs, after nearly five years toiling in the American Hockey League. Along the way, Kostka tells chicagoblackhawks.com, he has not only matured his game, but also nurtured his sense of adventure.
You waited a long time to get to the NHL, but you made it last year and got to play alongside guys like Dion Phaneuf. How has your game grown from that experience?
I played four and a half years in the American League, and after having made it, there’s always a bit of relief that you’re actually going to get the opportunity. It’s been years and years of hard work to put myself in the position to hopefully get that that opportunity, and a lot of guys can attest to the fact that it does come down to timing, once you’ve gotten yourself to a point where you think you can play. That whole experience was really good for me—for my confidence, but also to grow as a player. Guys are better, faster, stronger, and it’s obviously a better league to test your skills in at that level. I was able to log some big minutes in Toronto and really adapt to that level and evolve my game.
Is there a difference in your learning approach now that you’ve entered the NHL, compared to maybe being a veteran presence in the AHL?
Your role changes a little bit. You go from being a veteran to a rookie pretty quickly. You don’t feel like you’ve changed at all, but that’s kind of the dynamic of things. There’s a little more sitting back and seeing how things are, because things usually operate a little differently. The league is better, and there are more learning opportunities just because of the pace of playing at that next level, so I did take a lot of time to jut sit back and absorb as much as I could.
What’s your favorite memory from playing in the minors?
Winning the Calder Cup [in 2012] with that team in Norfolk. We won our last 28 games to finish the regular season, 29 in a row including that first playoff game. I was really fortunate; I ended up getting traded to that team in December and came into a really good situation with an awesome group of guys, which culminated in winning the Calder Cup in pretty nice fashion. I still keep in touch with a lot of those guys; I’m really close to them.
Has the fact that you took such a winding road made you more patient going into this year’s training camp, or do you still get nervous?
It definitely helps with your preparation for it. I just really try to come in and have fun and enjoy it, because I know that if I don’t, I’ll be too tight and not be able to perform. That being said, I’m still not immune to the nerves and how tough it can be, waiting day in and day out, especially right now, when we’re coming down to the wire. When you’re around the rink it’s pretty easy, but when you get back to the hotel, the wheels can start spinning a little bit, so I’ve been trying to keep as busy as possible.
Looking at your numbers, you’ve been primarily an offensive-minded defensemen throughout your career. Is that what you pride your game on?
I might have leaned a little more to the offensive side, but over the years, especially in the American league, I’ve tried to round out my game, so I do take pride in being an all-around player. When I got called up [to the Leafs] last year, they didn’t rely on me too much for offense and wanted me to play a safe, defensive game; I blocked a lot more shots and tried to embrace more of a shutdown role. Naturally I am a little more offensive, and I think that’s one of the things that attracted me to coming here. [The Blackhawks] play a pretty quick puck-moving game that I felt would mesh well with my style.
Did that help you adapt when you had to play as a forward last weekend in Detroit?
That wasn’t easy—I haven’t played a game at forward for probably 20 years. It was a lot of learning in a short period of time, but I was messing with the forwards a bit, saying, “It’s easy, you don’t have to think when you’re out there, you just gotta work hard and skate around.” It was fun, but one of the trainers said to me after the game, “You’re a much better defenseman.”
What’s your overall impression of the organization and the team so far?
It’s unbelievable. I’ve been a part of a handful of organizations now, and you can tell there’s a winning culture here. From top to bottom, it’s run really well and efficiently. It might be one of the biggest pet peeves of hockey players—or anyone for that matter—when they feel like their time is being wasted, and there’s definitely none of that going on here. There’s a really good balance and what seems to be a really, really good group of guys.
You’ve been staying at a hotel here in Chicago throughout the preseason. Have you gotten to explore the city at all?
On some of my afternoons, I’ve been going on a few walks and exploring as much as I can. I’ve technically been to Chicago to play the Wolves, but you’re in and out, and their team isn’t downtown, so I’ve never gotten to experience the city [before now]. So far I’ve gone to Wrigley Field and U.S. Cellular Field, and those were both really cool. The whole layout of the city and how it’s on the water is similar to Toronto in that regard. When I first got here, the weather was really nice, and it’s still great. I haven’t been able to see too much, so I hope I can stick around and enjoy a little more of it.
What did you do over the summer before you arrived for training camp?
At the end of the season, I took a little road trip to Prince Edward Island, went from there to Calgary to visit my sister, and then I went fishing in Saskatoon. So it was kind of a Canadian swing, which was awesome. Then I spent some time in Toronto training. I had a broken finger at the end of the year, so I couldn’t really do much for the first month. I wasn’t able to golf or do any of those other things that I wanted to, so once I came back from the trip, I really just hunkered down and spent it training and getting ready for camp.
Your Twitter blurb says, “I haven’t been everywhere, but it’s on my list.” It sounds like you’re pretty adventurous?
That’s gone hand in hand with the way my career has gone. This will be my seventh team in six years, and [I like] being able to travel that much and just in general. Wherever I am, I like to try to explore as much as I can to try to get the most out of the city. I came across that quote, I forget where it was, but I really liked it and felt like it resonated with me, so it’s up there for now.
[Ed. note: The quote comes from Susan Sontag, the late critic and essayist.]
Let’s talk about your hair, which earned you the nickname “Thor” among Toronto fans. Have you always gone for the long flow look?
I’ve kind of gone back and forth through the years, starting with university. I tend to grow it out for a year, then shave it off, and go back and forth. I think three years ago I had it long and I’ve kept it long since. It’s kind of funny, because I had the look first, and then [Thor actor Chris Hemsworth] had to come and steal my thunder...pun intended.
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