All-Star big brother home for weekend
Niko Porikos rattles off the names of hockey players like an encyclopedia.
There’s the story about when he started playing hockey.
“It was class of ’05 — Nystrom, Gajic, Woodford,” Porikos said. “I was actually a soccer player. That was my No. 1 sport by far. They kind of brainwashed me into starting hockey, and ever since then, I’ve never looked back.”
Ask him about what he did for fun this summer, and more names flow out.
“There was a wedding, Milan Gajic, he got married in (Los Angeles),” Porikos said. “Went down with the family for a couple weeks, made a little vacation out of it.
“The first (NTDP player) we had was (Andrew) Vlassopoulos, played for Colorado College after USA. He’s living in (Los Angeles) and we visited him while we were down there.”
The Porikos family has been in and around Michigan hockey for Niko’s whole life. He grew up with aspiring NHL players roaming around the house, hosting four different National Talent Development Program players. Youth soccer star or not, Porikos was always going to grow up a hockey player.
The sophomore walk-on may know everyone in the phone book, but his smile portrays a bit of his excitement about the All-Star he shared a house with this past weekend.
St. Louis Blues defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk headed to Ann Arbor last weekend as part of a team bonding trip, and didn’t waste an opportunity to spend time with the player he calls a little brother.
“I’ve been back plenty, still like to come and visit my old house,” Shattenkirk said. “We still keep in pretty close contact. It’s always cool to come back here and be able to see everyone.”
Added Porikos: “Saturday, I hung out with him for a few hours, just like old times. Just hung out on the couch watching TV.”
Host families, also known as billet families, are a common way for NTDP players, who live and train in Ann Arbor, to find housing as they play for America’s most prestigious junior hockey team. Shattenkirk and Porikos shared a house when Niko was in seventh and eighth grade.
“Pretty big years, hockey-wise,” Porikos said. “I am an only child too, so growing up, it was cool having older guys in the house to look up to.”
It didn’t hurt that Shattenkirk was a first-rate player for the NTDP team, drafted 14th overall by the Colorado Avalanche in 2007. In him and others, Porikos had older brothers to horse around with, and an inside look at what junior hockey is like at the highest level.
“There were a couple of skates where they had me come out and just mess around,” Porikos said. “(Shattenkirk) would come out to our team practices, too, once in a while. He was definitely into helping me out whenever I asked him anything about hockey or anything else.”
Shattenkirk played three years at Boston University and has played for the Blues since 2010. Coming off his first All-Star appearance, the 26-year-old was relaxed after practice in Ann Arbor alongside good friend Vladimir Tarasenko, who signed an eight-year deal with the team in the offseason.
“It’s really just nice to get away and have fun together,” Shattenkirk said. “We know that when we come to practice there are a lot of things we have to work on, and that for an hour and a half each day we have to put in the work. But for the most part, we’re here to get to know some of the new guys and come together and have some fun.”
Porikos is coming off a frustrating, injury-plagued year at Michigan. He still faces an uphill battle for a game-day roster spot, but he believes his timing and confidence have put him in a much better place this season.
Porikos and Shattenkirk try to see each other at least once a year, and Niko even went down to a Blues game with former Wolverine Dylan Larkin last spring.
There’s a story there too, of course. Larkin just made the Detroit Red Wings’ opening-day roster after leaving Michigan early, and will face Shattenkirk in St. Louis on Nov. 21. For now, though, Larkin joins Porikos’ ever-growing encyclopedia.