In the zone

HELSINKI – Of all the skills that Mikael Granlund has, and of all the gifts he has, the ability to be in the moment, to live in the now, may just be his biggest, and the most important one.

That’s why he was able to hone his stickhandling skills for hours on end as a kid. That’s what’s helped him keep his feet on the ground during the media frenzy around him the last few years, and that’s why it’s easy to believe him when he says that he hasn’t thought about playing in front of his home fans at the World Championship in May.

After all, Mikael Granlund says that when he’s in the zone, he doesn’t even remember his last shift, and doesn’t hear what the crowd’s yelling, or what the other players are saying to him on the ice.

Carpe diem.

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What would Hulk Hogan do?

Last week, when I saw the YouTube video of Scott Hartnell making his then-famous now-forgotten – nothing personal, Scottie, that’s just the way things go these days – Hulk Hogan impersonation, I thought of a friend of mine who did the same thing 20 years ago.

Only, he wasn’t doing it in front of 15 000 people, or to a guy dressed up as Hulk Hogan. He did it in an ice cold hockey rink 50 kilometers west of Helsinki, Finland, in front of 200 people, and purely out of frustration and to get back at every single one of those 150 people in the stands.

The Team.

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Blood, sweat and fears

“You’ve got big dreams? You want fame? Well, fame costs. And right here is where you start paying in sweat.”
– “Lydia Grant”, dance instructor in “Fame”

Yes, I’m old enough to not only admit to remembering “Fame”, the 1980s hit TV series, but also having liked the show. Now, rushing home on Sunday afternoons so I could watch Danny and Bruno and Leroy, and of course Valerie, Coco and Lori work on their art, and get their lives straight, wasn’t something I told my teammates, but then again, since nobody talked about it, maybe I wasn’t the only fan of the show. All I know, “Fame” was never discussed in the locker room.

I’ve quoted “Lydia Grant’s” – played by Debbie Allen – words many times over the years, sometimes jokingly, but most often seriously, because it’s true. Fame does cost, and the price is sweat.


Continue reading Teemu and Saku

HELSINKI – The stars were almost perfectly aligned on Monday night when the Anaheim Ducks played against the Colorado Avalanche. Teemu Selanne scored his 22nd goal of the season, with a wrist shot from the faceoff circle like so many times before, passing fellow countryman and childhood idol Jari Kurri on the NHL’s all-time scoring list to become the highest-scoring Finn in the history of the NHL.

The game was also Saku Koivu’s 1000th regular season game in the NHL, the 274th player in the league history to reach that point.

Between the two of them, Koivu and Selanne have been a big part of the finest moments of Finnish hockey history, both individually, and together. Koivu was an integral part of the historic 1995 World Championship team, Selanne broke records in the NHL, and together they’ve won 1998 Olympic bronze, 1999 World Championship silver, 2004 World Cup silver, 2006 Olympic silver, 2008 World Championship bronze, and 2010 Olympic bronze.

Numero uno.

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No room for error

Pressure – pushing down on me
Pressing down on you, no man ask for
Under pressure – that burns a building down
Splits a family in two
Puts people on streets

– Queen, “Under pressure”

The playoff race is on, and for many teams, that means that the pressure, too, is on. But going for a playoff spot and missing it, while sure a disappointing experience, is nothing compared to the pressure that a team trying to avoid relegation feels.

Even with the pressure, a missed playoff spot is just a missed opportunity to get to the throne. Life goes on.

A relegation from the top division, on the other hand, is the end, a complete dismissal from the court, a disaster on all levels.

Couldn't deal with the pressure.

Continue reading Long way to the top

Every year, stars are born. Many of them against some long odds.

A few years ago, a 24-year-old goaltender named Jonas Gustavsson broke the Elitserien shutout record in his first full season, having played mostly in Swedish second and third divisions before then. He finished the season with a bronze medal around his neck as he returned from the 2009 IIHF World Championship in Berne, Switzerland, and then signed with the Toronto Maple Leafs as a free agent.

He wasn’t the first great goaltender to emerge from out of nowhere, and he likely won’t be the last. Just last Sunday, after the final game of the Oddset Hockey Games between Finland and Sweden in Stockholm, the teams stood on the blueline waiting for the best players of both teams to get their prizes at center ice. As it happened, both stars chosen were goaltenders.

Late bloomer.

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Rebel yell

It’s funny how some small things from the past stick to mind when, especially in retrospect, there’s nothing really truly special about that particular moment. For me, one of those moments came in a road hockey game in the backyard of our apartment building in Helsinki.

I didn’t usually take the sticks I used in real games to road hockey games, because I wanted to save them, but that one Koho had the perfect blade for me, and it made my wrist shots better than ever. And I thought I’d need my best shot in the game that awaited.

Well, it wasn’t really a game, it was just me and one friend, my best friend, taking turns shooting, and being in goal. Armed with just hockey goalie’s gloves, but no shin pads, the best bet would have been to shoot low, but who wants to shoot low when you can go topshelf?

Especially with a good stick.

Ilkka in Norway

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Wrist and shout

Recently, I’ve been tracking down former Team Finland players, collecting their stories of how they broke into the national team. Last night, at a game, I sat next to Petri Skriko who played his first national team games thirty years ago, in the spring of 1981. He was one of the last players to get cut from the Helsinki World Championships team in the 1982, so he set his sights on the 1984 Olympics instead.

“In December 1983, we played an exhibition game against Czechoslovakia in Finland, before leaving for the annual Izvestija Cup in Moscow,” Skriko said.


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Under the stars

And that was the second Finnish Winter Classic. A real Helsinki derby, with the reds, IFK, taking on the whites, Jokerit, in front of 35 000 people in the Helsinki Olympic Stadium. The home team, IFK, won the game in a shootout, 3-2. And you know there’s magic in the air when the nicest play of the game is Jarkko Ruutu’s forehand-backhand deke in the shootout.

Last year, the home team – then Jokerit – lost the game so IFK is now 2-0 in their outdoor games in the SM-liiga.

While the February 2011 derby was the first outdoor game in the Finnish league history, it wasn’t that long ago the Finnish top teams still battled for points while battling against snow and freezing cold. The league was founded in 1975, as an entity divorced from the federation.

Back then, the first indoor arena in the country was just ten years old. In the early 1970s, several of the rinks were converted into arenas, and surprisingly many are still – after renovations – home arenas to Finnish league teams.

That old rink.

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Catch a rising tsar

When I was 17, many moons ago, I lived in a small Finnish town called Joensuu, in the eastern part of the country, about an hour from the Russian border. Except that it wasn’t the Russian border, it was the Soviet border, and it wasn’t such a big of a deal. There’s nothing on the other side of the border, anyway, just forest. There’s nothing else in about a hundred mile radius from the city.

There was no Internet, and therefore no YouTube, but there was rock’n’roll so my friends and I spent a lot of time sitting in each others’ rooms listening to tapes and records, and swapping tapes and records with each other.

And trying to learn those first few chords to Smoke on the Water.

(As it happens, still the only chords I know).

Two years after the Joensuu gig.

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