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.

At that moment, the rest of the world becomes a simple backdrop of his life. That may also be when Granlund is at his happiest. Out on the ice, playing the game he loves, away from reporters, cameras, and microphones.

But with the World Championship on home ice just weeks away, the spotlight is turning increasingly on the kid who scored That Goal in the semi-final against Russia in last year’s tournament, who’s won one Finnish title, and is going after his second, and who, in a word, is the future of Finnish hockey.

“I haven’t really given the tournament a lot of thought, to be honest. I try to live in the moment, and if I start day dreaming, I’m not in the moment. Of course it would be exciting to play in front of Finnish fans in Helsinki,” Granlund, whose HIFK plays in the other Helsinki arena, said recently.

When asked, Granlund dismissed any ideas of a home-ice curse, and doesn’t consider Finland’s home tournament record anything to worry about. Finland’s finished seventh, fourth, fifth, fifth, fifth, and fifth in the six previous tournaments it has hosted.

“I think the home-ice curse is just superstition. So many teams have a good chance to win the World Championship, even the home team,” he said.

While Granlund is great at seizing the moment, he has laid out a career plan which has included playing in the Finnish league for two seasons after the Minnesota Wild picked him ninth in the 2010 NHL draft.

“It was important for me to stay here and develop further as a player, I didn’t think I was ready to take the step two years ago. At least I’m more ready now,” said Granlund, who finished 28th in the league scoring in 2010 as a rookie, despite missing 15 games. He was 28th last season, despite missing 21 games, and sixth this season – despite missing 15 games.

When he joined HIFK three years ago, he was a small, but hugely talented, 17-year-old forward. Now, he’s matured both physically and mentally.

“In that age, some of the maturing takes place naturally, but my skating’s a lot better than it was three years ago, I’m stronger, and probably make more mature and better decisions on the ice. I’m a completely different player now, even if I did fine in the beginning, too,” he said.

“Naturally, I want to be as strong and fast as possible, but I’ll never be the strongest or fastest player on the ice, so I will have to compensate that with something.” he added.

There were a couple of other reasons for Granlund to bide his time in Finland, instead of Minnesota.

“I also wanted to graduate from high school, and fulfill the military service before leaving for the NHL,” he added.

Now he can focus on his play. His military service is complete, and he’s going to graduate from high school this spring. There will be no loose ends in Finland – after the May tournament.

Granlund loves to play. He says he’s played “pretty much everything that involves a ball”. It was his father who first bought the boys – his younger brother Markus is also his HIFK teammate – the sticks, and the nets to the yard. And that, not genes, was the gift their parents gave them, according to Granlund.

“People always talk about natural born talents, and I’m sure genes do play a role, maybe somebody has better co-ordination or something, but to me it all comes down to repetitions. All good players have played a lot since they were children,” he said.

“For kids, playing hockey isn’t practising, it’s just having fun. I was lucky, too, that I had a lot of friends to play with in the neighbourhood,” he added.

But now, playing hockey is no longer just fun and games. Thousands of HIFK fans, and millions of Finns look to Granlund to provide some magic this spring. In Minnesota, the Wild are looking forward to getting Granlund into the fold, even if he hasn’t signed with the club yet.

“I’ve wanted to play in the NHL ever since I was a kid, but I don’t want to plan next season now,” he said.

If and when he does play in the NHL next season, he’s not worried about how he’s going to do.

“In my first season in Helsinki, I didn’t think I’d end up playing in the first line. It was the same with the Worlds last season; I didn’t expect much, but it turned out well. I find that often when I just go out and play, things will turn out fine,” he said.

Scoring the most memorable goal in Finnish hockey history this century, one that was made into a stamp just weeks after the tournament certainly is “fine”.

It was a textbook example of a player being in the zone, not thinking, just doing what he does best. It was also a great example of why Granlund has always been able to elevate his game when he’s gone to the next level, even if doubters have called him too small, or too slow.

First he won a puck battle against Dmitri Kalinin in the corner, then skated around Dmitri Kulikov, scooped up the puck onto his blade and then lifted it over Konstantin Barulin’s shoulder from behind the net, to give Finland a 1-0 lead in the game (that Finland ended up winning 3-0).

“It was just one goal. Sometimes that goes in, other times not. It was an important goal, for sure, but how I scored it wasn’t important to me, and I don’t think it mattered to the other players, either,” said Granlund.

“If a player just practises that move for a week, he can do it, it’s not that hard. Any player can do that if they just dare to try it,” he added.

But that’s the point. Not many do dare to try it.

“Having said that, I’d be hard-pressed to try something like that again, too, considering the commotion it caused. I don’t think I’ll try scoring a goal like that anytime soon,” he said.

Then again, on the ice, when he’s in the moment, he doesn’t think about stamps or the President’s reception or medals.

He just plays.

How does that make you feel?