It may be the Finn in me, but I seem to take missions seriously. Well, mission is too grand a word, really, when I mean favors people ask me and tasks they ask me to do. If somebody suggests getting a cup of coffee “tomorrow”, I hold my day free from other engagements. If I’m asked to find a good restaurant to have dinner at in Helsinki, I ask around and try to find the best one.
And if somebody asks me to deliver three golf shirts to some hockey people when I go on vacation in Vancouver, I deliver those shirts no matter what.
In 1991, I was an intern, or a trainee, or an office gofer at Tackla Canada in Orillia, Ontario. I was a business student so I worked at the office, trying to make sense of their inventory, but really, I did everything from folding hockey school brochures to playing golf with the boss to hanging out with Frank Neal, listening to his hockey stories.
Frank was my idol growing up in Helsinki, because he played hockey for Helsinki IFK, and because he was simply amazing. Also, he was my height – well, I was even smaller then, but I wasn’t even a teenager – and I’ve always cheered for the little guys.
Frank was Tackla’s pro player liaison, with the simple task of getting NHLers to wear Tackla pants. His job had also got a little easier about a year earlier when Harold Ballard, the Toronto Maple Leafs owner had passed away, and European brands were let into the building.
After my three months in Orillia, I decided to spend a couple of weeks in Vancouver to see Terry, a Canadian exchange student who had lived with us a few years earlier. And Frank heard about my plans, he put me on a mission.
“When you get to Vancouver, I’d like you to go to the Canucks’ training camp, and see if Petri Skriko has got h is sticks. Oh, and get these shirts to him and the trainers,” he told me.
I took the shirts, packed them in my suitcase, and headed west.
Frank had only told me that the Canucks would hold their training camp in Victoria, but I figured it couldn’t be too hard to find them so one morning, I took the ferry to Vancouver Island. The rink was close to the harbor so I walked there, and through the doors to watch the practice.
It was Petr Nedved’s first NHL training camp. He had deflected from Czechoslovakia a couple of years earlier and had played junior hockey in Seattle – tearing up the league – so he was almost a local boy. I didn’t care about that, I, a huge Gretzky fan, just wanted to see the kid who emulated Gretzky and wore a small Jofa helmet, skated hunched over like the Great One, and even tucked his sweater into his pants – even if he tucked his on the left side whereas Gretzky tucked his on the right. (Nedved’s playing in his first World Championship for his native Czech Republic this year, and no longer tucks his sweater into his pants).
But I was on a mission, so I left the stands when a fight broke out, and went looking for Skriko and the trainers. Maybe the doors were open, or maybe Frank’s name opened them to me, but there I was, in the locker room area, standing behind the plexiglass, behind the net, watching Igor Larionov and Vladimir Krutov skate.
Then goalie left the net, and another one came from the bench to take his place. When he got to his net, he saw me and waved a hello to me. It was Kirk McLean, and about a month earlier, I had sat next to him for a few hours, talking about this and that, at a signing that nobody came to.
But I was on a mission so I waved quickly back and went to look for the trainers, and found one.
“Hi, I just came to ask if Petri Skriko has got his sticks,” I said.
He told me Skriko had his sticks. I made a mental note of that, and pulled out the shirts form my backpack.
“I was also supposed to give these to you guys,” I said.
Mission accomplished, I walked back to the ferry, and returned to Vancouver.
In the last few years, I’ve got to know Skriko, now the Washington Capitals’ European scout. In March, he called me and asked me to do him a favor, a small thing that I could do in Sweden, and of course I helped him.
“I’ll buy you lunch at the Worlds,” he said, and I told him not to worry about it.
Last week, I saw him at the World Championship press center. We talked about hockey, and his hometown, and his new house, and, well, just chatted as always. He also thanked me once again, and once again, I told him not to worry about it.
The next day, as I was sitting at my desk in the press center, I suddenly heard a noise next to me and when I looked up, I saw somebody put something into my backpack.
It was Skriko.
“I thought you’d like a shirt,” he said.