The gentle giant

One summer, twenty years ago, I decided that I wanted to play soccer again. I hadn’t done it in years, but I got some guys together, mostly my hockey teammates, and I signed us up for a season in a recreational league.

Our red shirts with “Ericsson Hotline” on the chest were a donation from my Dad’s store, the numbers on the back I had ironed on myself. After all, that’s what coach-GMs do.

In one August evening match, we had a new guy on the pitch, a lanky, blond guy who had a fantastic stride as he flew down the left lane. He was one of my late recruits, a necessary addition, due to some injuries and general summer recreational soccer league no-shows.

Sami Helenius

I knew he was athletic, and I knew he liked to run, because after all, this was a guy who had run with rocks in his backpack as a kid and ruined a few bags in the process to make his off-season training a little more efficient, a little harder. He wanted to push himself so that one day his kindergarten prediction would come true, and he would be a professional hockey player.

He was also a great addition to the team because he came from the same small town as many of my hockey teammates.

Now, I knew the young man, or at least I knew of him, because a couple of years earlier, I had spent a weekend at a rink and a cottage in Eastern Finland with his uncles, one of whom was married to an aunt of mine.

We were there to watch the lanky kid play hockey with the Finnish junior national team.

He’d played hockey since he was three, and his uncle-coach called him the first Zamboni they had at the rink because he ate so much snow off the ice.

Well, he wasn’t eating snow that weekend, and he returned home as a tournament All-Star defenceman. His uncles couldn’t have been happier and his Dad was waiting for him when he got off the bus.

“Well, that was pretty good,” he said, and the lanky kid was beaming with happiness.

He was a big kid. He’d always been a big kid. And because he’d been big, he had played with older kids almost all his life, and probably didn’t even know how good he was until he finally moved back to play in his own age group.

But being big isn’t always easy, either. At school, he was teased, even by kids that were younger than him.

“I was always so tall and so, so skinny,” he said.

When he joined a Helsinki team, and the other kids made fun of his non-Helsinki dialect, he was ready to burst into tears. But he didn’t, and he got along with everybody, and he became the team’s captain.

All in all, he was a good boy, a real mama’s boy who liked to crawl into his parents’ bed, and cuddle there. As soon as he got out of junior high, he got a job at a kindergarten, and played hockey.

One day, when he was at work, wiping the kitchen counter, one of his female colleagues came to tell him that he had a call waiting.

“It’s some Pekka guy,” she said.

On the other end of the line, there was the Calgary Flames’ scout, former Flame himself, Pekka Rautakallio who told him that the Flames would love to choose him in the NHL entry draft the next summer.

So when I gave him a ride home that August evening, he had been drafted by the Flames – in the fifth round – and had been to their rookie camp, and had got a taste of the true pro player life. Because, twenty years ago, players still “turned pro” only when they left their European leagues for the NHL.

We talked about hockey, and his camp, and his career, and he told me he was a little worried about his future because as a big guy, he had been expected to fight. He really didn’t like to fight. Not at all. He wasn’t the most skilled player out there, but he knew how to use his size, and he had, after all, played in the World Juniors.

And not as a fighter.

“Well, maybe you’ll just have to do it a little, in the beginning, to prove yourself,” I said with all the confidence of a guy who had read many hockey books.

“Maybe,” he said.

“You know, other great players have done that,” I said.

“Yeah?”

“For sure. Like, for example, Larry Robinson,” I said because I had just read a book about it.

“Maybe you’re right,” he said.

And then we came to their house, we said goodbye, and I didn’t see him for a decade. I knew that he had reported to the Flames camp, and that he’d been sent to their farm team, and that he’d had six fights in his first half a season in the NHL. All in all, he had 27 fights in the 155 NHL games he appeared in.

Larry Robinson had four fights in his first season, and 24 fights in total in his 1 611 NHL games.

The lanky kid, Sami, had become The Gentle Giant, a hockey enforcer, a player who would fight against the other teams’ tough guys.

I think the guy who didn’t like to fight ended up fighting exactly because he was a nice guy, who was ready to do anything – even fight – to make it. To make the team. To make his parents proud. To make money. All he wanted was to be there.

“I’ve always been a good boy, but I’ve also been willing to do anything and everything it takes to fulfill my dream. Sometimes it’s meant that a trainer has had to use smelling salts to help me come to,” he told me when I met him for an interview, ten years after that car ride.

“When I was in the Flames’ farm team, our coach, Paul Baxter, told me to ‘win through everything.’ I believe in that,” he said.

A few months earlier, he had played in the World Championships in Helsinki, a surprise pick for the team. After all, he’d been gone for a decade, and it was unheard of for any top nation to have enforcers on their teams.

Not that he was there to fight. He was there to “play like a big man.”

Playing for his country meant the world to him, and it was such a big deal that even his mother, who hadn’t seen his son play for seven years – she couldn’t stand the fights – came to see the quarterfinal game.

Unfortunately, Sami sat on the bench the entire game, and Finland lost to Sweden, 6-5.

But he did sit on the Team Finland bench. Like a good boy.

How does that make you feel?