A legend of a man

Lauri Mononen, March 22, 1950 – August 5, 2018

One September morning in 1977, I was in a rush to read the sports pages of the Helsinki morning paper, even more than usual, because the Finnish SM-liiga had kicked off the night before. I turned to the back of the newspaper, and saw a headline about Lauri Mononen scoring a “Canadian hat trick”.

I had never heard of such a thing, but I learned that it was not just a regular hat trick, but a double one. Six goals.

Mononen had returned to Finland for that season, after two seasons with the Phoenix Roadrunners in the WHA, the other North American major professional league at the time. And he had returned with an even bigger chip on his shoulder than he left with, and he had put all his focus, all his energy into that first game, he told me later as I hung out at the sports store he and his partner, another Finnish SM-liiga player, Reijo Laksola, owned and operated close to our house.

He was fantastic that season, and scored 27 goals (and 39 points) in 36 games for Helsinki IFK.

That was the summer I spent a couple of weeks at their cottage, jogging and playing badminton with him. 

Back in 1978, I spent a week at Finnish Hockey Hall of Famer Lauri Mononen’s summer cottage. During the week, he signed my training diary every day, making sure I did at least something.

And we sure did. Mononen was famous for his on-and-off style of practice. When he worked out, he went all out, not holding back anything. And when he was off, he was off. 

That week, he was on, going for long runs, running in the woods, sprinting around the trees, deking them, taking interval sprints on a close-by soccer field, running backwards, and throwing huge rocks over his head.

That was in a time before CrossFit or Gary Roberts.

I did the best I could to keep up, but of course, he was a grown man, having just returned from the WHA’s Phoenix Roadrunners – we drove to the cottage in his sweet sweet Oldmobile – and would win the Swiss championship after that summer, and I, well, I was 11, maybe 140cm, and weighed 40 kilos.

But, when he asked me to join him on a longer run that Friday night, when my parents would come and pick me up, I said sure. The deal was that he could run a little faster when he felt that my pace wasn’t a challenge, and that I’d then wait for him to turn around and come back, and run back home with him.

Maybe it was two kilometers, maybe four, maybe five, I have no idea, but there came the point when Lauri took off, and I could only watch him disappear around the bend. 

It was a beautiful summer night, the kind that Finland is famous for. The sun was slowly disappearing behind the forest, but it wasn’t yet dark, not even twilight. 

The sun disappeared behind the forest when I finally came to the house. I had heard people talk about the house, that something strange was supposedly going on there and obviously, I though I heard something. Something suspicious. 

Instead of drawing attention to me by running as fast as I could, I just stood there for a minute, maybe, hardly breathing, when I saw somebody on the yard. And I sprinted again, and kept on running, despite the noise, and the footsteps I am sure I heard behind me. I just ran, like I was running for my life. I went on until I saw Lauri come back towards me.

He was impressed. “I never believed you’d make it this far,” he said, when he signed my training diary that night. And my dad was proud.

But maybe I didn’t push him enough. Maybe Lauri lost interest, or maybe he thought he could do the same without working in the off-season, but by the next fall he didn’t float like a butterfly, sting like a bee like Muhammad Ali, his favorite athlete, but neither did Muhammad Ali who had lost the heavyweight title to Leon Spinks in February 1978.

Ali regained his title in September, beating Spinks, just like Mononen had predicted to me in his store, in anticipation of the rematch but by then he had scored just one goal and was already on his way elsewhere again.

“And then I got a call. “Juuso” Wahlsten called me and told me that he had spoken with SC Bern’s coach Xavier Unsinn about an opening in Switzerland,” Mononen told me later.

“The management wanted an NHL player but Unsinn wanted Mononen. Money was not an object, Bern was determined to win the Swiss title,” he said.

“Unsinn wanted Mononen” may or may not be true because I spoke with Mononen about it years later when Unsinn had already become something of a legend in Finland, having coached the West German national team against Team Finland many times in the World Championships, and always wearing a hat. Back in 1978 Mononen may not have known who the coach was.

Just like it may or may not be true that the Bern mailman suggested to the Mononens that they get a PO Box down the valley so that he wouldn’t have to carry masive bags of fan mail all the way up. 

But that didn’t really matter. “Late” was larger than life. 

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