"It was nice to see that I can still play this game. So much of hockey is just mental."
-- Jokerit defenseman Sami Helenius
Sure, the 35-year-old defenseman did spend nine years in North America, with nine different teams, but it wasn't just playing against the Panthers, or seeing old friends, that reminded him of his early career.
Last Wednesday, Helenius was told that he would, once again, be a healthy scratch for Jokerit. While he carved a nice niche for himself in the NHL as a seventh defenseman, and something of an enforcer, the Finnish league's new 18 skaters and two goalies game roster rules don't sit well with him. With 18 skaters in the lineup, there are no seventh defensemen.
And no enforcers.
After the morning skate last Thursday, when Helenius was doing some extra practice with assistant coach Antti Tormanen, who played 50 games with the Senators in 1995-96, the Jokerit's GM asked him if he wanted to be "traded." NHL-style trades between teams are nonexistent in Finland, and players have to sign off on transfers that take place in the middle of the season. Helenius was asked if he wanted to be loaned to the Pelicans, another Finnish Elite League team, for two games.
"I didn't have to think twice, I said yes, hopped into my car and drove 100 kilometers to Hameenlinna to play. It was just like when I was young and got traded or sent to the minors," Helenius said.
Like in 1998-99 when he played for five different teams: the Chicago Wolves in the now-defunct IHL, the Las Vegas Thunder (IHL), the Hershey Bears (AHL), the Calgary Flames (NHL), and the Tampa Bay Lightning (NHL).
The Pelicans lost one game, but won their next one and Helenius gained a lot of self-confidence.
"It was nice to see that I can still play this game. So much of hockey is just mental," he says.
Wednesday, Helenius was back in the Jokerit lineup in the exhibition game against the Florida Panthers. "The Gentle Giant" did what he always does: kept the game simple, and tried to clear the front of the Jokerit net to the best of his ability.
"I think the score, 4-2, was OK. We stayed with the game, but made a couple of stupid mistakes that they could capitalize on. The Panthers were a typical North American team that plays the puck well close to the boards, and knows how to drive to the net," he said. "The forwards always drive right in front of the goalie, so the defenseman can't get between him and the goalie, and push him away. Now all you can do is stay close and try to get the rebounds."
The hockey world being as small as it is, the exhibition game pitted Helenius against a couple familiar faces. During Helenius's rookie year with the Calgary Flames' AHL affiliate, the Saint John's Flames, the team's star was Cory Stillman (2 goals against Jokerit), who was tied for lead in team scoring, with 81 points.
Back then, Helenius had third most penalty minutes, and seven points in 69 games.
"It was really nice to see Cory again, it's been a while, we were young boys then," Helenius said.
In 1996-97, Helenius scored 5 goals, and picked up 10 assists in 72 games. That personal record -- and the 218 penalty minutes he racked up -- earned him a spot on the AHL All-Star Game's World team, which beat a Canadian entry, 3-2, after a shootout. Tomas Vokoun, now the Panthers' starting goalie, was voted the game's MVP.
Today, Stillman has two Stanley Cup rings and Vokoun has established himself as one of the NHL's top goaltenders.
"The NHL has become more European in its style in the six years since I returned home. Everybody has to be able to play well, there are no fourth liners who'll just fight. Hockey evolves," Helenius said.
Hockey changes. Life changes.
Last year, Helenius was elected to the City Council in his home town. His 155 votes was 21st most in Jarvenpaa, a city with a population of 40 000, some 30 kilometers north of Helsinki.