It's no different for Toni Lydman, who returns to his native Finland as a member of the Anaheim Ducks as they spend a week in Helsinki preparing for the 2011 Compuware NHL Premiere games against the Buffalo Sabres (Helsinki, Oct. 7) and the New York Rangers (Stockholm, Oct. 8).
With the trip home -- where he'll play in front of family, friends, former teammates and many others in the tight-knit Finnish hockey community that helped him reach this point in his professional career -- just days away, Lydman has spent more than a bit of time reminiscing about the road he has travelled to become a full-time player in the best hockey league in the world.
Lydman a serious rock & roller
There is a lot of pressure on Anaheim's Finnish-born players -- Teemu Selanne, Saku Koivu and Toni Lydman -- to come up with some fun off-day activities for their teammates to enjoy during the Ducks' week-long visit to Helsinki.
Koivu told NHL.com that he would make sure his teammates got to experience the Finnish sauna culture during their stay and also suggested a traditional Finnish meal could be on the docket.
But Lydman told NHL.com he wanted to do even better than that.
He wanted to give the Ducks a taste of the Finnish extreme metal music scene, which is considered the pinnacle of metal music for many aficionados of that particular genre. However, he said he was foiled in his attempt to do so.
"I couldn't figure out anything," Lydman said, laughing. "But there is always something to do over there. I was trying to look at the metal shows, but there weren't too many while we are there. There's nothing great. I was going to take them to an extreme metal show and see what they think."
Lydman's love of metal music is well known by his teammates.
In fact, George Parros was wondering if Lydman's band would entertain the boys during the trip.
That's right, Lydman plays his own brand of metal in his free time when he is back home, joining together with some friends to form a band called Mononen, which plays a self-described fusion of metal and death metal with some elements of punk music.
"It just started four or five years ago," Lydman said. "A couple of guys had a birthday party and they said wouldn't it be fun to get a band together and play a few songs and write a few songs for that band. We did that and all of sudden I left for the season and they called me and said some bar wanted us to play. All of sudden, they were playing a random show here and there. Usually we get together in the summer and play a few shows. It's kind of fun. It takes your mind of hockey and all that stuff.
And Lydman takes it pretty seriously, even writing material during hockey season.
"I've written a few songs," he said. "I record them by computer and send them over (to Finland) and they turn them into real songs or something that resembles a song."
So, will Mononen put on a surprise show for the Ducks during their time in Helsinki?
"I don't think so," Lydman said, laughing. "I don't think it will work out."
--Shawn P. Roarke
Before their opener against the Sabres, the Ducks will play a preseason game against traditional Finnish power Jokerit.
Lydman, coming back from summer shoulder surgery, isn't sure he will be able to play in the regular-season game in his home country. He started practicing with the club during training camp and is on schedule with his rehabilitation, and if things continue on that path, he should be cleared right around the time of the Premiere game in Helsinki.
If that clearance comes after the Ducks play Buffalo at Hartwall Arena on Oct. 7, it is something Lydman can live with -- unhappily, perhaps.
"I'm hoping to be back for the opener," he told NHL.com in early September. "Everything is going good. I'm on schedule and skating and all that. Hopefully, (playing in Finland) is possible, and that is the goal, but I'm not going to risk it if (the shoulder) is not ready."
But whether he is standing on the ice when the Finnish anthem is played before the regular-season game against the Sabres or he is sitting in the press box watching his teammates play in a once-in-a-lifetime spectacle, Lydman likely will spend a bit of time marveling at the long, strange journey that delivered him to this night as a returning NHL hero considered to be among the best Finnish-born defenseman of his generation.
After all, it wasn't that long ago that Lydman was hoping just to find his way in the top Finnish pro league, SM-liiga.
Fifteen years ago, as a 19-year-old, Lydman played in his first SM-liiga game, suiting up for Tampere after a long apprenticeship with the Reipas program in his hometown of Lahti.
On that night, and all the nights that followed that season, the reality of playing in Finland's top league, in front of family and friends, was the pinnacle. The NHL was nothing more than a daydream, a pleasant diversion while laboring through practices or working in the weight room.
"It was a dream to come and play in the National Hockey League, of course, but I didn't really expect it until the draft," Lydman said.
Lydman was taken by Calgary in the fourth round of the 1996 Entry Draft just before he joined the Tampere club -- a fortuitous turn of events that shaped the rest of his hockey career.
"When I got drafted, I thought maybe there was a chance if I kept working even harder," Lydman said.
After two seasons with Tappara and another two years with HIFK Helsinki -- Jokerit's biggest rival, by the way -- Lydman was deemed ready for the NHL and joined the Flames at the start of the 2000-01 season.
Despite the passage of more than a decade, he still remembers like yesterday the night he was told he would be in the lineup for the first time.
"I was getting dressed for that first game, I remember thinking, 'At least I get one game,'" Lydman said, chuckling as he recalled the milestone. "You know, things worked out well."
That's a bit of an understatement. Things have worked out fantastic for Lydman, who has played more than 700 NHL games for the Flames, the Buffalo Sabres and, for the past two seasons, the Ducks. Last season, Lydman had 25 points and a plus-32 rating, which was a personal best and just one behind the League-best total of Norris Trophy finalist Zdeno Chara of the Boston Bruins.
Now he brings those gaudy numbers back to Finland, returning as a mainstay for a Ducks team laden with Finnish stars that will dominate the news cycle in their home country for the first eight days of October. He once again will be near family and friends, and if his shoulder cooperates, could play before those adoring family, friends and fans for the first time since playing eight games with HIFK Helsinki during the 2004-05 season.
"Last time, I played in Finland was during the lockout," Lydman said. "It's been a long time since that, too."