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Welcome to Columbus: Finnish hockey fans have found a home with CBJ

From Kekäläinen to Laine, a strong lineage of Finns has forged a connection between the country and the Blue Jackets

by Jeff Svoboda @JacketsInsider / BlueJackets.com

In the days around Patrik Laine's debut with the Blue Jackets, there was no shortage of content around the CBJ superstar's actions in his native Finland. 

One of the leading news websites in Finland, Itla-Sanomat, wrote stories about Laine joining the lineup, his Zoom appearance with Columbus media before his first game, and his performance in said game. When he scored a goal a game later, the outlet ran multiple stories about his initial CBJ goal, plus stories about BlueJackets.com stories detailing his early days, including pieces about teammates' reaction to his world-class shot and where he might play in the lineup. 

Oh, and there also was a story about Brad Marchand's Instagram comment on Laine's deadpan reaction to taking the ice during his first CBJ practice. 

It's a fascinating look at how people in the Nordic country consume NHL content, follow the Blue Jackets and stay up to date with everything Laine.  

After seeing Blue Jackets Twitter feeds immediately fill with new followers from Finland after the January trade that netted the star winger and Jack Roslovic from Winnipeg for Pierre-Luc Dubois, I started to wonder about it all. Just how popular is Laine in his native country? With more Finns than ever plying their trade in the NHL, how do people back home follow the best league in the world from thousands of miles away? And how do the Blue Jackets fit into all of this? 

"I would say Columbus is definitely right now -- I don't have any numbers, but it seems that is like the unofficial Finnish team right now in the NHL," said Sami Hoffren, a Helsinki-based journalist who has written for years about the NHL for Ilta-Sanomat and the Finnish sports magazine Urheilulehti.  

"Obviously it exploded when (general manager) Jarmo Kekäläinen went there, and people started to pay attention when they had (Finnish players Joonas) Korpisalo, (Markus) Nutivaara and (Markus) Hannikainen for many years. People followed Columbus more, and right now it's just taken to another level. 

"I would say previously it was Winnipeg, but now after the Laine trade, Columbus is the most watched NHL team in Finland right now." 

Rising Over The Years 

Finland is a country of just over 5.5 million residents (about half the size of Ohio) that sits in the Nordic region of northern Europe. On the west side, the Gulf of Bothnia separates the southern half of the country from Sweden, while the eastern side of the country shares a long border with Russia. The capital, Helsinki, sits on the southern coast on the Gulf of Finland, separated from Estonia by about 40 miles. 

Two things about the nation are clear. Finns are a prideful group, and they love their hockey. 

Skiing, soccer and the Finnish version of baseball known as pesäpallo are among the biggest sports in the country, but when it comes to eyeballs and interest, nothing matches the sport of hockey. 

The country has a strong history in the sport -- remember, it was the Finns the U.S. "Miracle on Ice" team had to defeat in 1980 to clinch the gold medal -- dating back to the 1950s. Finns started arriving in the NHL for the most part in the 1970s, but the first breakout star at the NHL level was Jari Kurri, the Hockey Hall of Famer and five-time Stanley Cup winner who scored 601 times in 1,251 games from 1981-98, mostly with Edmonton and the LA Kings.  

There is a strong domestic league in Finland -- the Liiga, which began in 1975 -- while Kekäläinen's former team (Helsinki-based Jokerit) is in the KHL, but again, Finns are a prideful sort. And that pride often comes out in watching the best players from their home country excelling at the highest level.

"Finland is a proud hockey nation," Hoffren said. "Besides Finland, there is only one country in the world where hockey is No. 1, and that's Canada, obviously. We are a small country, but we consider ourselves a big hockey nation." 

That is shown at the international level, where the Suomi squad has won a pair of Olympic silver medals (1988 and 2006) but is yet to win gold on that biggest of stages.

But with a golden generation of stars led by such stars and top draft picks as Laine, Carolina's Sebastian Aho, Florida's Aleksander Barkov, Colorado's Mikko Rantanen, Dallas' Miro Heiskanen, New York Rangers youngster Kappo Kakko and even goalies like Korpisalo and Boston's Tuukka Rask, Finland has never had more high-level players scattered across NHL rosters. 

This seems to have a dual effect in the country -- a strong interest in the national team, especially with the 2022 Olympics on the horizon, and an increased desire in watching those stars succeed in the NHL. 

"Previously Finland was also the underdog in international hockey … but let's say if they play in the Olympics, they are going to have a heck of a team," Hoffren said. "(With) the amount of star players, that would be the best Finnish national team probably ever with these young guys coming up. The national team head coach was joking it will be so hard to pick the team because now they actually have a lot of players that are playing in the NHL in big roles.  

"So yeah, Finns are paying attention to what is going on in the NHL and taking a lot of pride that Finland has so many good young players." 

One of those players who grew up watching the stars of Finland play in the league was Laine. With the country six or seven hours ahead of the East Coast of the United States and Canada depending on the time change, an afternoon game in the NHL is a prime-time affair in Finland.  

"I was just watching everybody," Laine said of the NHL when he was a kid. "As a fan, it was awesome to watch those games and see so many good players on every team. I think for everybody back home, if you get a chance to play in the big league, it's pretty incredible. It seems like it's really, really far away. It's pretty much a dream for the young kids, and (you're) watching the game on TV, watching all the highlights and stuff like that. It's definitely something that we always watch the NHL." 

The NHL has tried to take advantage of that by taking the game to places like Finland and Sweden as part of its Global Series. Laine was lucky enough to play in a pair of games in his home country when Winnipeg took on Florida in Helsinki during the fall of 2018, a trip the CBJ winger described as "a dream come true."

Before the pandemic hit, another pair of NHL games was scheduled, with Columbus slated to take on Colorado in October of this past year. The draw was pretty obvious, as Colorado has some notable Finns in Rantanen and Joonas Donskoi, while Columbus was also well represented with Korpisalo and Kekäläinen.

While the former was named an NHL All-Star last year, the latter is followed closely in Finland, as he has been since he was hired in 2013 by Columbus as the league's first-ever European-born general manager. Not only that, the Blue Jackets have a number of Finns in the front office, including former NHL players Ville Siren (director of amateur scouting), Jarkko Ruutu (European development coach), Niklas Bäckström (European goaltending development coach) and Mikko Makela (amateur scout).

And it's fair to conclude that will only increase in the future should the Blue Jackets get the chance to reschedule that Finland date now that Laine is in the fold.  

The Laine Impact 

If there's one player you can be assured draws eyeballs in Finland, it's the Tesoman Tykki

That translates roughly as the Tesoma Cannon, as Laine hails from the Tesoma region of Tampere, the city of just over 200,000 residents in the southwest portion of the country known as the region of Pirkanmaa.  

Whether it's because of Laine's absurdly dangerous shot, his blunt honesty in interviews, or even his unabashed confidence in enjoying the spoils of his stardom -- his bright yellow Lamborghini Urus SUV generated plenty of headlines in his native country when he purchased it last year -- he is a star in a country that appreciates his authenticity but not necessarily his flash. 

"He is a rock star of Finnish hockey, I would say," Hoffren said. "Laine is one of a kind. He is a confident cat. It's almost, I think Laine is a polarizing figure in Finnish hockey because some don't like he is that ... I don't think cocky, but he's just a confident guy. That's the way it is. People love and hate (him). I know there are some people that aren't some of the biggest fans of his, but obviously everybody knows he is a heck of a player." 

The proof is in the pudding when it comes to that result, as Laine burst onto the scene during the 2017 season with 36 goals as an 18-year-old and added 44 a year later. He has 147 goals in 329 NHL games, an average of over 36 per 82 games that puts him among the ranks of the top snipers in the league. 

It's that skill that makes it hard for everyone in the hockey world, including Finns, to turn away from. 

"Patrik has definitely (a) bigger fanbase than any other NHL player in Finland," Finnish hockey fan Jussi Metsäpelto told me via Twitter in the days after the trade. "If there's 10 NHL news (stories) in afternoon newspapers, three of them (are) about Patrik. ... Some NHL followers are so sick of his popularity. But basically 80 percent of the people love Patrik here! I think CBJ got 5,000 new Finnish fans last week." 

"The interest in Laine is huge here," added another hockey fan, Markus Kettunen. "He is on headlines whether he goes to buy groceries or a new Lamborghini -- let alone scoring five goals in one game. Even though Kekäläinen has been the Blue Jackets' GM for several years already, I'm certain that acquiring Laine will boost your club's popularity in Finland onto a whole new level. ... I will get Laine's Jackets jersey for sure and frame it side by side with his Jets one." 

"Honestly Laine might (be the) No. 1 sports star in Finland," added Juuso Tasku. "Newspapers write anything he does right or wrong. So after Laine moved to Columbus, interest for Columbus hockey is huge." 

As one might expect, there are pluses and minuses to this for Laine. 

"You always get negative comments, and that's just the way it goes," he said. "I have always thought about it in a way that guys are giving you a hard time or whatever, then you must be doing something right.  

"But yeah, definitely everybody recognizes me back home and takes pictures and autographs and that kind of stuff. I've always wanted to enjoy it while it lasts. There will be a time when nobody cares anymore." 

But for right now, they do. As Finns watch more NHL hockey, Laine and the Blue Jackets will continue to be in the headlines. And as someone at the forefront of the wave of Finns crashing onto NHL rosters across the league, Laine feels that pride that stands out in his native country. 

"I think every Finnish guy who plays in the league, I think they are really proud to call themselves Finns," Laine said. "We take pride in being Finnish and being able to play here. It's still a small country, so it's not every day that there are guys in the NHL from Finland, so we definitely take a lot of pride in that." 

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