MONTREAL - Jesperi Kotkaniemi has a fan in veteran Montreal Impact defender and Finnish international Jukka Raitala.
Upon learning that Kotkaniemi had cracked the Canadiens' roster, the 30-year-old footballer reached out to the young centerman to offer up his encouragement and support.
"I wished him all the best for the season and said if there's anything I can do to help him, I've been here for a year," said Raitala, who was acquired by the Impact in December 2017 in a trade with Los Angeles FC. "I was 19 when I left abroad and it was not the easiest thing on me when I was alone. Obviously, I knew that they had other Finnish players on the team to support him, but I just thought that I could offer my help if he ever needed anything. It was just something for another Finnish guy."
Kotkaniemi returned the favor by giving Raitala tickets to attend a game at the Bell Centre last fall.
It was the perfect gift for the budding Habs fan.
"We all follow the Canadiens a lot, and it's important for us how they're doing. When we see some highlights of the games, I mention to other guys when I see Finnish guys scoring. Of course, it's nice," said Raitala. "Finland is not the biggest country in the world, but they bring along a lot of good hockey players."
That wasn't Raitala's first NHL game, though. He enjoys hitting up rinks when he can, as evidenced by a pair of Instagram posts from previous visits to Nationwide Arena and Madison Square Garden.
"When I was in New York visiting the city, I thought it would be nice to see an NHL game. It was a nice experience. I see that hockey is a very big thing in North America. It's always a pleasure to see games live. Live games are special," mentioned Raitala. "The Bell Centre was fantastic. There was a great atmosphere at the game."
Raitala's passion for hockey isn't something new. Long before he patrolled the pitch at Stade Saputo, he took full advantage of the long winters in Scandinavia to hit the ice every chance he could.
"Hockey is full-speed all the time. I like that. When I was a kid, every winter I used to play hockey outside. It was a nice sport. I used to play a lot with my friends and I almost joined the youth team, but I never did. I put all of my efforts into soccer," explained Raitala. "But, I think I wasn't bad at all. I liked the game. I liked to skate and play hockey. It comes from that time. I understand the game alright."
While Kotkaniemi and Raitala haven't met just yet, the three-year MLS veteran is certainly looking forward to it.
Maybe they can meet up at Stade Saputo at some point during the season. The 18-year-old forward is always welcome in Impact territory.
"He's very friendly," said Raitala of Kotkaniemi. "If he wants to visit, I will arrange tickets for him, of course."
Video: Andrew Shaw rings the Saputo Stadium bell
Looking ahead to the home opener
After playing six straight road games to begin the 2018-19 season, the Impact will finally return to the friendly confines of their own facility on Saturday afternoon with a matchup against Raitala's former squad - the Columbus Crew.
"Six away games was long and tough for us, but we did very good. I think two wins, two losses and two draws is not bad at all," said Raitala. "Last year, we were strong at home. We have to keep that same feeling in the team and that same mentality so when other teams come here they're afraid. That starts on Saturday. Last year, we beat them 3-0 in Montreal, so I hope it's going to be the same."
Moreover, Raitala can't wait to soak up the Stade Saputo atmosphere and feel the energy from the fans again. He appreciates the vibe immensely.
"I hope it's going to be a full stadium. Last year, the fans were fantastic all year," concluded Raitala. "We hope we start well, get a good feeling and a good connection with the fans, and good results playing attractive football."
To purchase tickets to Saturday's contest, click here.