MONTREAL – Six years under the tutelage of legendary Finnish hockey coach Heikki Karvinen certainly served Lars Eller well in the long run.
Karvinen, a renowned skills instructor based in Denmark, has trained Rødovre Skating and Ice Hockey Club youngsters since 1980, helping to mold the likes of Eller, Mikkel Boedker and Jannik Hansen, into premier players at hockey’s highest level.
“He was the one who taught me how to skate and stickhandle. Everything I know is a product of his training. We would have practices that were 50 minutes long. The ice time was always clocked because there were so many teams having to share one rink. We’d spend about 30 minutes of that time just working on skating techniques. There would be other practices where we only worked on puck skills, doing toe drags and just using our creativity. That probably had the most impact on me as a player today,” offered Eller, who was a pupil of Karvinen’s between nine and 15 years of age, prior to leaving his hometown squad and joining Frölunda Hockey Club’s program in Sweden in 2005-06.
“He was teaching and instructing us, but it was from a fun perspective. I got some invaluable things in my backpack going forward in my career from him. The way he taught things, it was a mix of power skating and figure skating. It was very, very technical, and focused a lot on balance, glide and playing on your edges. It was pure skill,” added Eller, who typically took part in three to four skill-based practices each week. “It was probably very different from what kids would traditionally be taught in North America, but it really had a big impact on my career. Those tools have stayed with me all the way along.”
According to Karvinen, Eller was a model student, exhibiting noticeable natural talent and a remarkable love for the game early on in their working relationship.
“From the start, Lars wanted to practice [his skills]. He loved being at the rink. He even skipped some classes in school for six months to attend some practices, too, without his parents knowing. On the ice, he really stood out from the rest of the group. He was one of the better kids because he wanted not only to get better as part of the team, but individually, also. He always loved to work on the small details of the game,” shared Karvinen, whose children have also gone on to forge impressive hockey careers in their own right, Jannik with the Rødovre Mighty Bulls, and Michelle with the University of North Dakota and Finland’s national women’s team. “Basically, Lars almost never had a bad practice. To be honest, he never really did have a bad game. Along with being a good skater, he also had good hands and good vision for the play, and he knew how to position himself to make a good pass. All the signs for success were there.”
It didn’t hurt Eller’s cause to have some top-notch talent in his age group back then, either. In retrospect, that only created more opportunities to enhance his budding skill set in both practice and game situations.
“Lars was lucky with his year. He ended up in one of our good ones. He was on a team with Michelle and Boedker, and they all played together on our top line. When they were out there, you could see that Lars had the potential to go far,” mentioned Karvinen, who still makes every effort to watch Eller ply his trade, tuning into games on TV in the middle of the night overseas. “I think he made the most of his good genes. His father [Olaf] played, his brother [Mads] plays. His half-brother [Michael Smidt] played for Rødovre, too. Everybody in his family played some form of sport at a really high level, so it’s in his blood.”
In recent years, however, Karvinen has been particularly impressed by Eller’s play without the puck given that defense wasn’t necessarily something he’d been schooled in growing up.
“That was one of the main problems in Rødovre. There was a big emphasis on offense and scoring goals. We were so good and so ahead of other clubs that defense wasn’t a priority. That’s why it’s a really good accomplishment for Lars. He’s taken that in with the Canadiens and become a good two-way player,” praised Karvinen, who believes the success Eller and his countrymen have enjoyed in North America has inspired youngsters back home. “Lars might not have been that outgoing as a kid, and he wasn’t the loudest guy in the locker room, but he always loved to learn. He showed that on the ice. It’s a credit to him that he learned to be responsible defensively playing center in the NHL.”
Needless to say, the veteran teacher still takes plenty of pride in seeing Eller’s hard work pay off in La Belle Province.
“There’s something I want all my players to understand. I believe that the only reason to miss practice is your own funeral. If you want to be the best, you have to work hard every single day. Lars really understood that at a young age,” concluded Karvinen, who continues to share his knowledge with players in Rødovre today. “He might have missed some school, but he wasn’t going out and doing any funny business. He was going to practice and working on his dream. I’m very proud that what I taught him helped him get to where he is.”
Matt Cudzinowski is a writer for canadiens.com.
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