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CROSSING THE POND

Leaving home made for an emotional goodbye, but Finnish prospect Eetu Tuulola is ready for a new chapter with the Flames organization

by RYAN DITTRICK @ryandittrick / CalgaryFlames.com

The Tuulola name carries weight in the small town of Hameenlinna, Finland.

There's Marko, the "legend" - a retired D man that played well into his 40s in Europe's highest order.

His oldest son and fellow blueliner, Joni - a 2015 sixth-round pick of the Chicago Blackhawks - is entering his third year with the club's AHL affiliate in Rockford, Illinois.

Then, there's 21-year-old Eetu - a 6-foot-3, 225-lb. power forward showing all kinds of jam here in Calgary's annual Prospect Camp.

"We have one thing in common," Eetu says following a brisk, hour-long practice at WinSport Monday. "We all love the net.

"We're hungry and want to score.

"Always."

Growing up, Eetu was as much a fan as he was a player on the rise.

While Teemu Selanne and other Finns on the North-American loop were national news most nights, Eetu kept a close eye on his hero - dad.  

"It's because of him that I'm so in love with the game here today," Eetu said. "I have so many memories of watching him play.

"I remember this one time, I was in the stands, his team was down by one late in the game. Wasn't looking good.

"Then, all of a sudden, they get two quick penalties and are on a 3-on-5 PK.

"Even worse."

"But they won the faceoff and my dad took off right away, getting a pass at centre ice and making a great move to score on a breakaway.

"He was a defenceman - a solid, two-way guy - but I never saw that coming.

"I want to say I was 12 or 13 at the time, already playing with the HPK junior team in Finland. But I think in that moment, I fell in love with the game even more.

"With that in my blood, I realized what kind of player I could be."

 

 

Marko played in Finland's top circuit, the SM-liiga, for his hometown HPK, Lukko and Jokerit, the Swedish Hockey League's Brynäs IF, and in the Swiss Nationalliga for the SC Rapperswil-Jona Lakers, in a career that spanned more than two decades.

In 2003, he took home the Pekka Rautakallio trophy as Finland's top D man - a year after representing his home country at the IIHF World Hockey Championship for the first and only time.

But the Eetu wanted his own path.

So, unlike Marko and Joni, he became a forward.

"I let them be the D," Eetu laughed. "I'm proud of them both for what they've been able to accomplish, but I didn't want to have to (rely) on them to help shape my career.

"I still (lean) on my dad quite a bit. I talk to him all the time and ask for tips and things like that.

"The great thing is that he's a fan now. He didn't want to take up coaching or anything like that after his career ended, so he's my biggest fan.

"It's pretty funny. I grew up being a fan of his and going to his games, and now he's doing the same for me."

Eetu - a sixth-round pick (156th overall) by the Flames in 2016 - signed a three-year entry level contract with the club back in June.

That made for an emotional goodbye, as he packed up and jetted west to Calgary to take part in his first fall camp, before his first year as a pro on North-American ice.

"I've spent my whole life in Hameenlinna," he said. "I grew up there, played there, spent my summers there. My family, friends and even my girlfriend are still there, too.

"It wasn't easy (to make that decision), but it is my dream.

"I had to ask myself, do I really want to play in the NHL one day? The answer was yes, of course. I want it like you wouldn't believe.

"So, I did it - and here I am."

He's done it before, though the stakes were much different back in 2016 when he played a full year for the WHL's Everett Silvertips.

This time, the move could be for good.

Eetu returned to Hameenlinna in 2017, and just last year, he posted 36 points (13G, 23A) and 44 penalty minutes in 60 regular-season tilts, before adding another three goals and three helpers in 18 playoff dates to help HPK win the league title.

Something his father did twice, but never with his hometown team.

"He was definitely proud," Eetu said. "That was the best part - enjoying that and celebrating with him after everything we've both done in that city, with that organization."

Eetu's next stop following Flames camp is down south, where he hopes to earn a spot with the AHL's Stockton Heat.

He knows that isn't a given, and may have to cut his teeth with the ECHL's Kansas City Mavericks for a period, but he's ready for that, too.

"If I just go ahead and play my game, I'll be in good shape," he said. "I don't have to do anything fancy - I just have to be myself.

"Be hard on pucks, hard on the body, and make sure I'm finishing my chances (in tight). That's where I'm at my best.

"No matter where I end up this season…

"I've got to make a name for myself."

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