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Finnish prospects have new experience at Bisons batting practice

by Mitchell Clinton (@MClinton007) / Winnipeg Jets

BUFFALO, New York -- They say you’re never too old to learn something new.

That was the case for Patrik Laine, Jesse Puljujarvi and Olli Juolevi today at Coca-Cola Field in Buffalo, NY. The three Finnish prospects played the North American version of baseball for the first time in their lives as part of the festivities leading up to the NHL Draft.

“It’s a nice experience to be able to try to play baseball,” said Laine, who said he’s only played the Finnish style of the game in school.

That version, called Pesäpallo, is similar to baseball, but with a big difference: The ball is pitched vertically. This makes hitting the ball, and controlling the direction and power of the hit, much easier.

“It’s easy to hit home runs back at home,” said Laine. “This was harder.”

For Puljujarvi, the third ranked European skater by NHL Central Scouting, having his fellow countrymen with him as he continues to learn the English language has been helpful.

“They’re my friends,” Puljujarvi said, adding he has no nerves leading into Friday’s first round. “It’s good. I’m not nervous. It’s an exciting day coming Friday.”

Unlike his fellow prospects, Auston Matthews has been around baseball for a long time. His dad played in college, and Matthews played the sport along with hockey as a kid.

That experience showed, as Matthews hammered a ball to the right field warning track at Coca Cola field during today’s batting practice. No small feat, given it’s 325 feet to that right field wall, and 404 to centre.

“I was swinging for the fences for sure... It was fun,” said Matthews. The Scottsdale, Arizona native added he has more butterflies about tomorrow’s event - a ride on the Maid of the Mist at Niagara Falls – than the first round of the Draft.

“I’ve actually been there before when I was younger. It’s a little scary but it’s a nice view.”

Not to be outdone, Matthew Tkachuk (ranked second among North American skaters) smacked some line drives of his own, but couldn’t get one over the fence.

“The wind was definitely blowing in today,” Tkachuk laughed. “Getting into circumstances like this where you’re having fun and just enjoying the whole Buffalo process, and just keeping our mind off the Draft has been fun.”

As fun as it is, it can be tough for the prospects to not look ahead to what teams will select them come the weekend. Matthews has 15 family members and friends joining him at First Niagara Center.

“Of course that possibility kind of runs through your head. I’m taking it day by day and enjoy this whole experience,” said Matthews. “We’ll see what happens comes Friday.”

Laine will also have 15 guests with him on Friday. He can’t wait to put on an NHL jersey with them in attendance, and at the same time, realize a dream he’s had for a long time.

“It will be quite awesome to put on any jersey. It will be a memory I won’t forget,” he said. “I’m just very much expecting that moment and waiting for it.”

-- Mitchell Clinton, WinnipegJets.com

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