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Patrik Laine: A "special, special player"

Rookie hits 30-goal plateau, plays in All-Star Game, earns praise around league - all at age 18

by Ryan Dittrick @ryandittrick / WinnipegJets.com

At age 18, he's already one of the NHL's most naturally gifted goal scorers, with an easy-going, fun-loving personality the league, and the Winnipeg Jets, are lucky to have.

He has 30 goals at the time of this post, becoming the new franchise leader for goals in a rookie season with a generous chunk of the year left to play, is one of the front-runners for the Calder Trophy as the NHL's top rookie as a result, and has just recently played in his first-ever NHL All-Star Game.

That, in itself, was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for many.

For Patrik Laine, it was only the beginning.

"The whole weekend was a great experience for me," the rookie said, as reporters from the across the country and around the world looked on, hanging on his every word.

They, too, know that Laine is not only the future of the Jets, but that of the league as well.

Those of us in Winnipeg already knew. But there in Los Angeles - where the hockey world descended for the weekend to celebrate the sport and its greatest athletes - Laine quickly became one of the most popular players around. His ability is unquestionable. That they knew. They've seen it on the highlights. But what came to light was that bubbly, confident-but-shy personality of his, that dry humour that makes many of us around the dressing room laugh each and every day.

He's an All-Star on and off the ice, and will be for years to come.

Video: Patrik Laine scores three goals including OT winner

"It was amazing to be here at such a young age," Laine said. "I'm honoured. I just want to show everybody that I earned my place here, and to just have fun."

Laine was understandably tense on Saturday before the All-Star Skills Competition. He'd never before been to Hollywood, had this many eyes on him, or even attended an event of this magnitude.

Every last bit of it was a whole new experience, and one that this mid-city kid felt a little anxious about at first.

LA does that.

In time, he became more and more comfortable, and after showing so well during the skills - earning two of the Central Division's three points - he was having the time of his life. Best of all, he was able to share these moments with his father, Harri, who made the trip down and is now living in Winnipeg for the rest of the season.

"It's pretty special to have him here. It's a big thing for him to be here and see the big world and how everything is.

"It's been awesome."

Laine arrived in Los Angeles on Friday afternoon, less than 24 hours after he and the Jets defeated the Chicago Blackhawks at the United Center to kick off a marathon, 12-and-a-half days away from home.

Immediately upon landing, he became part of an elite group that blended the greatness of the past, present and future.

Still groggy after the game and a five-hour flight on just a few hours sleep, Laine was unable to attend the NHL 100 show at the Microsoft Theatre in person, but the television broadcast that celebrated the '100 Greatest Players of All Time' left him in awe, mesmerized by the all faces and astonishing highlights he grew up engrossed with as a fan, and more importantly, a dreamer.

Laine, of course, was a big fan of the legendary Teemu Selanne, but he never did see the Finnish Flash compete as a Jet, having been born in 1998 - a full two years after Selanne played his last game here, and the team itself said goodbye.

Video: Patrik Laine channels Jets legend Teemu Selanne

His idol remains the Great 8, Alexander Ovechkin, whose best and explosive offensive years came when the impressionable Finn was just nine, 10 and 11 years old. The two crossed paths numerous times in LA, including the more casual encounters in the hotel lobby before parting ways to their respective east-west dressing rooms at the Staples Center.

It was like a passing of the torch.

Ovechkin, a veteran of more than 900 career games, guiding the way for one of the league's newest recruits, a budding star, future ambassador and marketing maven.

"He's very young, but very talented and very skilled," Ovechkin said of Laine. "When I came into the league, everyone was talking about me and (Sidney Crosby). Now it's all about Laine and (Maple Leafs rookie Auston) Matthews. The league is in good hands. Those guys are the future of the NHL. They're going to be superstars."

And he would know.

Video: WPG@TOR: Laine reaches 30-goal mark with pair

This is Ovechkin's 12th NHL season and now, at 31 years old, he was one of the six current players to be named as one of the league's 100 Greatest Players of All Time.

The enormity of that was not lost on Laine as a lifelong student of the game. It was, quite simply, an inspiration.

After all, that might just be him up on that stage one day.

"I think that's everybody's goal, to be remembered," Laine said. "If we can play the game the same way, then someone will remember you when you're not playing anymore. That would be pretty cool to be selected like that someday. I will try to work (toward) that every day."

Come Sunday, the All-Star Game itself didn't end the way he wanted it to, with the Central Division dropping its only contest by a 10-3 score to the mighty Pacific, but it was a day filled with memories nonetheless.

Forty-four players took part in the 3-on-3 'tournament,' with the NHL100 lining the ice for the pre-game player intros, there was more talent on that one ice surface than there has ever been for any National Hockey League event in history.

These are his peers now.

Laine's first steps on Staples Center ice involved fist-bumps with NHL legends Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier, Mario Lemieux, Selanne, and literally dozens of other historical superstars that to many us are larger than life.

"It was an honour to meet all the legends, and be in the same room with those guys," Laine said. "It was a lot of fun."

Laine finished with one shot, three missed shots and a -3 rating in 5:19 of ice time. On Saturday, he wired a 101.7-mph slap shot, second only to three-time champ Shea Weber, and skated a lap of 13.420 seconds, only three-tenths off the eventual winner, Connor McDavid.

"Maybe in a couple years I'll try and get some more muscle so I can beat (Weber) some day," Laine said with a smile. "I think that was the best I have right now. I have to practice some more."

How old is he again?

"Patrik Laine doesn't turn 19 until April," division rival and captain of the Blackhawks, Jonathan Toews, said prior to the skills competition. "To see what he and Auston Matthews are accomplishing as teenagers, it's insane."

Video: COL@WPG: Laine fires a one-timer to open the scoring

The coach of the Jets, Paul Maurice - a garrulous and quick-witted storyteller - couldn't agree more. He, too, has had his barrel of adjectives run dry recounting the many incredible things this kid has accomplished over the past five months.

"Special, special player," he said after the rookie's two-goal game in Toronto.

"Everyone always talks about how the game is better, the talent is better, every year," said Toews. "I've been in the league for 10 years now, and see what these guys are doing - stepping in and producing like they are right away, it's crazy. God knows what they'll do at the stage of their career where I'm at right now. Those guys are going to change the game. They're going to make it better down the road, for sure."

- Ryan Dittrick, WinnipegJets.com

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