-- Jukka Nieminen came to North America with a dream of reaching the NHL. A nasty knee injury suffered in junior hockey in Halifax kept him from reaching the ice as a player, but couldn't derail his dream.
For 16 years, beginning in Winnipeg with the old Jets, Nieminen was the massage therapist, European player tour guide, quick-witted dressing room wag and constant heartbeat of the Phoenix Coyotes
. His massage table, set up in a room known as "The Finnish Consulate" at Jobing.com Arena, was adorned with photos of fellow countrymen and good friends throughout the League -- players who never missed a chance to stop by and say hello when the schedule brought them to Arizona.
But "The Consulate" is now closed." The guy they called "Curious George" for his inquisitive ear and nature is gone.
Friends around the world and his co-workers in Arizona were stunned on June 11 to learn that Nieminen -- outwardly in tip-top shape and just 40 years old -- had died suddenly during the night in Rhode Island. Even more tragic, he was there with friends, family and family-to-be because he was to be married the next day to a woman who had swept his heart away.
No cause of death has been released. But the outpouring of grief and disbelief in the Coyotes organization was on display immediately.
"I have spent more time in my life with Jukka and (longtime Coyotes equipment man) Stan Wilson that anyone outside of my own family -- and, in a lot of cases, including my family," captain and 14-year Coyote Shane Doan
said. "They are family. And when you lose someone like that, it hits you like family.
"I don't know how I'm going to walk into that dressing room the first time knowing he won't be there. He was the best in the league at his job, but he was so much more than that. It tears your heart out."
"I don't know how I'm going to walk into that dressing room the first time knowing he won't be there. He was the best in the league at his job, but he was so much more than that. It tears your heart out." -- Shane Doan on the passing of massage therapist Jukka Nieminen
For Wilson, who along with Doan and Nieminen represented the few final links to Winnipeg for the franchise, losing his good friend and constant companion on the road will be especially tough. All the nights lugging equipment in the dead of night, setting up rooms in the wee hours of the morning and catching meals and laughs when possible are caught in his mind's eye.
"We're as tight a group as you can get. We rely on each other to make it all work, and the respect and friendship … I don't know how we go on from this," Wilson said quietly. "He had found someone he wanted to spend his life with, someone that made him as happy as I've ever seen him. It's just not fair."
Outside of the deep tissue treatments that often left the toughest customers in the League screaming in agony -- for their own good -- Nieminen wore several other hats. Knowing what was it was like to be a stranger in a strange land when he arrived in Canada as a teenager, he was the first to seek out the new young players -- Finns, Russians and Czechs alike, and show them the basics of life in Arizona.
A good meal here. Clothes cleaned there. A friendly face to share a drink or lend an ear. But always a staunch supporter of his home country, any national sporting event brought out his colors, and he made sure current Coyotes Sami Lepisto
and Lauri Korpikoski
always backed him in a battle of bravado.
A boyhood friend of Teemu Selanne
, Nieminen was in all his glory in 2000, when the Coyotes seemingly had the market cornered on Finns in the NHL -- Jyrki Lumme
, Teppo Numminen
and Ossi Vaananen
on defense and Mika Alatalo
and Juha Ylonen
joining Doan on a line and torturing him with his English-only vocabulary.
"I'd be out there with four of them and we'd scored and we'd get together for the hug and not know a word they were say," Doan said. "We'd go back to the bench and there was 'Curious George,' wanting them to give him the scoop. He was the King Finn back then, and he loved it."
Like many who knew of Nieminen's thorough but excruciating massage techniques, Doan would sometimes avoid the massage table to his own detriment. But sooner or later, his back would seize up and he would have no choice but to visit "The Consulate," where revenge would come with a sting.
"It wasn't a spa massage," Doan said. "He would say 'Captain, you can come to me now and or you will come later -- and later won't be fun.' He was so strong. You hated him for that half hour. But you knew you'd feel better for it."
Nieminen doted on his two daughters, who grew up around the Coyotes team and staff. They both took to tennis lessons, and players jokingly called him "Mr. Williams" and predicted the next tennis dynasty was at hand. "He would do anything for them, whatever it took," Wilson said. "He worked hard at being an important person in their lives."
The Coyotes, friends and family held a memorial service for their friend in nearby Scottsdale. They had also planned a get-together in August to celebrate Nieminen's wedding and toast the beginning of the new chapter in his life. The gathering will still happen. The glasses will still be raised -- but now in memory of their friend.
"You know what happened. You know he's gone. But you can't get your arms around it now," Doan said. "This last team we had was so close. We set records in a season when no one thought we'd even challenge for the playoffs. And Jukka loved it because he loved to win. He loved proving people wrong.
"It won't be real until we're all together again and he's not here. That's when the reality will hit us -- and that will be a hard day too."