As a youngster growing up on the west coast of Finland, Erik Haula
already was learning the North American way of life, or at least the language.
As it turns out, football, the North American kind, was the sport that provided Haula the outlet he needed to eventually excel on the ice at Shattuck-St. Mary's Prep in Minnesota.
Shattuck hockey coach Tom Ward
considers his first-year junior forward part of the new generation of Finnish hockey players.
"He's not afraid to get physical and he's pretty rugged," Ward told NHL.com. "He's not altogether that big right now (5-foot-11, 170 pounds), but he'll mix it up."
"My dad (Tomi) was a football coach in Finland and he had players on the team who were from the (United) States," Haula said. "Some of those players lived in our house, so I kind of learned to speak with them. It really helped because when I came to North America last year, I knew the language and what to expect."
Tomi Haula coached the Turku Trojans, which included quarterback Brett Dietz, who played for the Arena Football League's Tampa Bay Storm.
"I was the water boy for the team," Haula said. It wasn't long after that that Erik set aside the water bottles and turned his attention to hockey. He was determined not only to make contributions for his country on an international stage, but travel to North America and enhance his game.
He's accomplished both, and after being ranked No. 57 in NHL Central Scouting's final rankings for the 2009 Entry Draft, he is projected to be an early-round pick when the teams meet June 26-27 at Bell Centre in Montreal.
"I don't think there is influence anywhere in Europe to come to North America to play hockey," Haula said. "Europe wants to keep their players in their own country, but my dad has been in America a lot and I told him about wanting to go to the United States and play college hockey. I spoke to my advisor about it and he suggested attending high school at Shattuck-St. Mary's."
Haula had 1 goal and 3 assists as Finland finished sixth at the 2008 Under-18 World Championship, then he helped Pori Assat finish second in the Finnish Under-20 league by posting 22 points in 20 games.
This season, his first at Shattuck, he had 22 goals and 49 assists, and earned a scholarship to the University of Minnesota.
"He's a rink rat and always has a smile on his face," Ward said. "He loves to get on the ice and do as much as he possibly can to improve his game. He plays both ends of the rink, plays enthusiastically, is a good puck mover and has a good scoring touch around the net."
Ward said Haula's transition has been a smooth one.
"He speaks better English than some of us do here in Minnesota," Ward said. "There wasn't much of a learning curve for Erik. The Finns are exposed to the North American game right in their country. The terminology is different than theirs, but they still understand how to play. He plays wherever we put him and he's happy going wherever we want him to play. He likes to consider himself a forward and he's played up the middle a little bit and played wing. He hasn't played up the middle exclusively this year, but he's getting better acquainted with that position this season."
"He's a rink rat and always has a smile on his face. He loves to get on the ice and do as much as he possibly can to improve his game. He plays both ends of the rink, plays enthusiastically, is a good puck mover and has a good scoring touch around the net."
-- Tom Ward
Haula realizes he has time to continue to hone his skills.
"The rinks are bigger in Finland and there's a lot more speed here, but there's more stick-handling in Europe," Haula said. "I think I'm more into the North American style; I like the physical games and like to hit people, but obviously I need to build up more strength. But I like the hard-fought games."
Central Scouting's Jack Barzee likes what he sees in Haula.
"He's one of the more colorful players I've seen," Barzee said. "He plays with gusto and grit. He can't go through people but has exceptional hands in traffic and can dish off the puck very well. He can play center or wing and scouts have been all over him. He gets involved and is in the game and he comes at you and sometimes punishes himself."
He has little doubt Haula will be drafted in the early rounds.
"There's no question in my mind a team will take him early," Barzee said.
Contact Mike Morreale at email@example.com.