Anaheim's Saku Koivu
has watched the growth of NHL Premiere intensely.
Once the National Hockey League decided to play regular-season games abroad five years ago, Koivu has been a fan of the endeavor. When the League decided to go to Finland, Koivu's home country, three years ago for regular-season games, he became an even bigger champion.
"I thought it amazing on their part that they have made it possible in the past couple years to play in Europe," Koivu said. "I never thought growing up that it would even be possible that NHL teams would even come and play in Finland."
But he always believed he would be nothing more than a bystander to the spectacle. Last season, his younger brother, Mikko, got to experience the thrill of playing as an NHLer before Finnish fans when his Minnesota Wild
took part in Premiere, playing against the Carolina Hurricanes
listened enviously to Mikko's stories, resigned to the fact that such an honor would escape his otherwise storied career -- especially because the Anaheim franchise played in a set of Premiere games already, playing against the Los Angeles Kings
in London in 2007.
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That is until the NHL announced that the Koivu's Ducks would be returning to Europe and, more, importantly, to Finland. Anaheim will spend a week in Helsinki, playing an exhibition game against traditional Finnish powerhouse Jokerit before playing the Buffalo Sabres
in the regular-season opener at Hartwell Arena.
With that gift, Koivu, 36, is ready to live out a dream as he enters the twilight of his extraordinary career.
"For me, it has been a long time since I have played back home and now to go back and play in front of the fans, the family and friend s with the Ducks, I think it's going to be an amazing experience," he says. "I have experienced it with Team Finland a number of times and I just think it is going to be real special; it's going have that something extra."
Koivu still calls Finland home and spends his offseason there. When he left for the United States and the start of training camp in early September, he says he was already beginning to realize what a big deal the Ducks' visit would be.
Because, let's not forget, Koivu is not the only Finn on this team. The Ducks also boast the Finnish Flash, Teemu Selanne
, who decided to play one more year just as training camp got under way, as well as defenseman Toni Lydman
"Already when we left Finland a couple weeks ago for training camp, there was a big buzz around and people are really excited about it," Koivu said. "They don't see the NHL live, just through TV. When they get to see teams like us, they really appreciate that."
Koivu appreciates the opportunity for what is a true homecoming. His home is about 90 minutes to the east of Helsinki and he expects a big contingent of family and friends to be on hand for both the exhibition game and the regular-season game against Buffalo.
"It'll be like playing at home for sure," he says with enthusiasm.
But how much he will enjoy the visit remains to be seen. He still doesn't know how much free time he will have in his homeland. Therefore, he doesn't know if he will be able to sneak home for a day, which is something he would love to do.
He also wonders how much of Finnish culture he will be able to show his teammates.
"First of all, it will depend on what (coach) Randy (Carlyle) is going to give us, if he is going to give us a night off," Koivu said with a laugh. "We'll find something; obviously show them a bit of Finnish culture and sauna and get on the sea and stuff like that. I'm sure we can come up with some plan and it will be a lot of fun for the boys."
Koivu's teammates have already expressed interest in the itinerary for Finland, curious what Koivu -- and the other Finns -- have in store for the rest of the team.
"They are more concerned about the weather than anything else -- if it is going to be cold and snowing at the time," Koivu said. "But we hope we get good weather and are able to enjoy the sauna and have some fun."
Yet, at its core, this is a business trip with regular-season points on the line. Two points will be on offer Friday night in Helsinki against Buffalo and another two the following night, in Stockholm, against the New York Rangers
This past season, the Anaheim Ducks
finished fourth in the Western Conference, earning home-ice advantage in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Yet three fewer points and they would have been out of the playoffs completely.
Things are simply that tight these days in the NHL.
That's not a reality that the Ducks will forget just because they are on another continent, more than 5,000 miles and 10 time zones away from home.
"It'll be pretty busy and hopefully we don't lose the focus," Koivu said. "I'm sure we'll be alright. That's what we are working on right now."
A fan of European games, Koivu knows the history of the teams that have made the trip. He knows it is a mixed bag, at best.
Yes, each of the past three Stanley Cup champions -- Pittsburgh, Chicago and Boston -- has started the regular season in Europe. Yet others have struggled upon their return. This past season, Carolina and Minnesota did not make the postseason.
When the Ducks last went abroad in 2007 -- before Koivu's arrival -- they returned home and had a disastrous start to the season as they struggled with a monster of a season-opening road trip.
Koivu insists there will be no repeat of those hard times when Anaheim takes the continent by storm this fall.
"I think you can look at it in a lot of different ways," he says. "You try to find the positives and it is a great time to bond with the guys and, obviously, if those first two games go well then it is a great trip. It's not going to be easy, there is no doubt.
"But if you start focusing too much about the negative stuff and what is going to happen when we come back then you are on the wrong track. You have to keep positive and keep the focus on those first two games. I don't expect it to be a problem for us."
It certainly won't be a problem for Koivu, who plans to enjoy a trip about which he spent the better part of three decades dreaming.