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Osala looks at home with AHL's Bears

by Lindsay Kramer /
Airlines fly round-trip between Finland and Canada. That's what Oskar Osala's parents told him four years ago when he was trying to decide whether hockey was worth pursuing across the pond.

Osala's hesitance was understandable. When all you dream about is playing for your hometown team, and then you hit that goal at age 15, everything else seems like gravy.

But his parents told Osala at 17 that he could leave his home in Vaasa and check things out in Mississauga of the Ontario Hockey League. If he didn't like what he saw, the same ticket that took him there would bring him right back to his beloved native land.

"That's what my mom and dad told me. Every day there's planes that come back home," Osala said. "I wasn't scared or nervous. I had no pressure going there."

A few seasons after tip-toeing beyond his back-yard fence, Osala looks like he has a second home in the AHL.

Osala, almost 21, paces all league rookies with 16 goals. The 6-foot-4, 217-pound left wing is the finisher on a terrific rookie line (along with Mathieu Perreault and Francois Bouchard) that's gathered under the big top of the AHL's best offense. Hershey Bears coach Bob Woods looks at Osala and sees the outline of a young Keith Primeau.

"He's a big body who can skate and shoot. He's a handful for any defenseman. He can make some room out there," Woods said. "Oskar is the guy who can get the puck and close the deal."

Washington apparently agrees. Last week, the Caps called him up for a quick, first taste of the NHL.

All his wondrous potential aside, Osala likes to understate things. Woods implores him to shoot more, but Osala is conservative on the trigger. He's a self-described glass half-empty kind of guy, one who tries to not expect too much so he's not disappointed.
Contentment is easy to come by in Osala's beautiful home city, which basks in more than 400 years of history and sits on the west coast of the country. His mother owns a toy shop there, and remote-control cars were Oskar's weakness.

"I was a lucky kid growing up," he said. "I wouldn't say I'm spoiled, but I got some toys every now and then. I always liked to (do) more than just play with some toys."

Osala lived barely a backhand flip away from the ocean, but the water didn't really catch his passion. In the summer, Vaasa is a big soccer town, and in the winter, when some nights literally last all day, it's time to skate.

"When I was growing up, I lived at the outdoor rink," Osala said. "That was all I did in the wintertime. It was more having fun. It wasn't when I was 12 years old, I was thinking I was practicing."

The end game then, at least in Osala's mind, was making the hometown squad, which was good, but a level below elite. He cleared that bar by 15; at 16 and 17 he was a regular on raw talent alone.

"I was not planning on reaching that goal so early. I wasn't a hard worker back then. I was big and lazy," Osala said. "I didn't do anything extra. Maybe I didn't take it serious enough. Before I made the hometown team, I never really thought about anything bigger."

To his credit, Osala listened to his parents and figured there was no harm in trying the OHL. So he readjusted his sights and jumped on a plane for Mississauga for the 2005-06 season.

"I was debating that for a long time. I just went there to see what's going on," Osala said. "I was like, 'OK, let's try something new.' My backup plan was if hockey doesn't work out, at least I learn a new language."

Osala's education ran a lot deeper than that. He landed on a Mississauga team and got exactly the taskmaster he needed in the form of head coach Greg Gilbert. Osala produced 17 goals and 26 assists, numbers good enough for Washington to pluck him in the fourth round of the 2006 Entry Draft.
"He's a big body who can skate and shoot. He's a handful for any defenseman. He can make some room out there. Oskar is the guy who can get the puck and close the deal." -- Hershey coach Bob Woods on Oskar Osala
Today, Osala credits Gilbert as the main reason he finally got serious about hockey and his potential.

"He made me realize how hard I had to work to succeed in hockey," Osala said. "When I went to the OHL, I set the bar (higher)."

That translated to 22 goals and 22 assists in his second year with Mississauga before Osala returned to Finland to test himself for a season with the elite Blues. Woods has taken over his schooling this year, although Osala returned to North America a much more eager and confident student than his first time around.

"He's always asking questions. When he makes mistakes, he's not happy," Woods said. "He expects a lot of himself. You love to see that passion."

That emotion is a strong one. It took a lot to yank Osala away from Finland and convince him there's more ice to conquer over here. Dominating the scoreboard like he and the Bears are doing looks like the best possible argument.

"It's definitely a pretty fun time right now," he said. "I'm really happy now. Looking back, I would say I made a great decision. If I wouldn't have (left), I wouldn't have been here. It worked out very well."

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