Imagine leaving your homeland thousands of miles away to go to a country you have only visited for a couple of weeks, with the expectation that that you will make a smooth transition to the culture and the language. By the way, you must do this while competing in a highly-competitive, 20-day training camp trying to impress management and beat out dozens of others that feel right at home.
Now you know a little bit of what it is like for the Predators prospects attending training camp from places such as Finland, Sweden and Austria.
|Strength and Condition Coach Dave Good chats with Oliver Setzinger during training camp. |
“The biggest adjustment is culturally – from getting your bank set up, to making sure you get water and electricity,” head coach Barry Trotz said. “I think in Europe they play a little bit more of what I call an ‘entitlement game,’ where if you are a veteran player who has played eight or nine years, they just play you. They will roll four lines, there is more equal time distributed and there isn’t much calling out of players, so the style of coaching is different.”
It is a bit different in the sometimes cutthroat business of North American professional hockey, where players can be healthy scratches for weeks at a time, in addition to having their game criticized to the local media, who sometimes love to stir the pot. Now it is much easier to see why many of Europeans choose not to pursue the NHL, but rather to live a comfortable life closer to home, typically living in free housing, driving a free car and making a six-figure income. As much as having the skills on the ice, players must be mentally prepared to make the leap.
“I think the mental part is really, really necessary,” said Oliver Setzinger, a native of Horn, Austria. “When you are signed, you are playing to reach that goal of playing in the NHL consistently. If you aren’t mentally ready, and think you are going to make it anyways, you are already lost. Of course on the ice is a big part of it, but mentally is the biggest part.”Making the Jump
Setzinger has taken a unique route to North America, having signed with Nashville in the summer of 2007. At 16 years old, the 6-0, 189-pound centerman left home to play in Finland, and that exposure led to the Predators drafting him in the third round (76th overall) at the 2001 Entry Draft. For the next six seasons, Setzinger bounced back and forth between the Finnish and Austrian leagues, eventually getting married and turning some of his focus toward starting a family.
“Over the years, I have been to the conditioning camps, but it has never really worked out to where I could come over,” Setzinger said. “I wanted to make that step last year, but I had some problems with my family – my wife has some complications with a miscarriage. It has been rough on us, and I didn’t want to come over here and get my hands full with other stuff because I wanted to come here and make an impression.”
Instead, he stayed with his wife and posted career high numbers with Vienna – 76 points (26g-50a) in 56 games. Now a more mature person both on and off ice, Setzinger decided to make the leap of faith, and come to North America, but not without a slight wrinkle. His wife is giving birth to the couple’s first child on Sept. 29, and he will fly home to be with her for the special day. Then, he will return to solidify a roster spot.
“My wife and the baby will stay at home for about six more weeks because I don’t want them to have to live in a hotel,” Setzinger said “When she gets used to the baby stuff and I know where my house is going to be I am going to bring them over.”Not Quite Ready
Others, like Teemu Laakso
, are not quite ready to make the leap, despite signing a contract this summer and standing out in this year’s training camp. Laakso, a third-round pick (78th overall) in 2005, is under contract for one more season with HIFK Helsinki of the Finnish Elite League, and thinks spending one more year with friends and family is the right call.
“I think if I have one good year back home it might help to come over next year – I’ll be more ready, more physical and a better player,” Laakso said.
Ultimately, the Tuusula, Finland native dreams of donning a Predators jersey for an NHL game, and therefore enjoys coming to training camps/conditioning camps to see what he needs to work on to make a smooth transition to North America.
“This season, I just want to improve my game as much as possible back home, so I can come back next training camp and try to make the team,” Laakso said. “Hopefully, I will be ready to make the team, and we will go from there.”A Different Route
Both Laakso and Setzinger had the luxury of being third-round draft picks, giving them more opportunities earlier in their careers to come to North America and stick with a team. Others, like Antii Pihlstrom and Ville Koistinen had to take a different route – that of free agency. Guys like these, who were later bloomers, had to get noticed after their draft years. Ready or not, undrafted Europeans must make the leap when opportunity arises.
“I had a pretty good year in Finland, and when I got the chance to come here I had to take it,” said Pihlstrom, who was signed earlier this summer.
While the Vantaa, Finland native said some aspects of the transition will be tough, the key to succeeding will be keeping an open mind and trying hard to learn as much as possible.
“It is a big difference between here and Finland, he said. “I have to learn the language and get to know all the people here. Back home, it is so easy to speak your own language and make friends, so to do that here I just have to be open, and get to know as many people as possible.”Smooth Transition
That open mindedness is exactly what made the shift so easy for goaltender Pekka Rinne
. In fact, Trotz said he hasn’t seen anyone make the transition from Europe to America as easy as Rinne, an eighth-round pick of the Predators in 2004. In recent years, many European players have gotten a jumpstart on the North American experience by playing in the Canadian major junior system before even being drafted. Martin Erat
and Alexander Radulov
, playing in the Western Hockey League and Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, respectively, took this route, while Rinne came straight from his hometown team, Karpat Oulu.
“It has been pretty easy for me – I guess I have been lucky to have such great teammates, coaches and organization to play in,” Rinne said. “When you come over, you just have to be open-minded and take every day as a new opportunity and learn from every experience. You get to know new people and do new things, so it’s an exciting time when you come over – it has been the best time of my life.”