Life is pretty crazy when you stop to think about it. Isn't it?
I think about my journey to live in Nashville, a city that I now love, but a place so far away from where I grew up in the Finnish countryside. As a kid, I never dreamed of visiting the United States or playing the NHL. Until I was 20, I was pretty unsure on where Tennessee was actually located, and I had no reason to know.
So how did I end up here?
I think back to when I was only four or five, living in Kempele, Finland, where my parents still live. We lived far enough out from the next town that our only neighbors were my cousins, who were seven and nine years older than me. My dad wasn't into hockey, and neither was the rest of my siblings, but my cousins were all in.
I couldn't really play close to their level because they were so much older than me. So my cousins would put me in the net and just use me as target practice. Calling it "playing goalie" would be too much of a stretch. That's how I first was introduced to hockey. Sometimes I would run home crying because I got hurt or something like that, but I would never stop. I would be back at their house the next day, ringing their doorbell and begging them to play with me.
After that, I had to know all I could about hockey. It was obvious to me that I had to play it. Our town was small enough that we had to drive a ways to see professional hockey, but my dad drove me over several times. I couldn't keep my eyes off the goalies. I'd watch them in warmups. I'd watch them during the games. One of my cousins had also become a goalie at this point, so I would sit and try on his gear. It was always too big for me, but trying on his glove and pretending to make saves was still the best.
I started watching hockey outside the Finnish leagues as I got older too. I still remember waking up every Sunday morning to sit and wait for this half-hour show called "NHL Weekly" to come on. It was just the Top 10 of everything from the past week in the NHL. The best goals, hits and whatever saves they'd throw in there. That's how I first saw this goalie named John Vanbiesbrouck.
I loved everything about "Beezer." His pads and especially his mask, I loved how it looked. When I was 14, Beezer and the Florida Panthers made this great run to the Stanley Cup Final, and I was dying to hear the result of each game the next day. I cut "Beezer" out of cardboard letters and pinned them up in my room along with other posters I had of guys like Dominik Hasek and Felix Potvin. When I got older, and Finnish guys like Miikka Kiprusoff and Vesa Toskala were in the NHL too, I liked following their careers as well, but it was always Vanbiesbrouck that started it for me.
Each year during the winter, I would play hockey, and during the summer I would play our version of baseball, pesapallo. In between, I would practice both whenever I could. When I couldn't play after school with the other kids, I would run home to our backyard where my dad built a big wall that I could hit a ball off of and catch with my glove. I'd play for hours, just hit, run and catch the ball off the wall. People still ask me if games like that helped with my glove hand today. I think, of course, it had a role, but I think it was more just working at the small parts of hockey over and over again.
When I started playing junior hockey in Finland, I was pretty good at playing goalie, but I was never close to the highest or toughest levels. I always dreamed about playing more, but even the Finnish Elite League seemed like a long shot. I didn't really consider the NHL or anything like that to be my destiny. Still, playing hockey was coming pretty easily for me until one year in particular.
When I was around 15, I had a crazy growth spurt. I'd never been taller than my friends until then, and suddenly, I was this tall, lanky kid with no coordination. It was so frustrating. When I would play goalie I felt like I couldn't get back up. I'd flop on my belly or back. I couldn't skate right. I felt like I couldn't even run. At this point, my hockey coaches were wanting me to commit even more time to train during the whole summer, and I just couldn't take it anymore. I told my dad I didn't want to play anymore. So for one whole summer, I quit hockey.
But once my buddies started playing again in August, I said, "Wait, I can't do this! I miss it too much." I called my coach and said, "Will you still take me back?" And since then, something woke up within me. I knew I had to work a lot harder. I moved to Oulu, which is still my hometown now, and joined the junior team there, which was at the highest level. Pretty quickly I realized I was nowhere near the top of the league. I was shown again how important focus and intentional practice are for success. I still feel that way. That one summer when I tried to quit and when I saw the competition with my new team, I realized that talent is a small part of it, but it's just repetition, repetition and work, work, work, that really matters. It's about yourself and what you do with it that matters.
Now, I don't want to make it sound like everything just fell into place at that point. I stayed in Oulu for the next four years until I was 20. One night I was at a friend's house for a traditional Finnish midsummer party and my agent called me and said I'd been drafted by the NHL team in Nashville in the eighth round. (Yes, there used to be eight rounds in the NHL Draft.) I was so shocked. I knew Nashville scouts had come to try and watch me play a few times, but each time they came by I didn't even end up playing. I was the young backup goaltender behind Niklas Backstrom, who would eventually play for the Minnesota Wild, and I didn't get much action outside of warm-ups at that point. I'd already been available in the draft a couple of times and didn't get picked, so I wasn't even following this one. So you can imagine how much that one phone call changed my night and really my life too.
My family didn't travel much growing up, and I'd never been to North America, let alone Tennessee. I didn't know anything about Nashville. They teach English in the Finnish school system, and I knew some American history from watching movies, but I never thought I'd need to, you know, actually know it. Well, right after the draft was the Predators Development Camp and my first trip to America. It was an eye-opening experience. I saw for the first time just how much my life could change if this was actually going to end up being my future.
It was still pretty early to be thinking about that too much, however. The next year I was back in Finland backing up Backstrom, still not playing a lot, and trying to focus on my new goal. I went back for more camps with Nashville in the next couple years for just a week or so at a time, just a taste of this other life. It almost felt like a dream going over there for snippets at a time, a weird and alternate life. When I signed my entry-level contract before training camp in 2005, I couldn't get my work visa in time from Helsinki, so I had to go to Toronto and try to figure it out. Fortunately, the Predators had a scout there helping me with the process, but I still felt so alone. I was still so shy at the time, and I was so nervous about this totally new culture that I wouldn't even venture out of my hotel. I had a little map that I traced a circle around my hotel on, and I would sometimes go out and walk around it a few times before I came running back. Eventually, the visa came through, and I got to leave the hotel and start my new life in the U.S.
My first real stop in America was, of course, the minors in Milwaukee - where the Predators affiliate in the American Hockey League is located. I ended up living with two other players, Kevin Klein and Paul Brown, and that was the best decision I made for my development. It forced me to speak English all the time, and I ended up making some really great friends in the process. Kleiner is still one of my best friends in hockey.
Any player that comes over from Europe, it's an interesting start. Even the most basic things, like taking care of bills, using checks and stuff like that, it was so weird to me. Starting my first year, I forced myself to take care of all that stuff on my own, and I think it really helped with the transition. I still remember that first Christmas in the U.S., thinking about all my friends and family back in Finland and thinking how easy it all was over there. The next Christmas, I noticed something weird though - I wasn't homesick. Sure, I enjoyed my summers in Finland, but it wasn't quite home anymore.
That first year, the impossible happened. The two starting goalies up in Nashville both got hurt. Tomas Vokoun and Chris Mason weren't going to be able to play, so first they called up my goaltending partner in Milwaukee, Brian Finley, and then for the next game they called me up. Trotzy (Barry Trotz, our head coach at the time) told me that night I was going to be starting the next day, and I couldn't believe it. I just kept thinking about how less than a year ago, I was back in Finland on a team in my hometown, and I wasn't even playing that much. And now I was going to be starting in an NHL game, the highest level in hockey.
You know how some memories you can think about them and the smells and sounds and sights all come back too? This is one of those memories for me. I wasn't quite as nervous as I thought I would be; the will to win really took over. We ended up beating Chicago, 5-3, on home ice. Again, just an unreal experience. Almost overwhelming.
After a few more seasons, I'd crack the Nashville roster for good. Nashville. Home. Which takes me back to my original home and start. What if my cousins didn't play hockey? What if I wasn't so much younger than them that I "had" to play goalie?
Never, when I was a kid, did I ever dream of being in the United States. It's been such a privilege to live here and get to know this culture and to be able to live here for such a long time. What if Nashville didn't take a huge chance and draft me? Would I have ever even been to, let alone fallen in love with Tennessee and with the great city of Nashville that I now call home? Who knows where I'd be without that draft pick.
Everything, all the people I've met, the relationships I've made during this journey, they're all so special to me. Life may be crazy, but it's also priceless.