Seems like the New York Rangers and Finnish forward Lauri Pajuniemi were meant to be.
It started with the Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist, Pajuniemi's favorite player, and expanded to PlayStation. Pajuniemi always chose the Rangers as his team when he played with his best friend.
And what was the next step for Pajuniemi? The Rangers selected the right wing in the 2018 NHL Draft in the fifth round (132nd overall).
"I will never forget that day in Dallas. The Rangers jersey I got to wear still hangs on the wall in my old room, at my parents' house. Every time I see it, I can hear my name called, and I remember how great and special the day was," Pajuniemi said.
20-year-old Pajuniemi now plays with TPS Turku in the Finnish League (Liiga), and that's where it all started, in Turku, Finland. His parents had suggested soccer, track & field and cross country skiing, but no. At the age 4, Pajuniemi knew what he wanted to do. Play hockey.
"A couple of cousins of mine, a few years my senior, played hockey, and one day they took me to a rink. I was four. Mom was worried, and she tied a pillow around my butt, for cushioning, should I fall. That's when I fell in love with skating. I've been told from that day on I slept with my skates on and with a stick next to me."
Pajuniemi's actual hockey career took off with TPS juniors when he was 7, and his first idol was Chicago Blackhawks' Patrick Kane, even though Kane shoots left. Pajuniemi kept on shooting right, knowing you can't have everything, not even a perfect idol.
"Sometime in 2010 I got interested in goalies, because so many Finnish netminders had made some noise in the NHL. And that's when I discovered Lundqvist. I loved to watch his saves."
Some eight years and many evenings of PlayStation later Pajuniemi was drafted by the team of his dreams. Rangers prospects camp followed in his draft year and again last summer, and he says the camps have been of great help in his development. The smaller rink being one teacher; the game is faster and time is limited.
"Also, I have had a chance to be on ice with players who have made it to the NHL, like Filip Chytil and my old team mate Kaapo Kakko. To realize there is nothing that would stop me from developing into an NHL player, it's a great feeling. I know I need to be much, much better, but if I do the right things, it's possible."
Pajuniemi has recorded 35 points in 38 games (as of 1/23) in Liiga this season, and he already has established career-highs in goals (23), assists (12) and points (35). He leads all players under their U21 season or younger in Liiga in goals and points in 2019-20, and he is in elite company. Over the last 30 seasons (since 1990-91), only five players have recorded more than 23 goals in a season as a U21 player or younger, including NHL legends Teemu Selanne and Saku Koivu.
Pajuniemi thinks work ethic is one of his best assets. He has always loved training, in the rink and outside, and that hasn't changed. What kept him off the score sheet last season were a couple of injuries and lost confidence, but things are different now. We know what he did last summer, worked hard, and it's paying off.
"I have a big role in my team this season. Big minutes equal to good numbers in the stats. All in all I'm a better player than a year ago, with and without the puck. I gained more strength last summer, and it has helped. I'm stronger in corners and can protect the puck better. And my shot is harder," he explained.
So, Pajuniemi is working hard every day to make another dream of his come true; to play in the Madison Square Garden, the greatest arena in the world. And he wouldn't mind living in a big city like New York. Even though a scheduled 20-minute bus ride can take two hours, if you get stuck in the traffic, like he experienced during his first visit to the Big Apple.
"I would love to play with the Rangers one day. But I know I still have a lot of work to do. I have to earn it," he said.