TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. – Living in Finland’s northernmost province, Vili Saarijärvi happens to have a very famous neighbor, who is known around the world for the good deeds he does once a year.
“He’s awesome guy,” Saarijärvi said. “He treats me well, if I’m not doing stupid things. … I’m not stupid.”
More than a half century ago, Santa Claus – yes, that Santa Claus – wanted to safeguard the serenity of his secret village, and came up with an idea that also allows him to meet people who share his passion, spirit and love Christmas. It was around half a century ago that old St. Nick began to frequent the Arctic Circle near Rovaniemi, which is Saarijärvi’s hometown.
“People from all over the world come to visit him, so it’s really nice that it’s my hometown,” he said. “It’s a big thing in Rovaniemi, my city. Wintertime before Christmas is a big time.
“When I was a small kid it was unreal. Now I really don’t think about it too much. Every Christmas he comes on TV with a show and it’s like close to my hometown and everyone is watching it. It’s really nice.”
As spectacular as it was to grow up next to Santa, the past seven days have been much more of a whirlwind for the 18-year-old Finnish defenseman, who played last season with the Green Bay Gamblers in the United States Hockey League.
The Wings took Saarijärvi in the third round of last weekend’s NHL draft, and on Friday the club signed him to a three-year-, entry-level contract. On Tuesday he was selected by the Flint Firebirds of the Ontario Hockey League in the CHL import draft.
Now he has a decision to make: where will he play next?
While it would be great for Saarijärvi to train and play in Flint, just north of Detroit, he’ll first need to get out of his contract with a top men's league team in his native Finland.
Asked if he believes that the 5-foot-10 right-handed shooting defender will wind up in Flint, Jiri Fischer, the Red Wings’ director of player development said, “That’s where it’s going.”
However, Fischer is aware that plans can change.
“He has a contract in Oulun (Kärpät) and essentially it’s going to be his decision where he wants to play next year,” Fischer added. “Now there is another option by obviously being a very-high CHL import draft pick for Flint.”
It appears that Saarijärvi has his mind made up. He’d like to play in Flint. The Wings would like to see him play in Flint. But Friday, he still wasn’t clear on the legalities and any subsequent ramifications.
“I signed with the Finnish team last summer,” he said. “Now what happens next? Well, I’m here. I don’t know. I’m heading back to Finland after this and practice there, probably under-20 tournament, summer camp, and after that probably coming back here and then going to Flint.
“We haven’t talked that much yet, so I’m going to find out soon.”
A little on the smallish side, Saarijärvi overcomes his vertical challenges by being a solid puck-mover with a heavy shot from the point, who skates exceptionally well.
“Every team leaving the NHL draft is very excited about their players and usually every particular team has their players ranked higher than they ended up taking them, and he is a prime example of that,” Fischer said. “We didn’t have a second-round pick and got to pick him in the third. It was a decision to make between several players. We picked him. He has a ton of speed, ton of skill. He’s been growing up watching Sami Vatanen who is a great prospect and playing extremely well in Anaheim. So he compares himself to him a little bit, and let’s hope it happens.”