ST. PAUL -- They love their pucks in Finland, and the country's president saw firsthand Thursday night how Minnesotans embrace "Finnesota."
In town for FinnFest USA -- one of a series of international events celebrating the Scandinavian nation's centennial anniversary -- President Sauli Niinistö dropped a ceremonial first puck prior to the Wild's preseason clash against Winnipeg. Friday, he'll attend a Finland 100 luncheon along with Finnish forwards Mikko Koivu and Mikael Granlund.
Koivu is slated to attend a Minnesota Orchestra concert with President Niinistö on Friday night, too.
"I surely enjoy myself here, not only because of wonderful ice hockey but having the wonderful people around. We have high respect towards these people," said Niinistö, who grew up in Salo, Finland -- the sister city of Saint Anthony Village. "Minnesota and I go way back."
Finland 100 will be celebrated across the United States, but it starts and ends in Minnesota -- the state with the largest percentage of people with Finnish ancestry in the U.S. In 2015, 97,000 Minnesotans, or almost two percent of the state's population, claimed Finnish roots.
And a lot of them are hockey fans with a particular allegiance to Koivu, known on social media as "CapFinn," and Granlund, whom Wild fans refer to as "The Finnish Flow". They may be even more adored in Finland, especially after representing the Finnish national team on more than several occasions.
Video: President of Finland Ceremonial Puck Drop
Niinistö has known the Koivu family since the 1970s, he said, when Mikko's father Jukka Koivu played professionally. The president still skates at an outdoor community rink in Finland during the winter.
"They are legends already," Niinistö said of Mikko Koivu, his (now retired) brother Saku, and Granlund. "[Mikko] has long been the brains and the father of the team, and Mikael ... [is] also a living legend already."