Leo Tolstoy, the Russian novelist who penned the famed “War and Peace” wrote, “All great literature is one of two stories; a man goes on a journey or a stranger comes to town.”
For Minnesota Wild Captain Mikko Koivu, leaving his home country of Finland for North America and the National Hockey League was a dual narrative—both a hero’s journey and a saga of foreigner in a strange land.
After playing four seasons in the Finnish Elite League (Sm-Liiga) for his hometown team, TPS Turku, he crossed the Atlantic to skate for the Wild’s American Hockey League affiliate, the Houston Aeros. He was the only Finn on the team. The 21-year old was displaced from everything he’d ever known, forced to adapt to an unknown city, a new team and different culture.
Obviously, the forward had teammates who were all in similar situations as young hockey players, but challenges still arose. The biggest hurdle was the language barrier—understanding the coaches drawing up plays and communicating to linemates after a shift. However, as difficult as those early years were for Koivu, he believes going through it, even alone, was for the best.
“You had to learn the language, and I had a lot of help from guys, but I still had to do it all in English,” Koivu said. “But learning like that really helps the later you get into your career. It was tough at first, but I kind of liked that I had to go through it on my own and learn all the things on and off the ice.”
Of course, Koivu did have someone he could tap for advice if he ever needed it. His older brother, Saku, was a star for the Montreal Canadiens, coming to the NHL in 1995.
However, when Mikko made the leap to pro hockey and Houston, it was during a season-long NHL lockout. With the NHL shutdown and current players out of a job, Saku returned to Finland and skated for TPS Turku, essentially swapping spots with his younger sibling.
With his brother an ocean away, Mikko had to be more self-reliant in his first season in Houston. Although, speaking now, it sounds like he wouldn’t have had it any other way.
“I still wanted to do it on my own, my own way,” Koivu said. “I wanted to earn my spot on my own and I think that’s good for each individual to go through that process. And not just in hockey but off the ice as well. It helps prepare you for life.”
The history of his home country likely played a part in Koivu’s fiercely independent mindset when he first came to America. In 1918, Finland went through a civil war, as clashing political agendas between the Social Democratic Party (Reds) and the People’s Deputation of Finland (Whites) fought for control of the country’s political landscape. The German-supported Whites defeated the Russian Empire-sup- ported socialist Reds. After World War I, Finland arose independent as a democratic country.
The Turku native said that Itsenäisyyspäivä, Finnish Independence Day celebrating the country’s autonomy, is a source of national pride.
“The war was a big factor in Finnish life and we take a lot of pride in our independence. It comes from that,” Koivu said. “The older generation lives even more by it, but you learn about it in school and so we grew up with what they’ve done for us and our independence.”
Backstrom’s Big Break
Coincidentally, as Koivu’s first year as a pro in North America was during the 2004-05 lockout, the cancelled season might’ve been Niklas Backstrom’s big NHL break.
As a youngster growing up in Helsinki, the nation’s capital and largest city, Backstrom’s dream was to play in the Finnish League and, maybe, if he was good enough, represent his country on the National Team. It wasn’t until his friends and teammates started to get drafted—players he knew and knew he could compete with— that the NHL became a thought.
After playing professionally in Sweden, Backstrom became one of the Finnish League’s best netminders with Karpat Oulu, leading the club to two championships. He was backstopping Karpat Oulu when several players without NHL jobs bolted for European professional leagues. The netminder went against some of the world’s top talent and didn’t feel out of place.
“After the first lockout, you saw the players and you knew that you can play against them,” Backstrom said. “After that, the NHL grew more in your mind, and the dream of competing in the highest level in the world and against the best players.”
A year later, during the 2006-07 season, the netminder signed a deal to join Koivu in Minnesota. At 28, he made his NHL debut in relief of Manny Fernandez. Backstrom came in during the second period and backstopped the Wild to a 6-5 win against the Nashville Predators.
The goaltender’s transition to the NHL game was smoother than the ice below his skates, going 23-8-6 in his first year with a 1.97 goals-against average and .929 save percentage. Being an experienced rookie and having played prior in Sweden and stops in cities other than his hometown helped him transition to a new country. Although he was older and well traveled, it was still nice to have a fellow Finn in Koivu on the team.
“Mikko had been here and knew everyone and knew how things worked here. It was a big help to have him,” Backstrom said.
Climate and topography-wise, Backstrom and Koivu said that Fin- land is very similar to Minnesota, with a lot of rivers and lakes, lush forests and four seasons.
The biggest difference is that Finland is located on the 64th parallel north. During the summer solstice, the sun shines over the horizon for 21 hours. The added daylight makes for naturally lit street hockey games during the summer months.
“On our home street there were a couple nets and we went there with our friends and played there with our shoes and hockey sticks,” Mikael Granlund said. “During the summer, playing street hockey, I’m from Oulu, which is up north so the sun was up late in the summers. “Mom usually said we’d have to be in. But we’d play until 9 or 10 p.m. When they’d call us to come back home we’d say, ‘One more game, one more game,’ so maybe get a little more time, but not too much.”
For fellow center Erik Haula, the street hockey games in his more southern city of Pori had a similar outcome, with mom the warden of the final buzzer.
“I remember there were a lot of times where I’d get a call from my mom and she’d say dinner was at 6:30, and you’d bust over and eat really quick and head back over and play for a couple more hours,” Haula said. “Mom would call a couple times and you’d say, ‘Yeah, we’re about to leave right now,’ but the game is 4-4 and someone has to win.”
Consequently, the winters are dark—something that’s hardly noticeable for a hockey crazed youngster with a rink and flood- lights to maintain visibility. While Minnesota is known for pond hockey, Finland had plenty of outdoor rinks to skate on.
“We didn’t play on the ponds, but we did play a lot of outdoor hockey on the rinks. There are a bunch of outdoor rinks around,” Haula said. “Growing up, having practices with a toque on underneath my helmet with the snow pouring down, it was awesome. I enjoyed it.”
After developing his game on the outdoor rinks, Haula chose to pursue college hockey. In 2008 he enrolled at the fabled Shattuck-St. Mary’s in Faribault. A family advisor suggested the prep school and his parents felt like it was a safe place for the teenager.
“I think it was a great start for me, to start there,” Haula said. “It’s a small place and to learn everything and then move on.”
After a year of junior hockey with Omaha of the United States Hockey League, he attended the University of Minnesota. In three years with the Golden Gophers, Haula amassed 124 points (42- 82=124). After his junior season, he signed an entry-level deal with the Wild.
Last season, Haula started with the club’s American Hockey League affiliate, the Iowa Wild. After getting called up mid-season, he stayed in the lineup for 46 games and all 13 of the team’s postseason contests, where he took his game to another level, totaling seven points (4-3=7).
While Haula was in his final season at the U of M, Granlund was in his first year in North American. Drafted in the first round (ninth overall) by the Wild in 2010, expectations were high for Granlund coming into the 2012-13 season. Due to the NHL lockout, he started with the team’s AHL affiliate, and got off to a fast start.
After the NHL restarted, and a brief training camp, Granlund made his NHL debut on Jan. 1, 2013. It was an auspicious start as the center netted his first career goal against the Colorado Avalanche. However, the transition wouldn’t be so easy. After struggling to adjust to the North American style, he was returned to Houston at the end of the season.
When Granlund was in Minnesota, he started to develop a friendship with Haula.
“My first year he was still playing with the Gophers, so he could help me with the city or whatever,” Granlund said.
Like most foreign players, the 22-year-old said that the language barrier was the toughest thing about coming to America. However, with Haula, Koivu and Backstrom firmly established in the State of Hockey, it was a little easier with countrymen in his corner.
“That was a huge help, having Mikko and Backy,” Granlund said. “They helped me a lot and coming in here it was much easier to help with my English and ask them questions.”
Of course, with Haula having more experience in America, Granlund holds his linguistic skills to a higher standard than his own. And if Haula slips up, his buddy is more than willing correct him.
“His English is so much better, so whenever I hear something a little bit off I’m going to tell him right away,” Granlund said. “It’s funny and he doesn’t like it, so it’s even funnier.”
Haula confirmed the good-natured ribbing.
“He chirps me if I say a word wrong, so he’ll be all over me for it,” Haula said with smile. “The one time it might happen, he’ll call me out.”
Pride of a Nation
Hockey is Finland’s most popular sport. When the National Team has a game, nearly half of the country’s 5.5 million citizens tune-in to watch.
“When the National Team plays, even those who really don’t watch hockey a lot, they’re going to watch all games,” Granlund said. “That’s the big thing in Finland and people start to love hockey when the National Team plays.”
Every young hockey player growing up in the country dreams of putting on the blue and white represented on the Finnish flag. The blue is said to signify the multitude of lakes and sky, while the white symbolizes snow. The cross flag was adopted after the country gained its independence, so wearing the colors takes on a special meaning. All four of Minnesota’s Finns have donned their National Team’s uniform in international competition.
“It’s still hockey, but every time you put the Finnish sweater on it feels like it’s more than just a hockey game,” Koivu said.
Koivu has represented the Finns in two Olympics, winning silver in 2006 and bronze in 2010. Backstrom was a teammate on the bronze-medal winning team. In the 2014 games in Sochi, Koivu was set to captain the team, but an ankle injury kept him out of the tournament.
The injury to the veteran helped open the door for Granlund, who had a breakout performance during the games. In Russia, the forward was named to the all-tournament team and helped the Finns earn the bronze medal.
When the center is asked about the Olympics, a smile creeps across his face and it’s difficult for him to contain his excitement or articulate what the experience meant to him.
“It was a great feeling to be a part of that team in the Olympics. You feel really proud,” Granlund said. “There have been so many really good players for Finland and the things they’ve done in the past and the way that they carry the tradition. To get into that, it’s a big thing for any Finnish player to get onto the National Team and something they’re proud of.”
Granlund first met Koivu on the National Team, before he was drafted by Minnesota. Before meeting him, the youngster looked up to the veteran leader.
“He’s been here for so many years and done so many great things with the National Team,” Granlund said. “The first time I met him was at the World Champion- ships and we won the tournament, and then I got drafted here.
“He’s been a really good friend and anytime I need some help with anything, he’s the first to help.”
Koivu is more than willing to help the young Finns, but it doesn’t stop with Granlund and Haula. The Wild captain wants to make sure they are integrated with their teammates and it doesn’t just be- come about his fellow countrymen.
“When I first got here, there was no one. It’s good when every once in a while you can talk with the Finnish guys and talk about things back home,” Koivu said. “At the same time we always want to be part of the team and it’s not like we’re just the Finnish group. The team is like a big family and we want to keep it that way.”