By Chris Snow
Director of Hockey Operations
If you did not see them yesterday at Xcel Energy Center, perhaps you heard them, 30 Finns seated at bar rails on the Club level, in uniform (autographed red No. 9 Koivu jerseys) and in unison.
They chanted: "Mikko tekee kohta maalin, Mikko tekee kohta maalin. Eika kukaan sille mitaan voi! Ei voi!"
In English: "Mikko is going to score, Mikko is going to score. And no one can stop him! No one!"
Turns out they were right.
For three periods and a five-minute OT, the owners, board members and sponsors of TPS Turku, the team Mikko previously played for in Turku, Finland, rallied behind the prized 25-year-old son of their city located on the southwestern tip of Finland on the Baltic Sea. They changed tune only to begin an "Ant-ti" chant when Antti Miettinen buried Mikko's cross-ice pass for a shorthanded goal early in the third period and to protest as the Edmonton Oilers routinely rolled into and over Niklas Backstrom.
The chants appeared to be working. Antti played 20:26 and put eight shots on goal, one of which beat Dwayne Roloson during a Wild penalty kill. Nik stopped 28 of 30 shots and then all four in the shootout, improving to 12-for-12 in shootout shots faced this year and 4-0 in games decided by shootout. In the two years before this he had struggled in such settings, as, apparently, he did in Finland. As one Finn said Sunday night, "Since you have not signed Niklas, we are thinking about signing him. But we have come to see if he can stop shots in shootout!"
He can. And no, do not fear that these Finns will sign away our goaltender. The highest-paid TPS player makes about 330,000 Euros, which, even when accounting for the exchange rate, is less than the NHL minimum of $475,000 U.S. Nik's final denial set the stage for Mikko, who appeared to be setting up his forehand-backhand move but instead shot, beating Roloson between the pads.
"It's like a script," TPS General Manager Kari Hietarinta said as his company broke into hugs and high-fives.
On the way out of Xcel Energy Center, the group stopped no fewer than three times, once outside Headwaters Restaurant on the Club level, once on the stairs, and again inside Gate 1 to be joined by enthused Minnesotans in song and dance.
On their way here last Thursday, the Finns had checked "business" on the Customs Declaration Form, but it sure looked like pleasure.
During the days, Friday and Sunday, the group of businessmen studied our business model. The team, which plays in the Finnish Elite League in a 12,000-seat arena, made a similar visit to Montreal last year to see Mikko's brother, Saku. In the two cities they studied brand marketing, ticketing strategies, game operations, sponsorship, retail, media relations, arena architecture and more. We hosted seven seminars, including a Q&A with owner Craig Leipold. In gratitude for the hour-long talk about NHL ownership, Hietarinta and TPS Chairman Jaakko Ketonen presented Craig with the jersey Mikko wore in the 2007 IIHF World Championship in Moscow.
But, as Doug Risebrough, our president and GM, told the group Friday, we hoped to learn as much about TPS Turku as they would learn about us. What did we take away?
We noticed Mikko's immense pride in his people. Finland is a small nation, comparable in land area and population to Minnesota, and was a part of Sweden and then Russia before gaining its independence. Once gained, Finland didn't give up its sovereignty. Unlike its neighbors, Finland was never occupied by foreign forces during World War II. These are great sources of pride, to all Finns and to Mikko.
It is Mikko's desire to advance the causes of the team in Turku. His interest is long term. He wants to help the team become more competitive on the ice, more successful as a business and more adept at educating its players for life after hockey. Watching Mikko interact with the biggest business owners and managers of his hometown revealed someone not interested in merely writing a check but in gathering information that someday he will use strategically to improve the team and place that produced him.
Similarly, we noticed the Finns' immense pride in Mikko. According to Ketonen, the three most famous Finnish hockey players are Jari Kurri, Teemu Selanne and Saku Koivu, though Mikko is climbing into their class. Finnish players gain great acclaim for reaching the NHL but their greatest recognition comes with contributions to Team Finland. The Finns have won two silver medals and two bronze medals in the Olympics but no gold. And they have won just one World Championship, in 1995.
They came close to a second in 2007, and it was in this tournament that Mikko made his name, scoring in OT in the semis to beat the host Russians and secure a silver medal (the Finns lost to Canada in the final). The jersey Mikko wore in this tournament is the jersey the group presented to Craig. This was no small gesture. The Finns asked us to display the jersey as a reminder of the value they place on international competition. The jersey will remind us of that. And it will remind us of the value they place on international relationships. This is a relationship we hope is just beginning.
Previous editions ...
Jan. 30, 2009: Relationships and deal-making
Jan. 29, 2009: Why Fritsche fits
Jan. 26, 2009: The Outliers: Three teams win at historic rate
Jan. 21, 2009: Thoughts about our team at the All-Star break
Jan. 2, 2009: On ... Marian Gaborik's surgery