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Nu-Beginnings

by Staff Writer / Minnesota Wild
 
 Nummelin’s long-lead passes are just one of the many tools at the defenseman’s disposal.
The Columbus Blue Jackets were out of the game, trailing 5-0 in the third period. Rather than trying to fight back, Columbus just tried to fight. Defenseman Adam Foote was mad at the world, and tried to goad Derek Boogaard into a fight.The other Jacket running amok was 6-foot-4, 230-pound enforcer Jody Shelley, who was locked up along the boards with the Wild’s other enforcer...Petteri Nummelin?


Nummelin is generously listed at 5-foot-10, 191-pounds, although he might have been wearing skates and a weight vest when those measurements were taken. Apparently he forgot his stature, because instantly upon receiving two noogies from Shelley, he popped him back with two thumps to the chest before being restrained by the referees (for his own safety).

“Well, I saw Boogey coming to help me,” joked Nummelin. “But he fell down, so then I didn’t know what to do!”

That sequence, coupled with his humor after the fact, is a pretty good snapshot of Petteri Nummelin, the Wild’s least-talked-about, but perhaps, most important offseason acquisition.

He’s small, he’s tough and he’s got a smile on his face that won’t disappear unless you’re Jody Shelley. What you won’t know from talking to him without watching him is that he’s extremely gifted. But his new Wild teammates will be happy to brag about him instead.

“He’s so shifty on the ice, and he sees everything so well,” raved Wild left wing Mark Parrish. “He’s tough to really pin in the corner. He’s got great confidence with the puck. Nowadays, with the new rules, you don’t have to be a 6-foot-4 gorilla running around in the corners. You can be a speedy, shifty, skilled player. That’s exactly what he is.”

Added Wild center Brian Rolston, “He’s just been terrific. He’s been playing great defensively and he can spring you on a breakaway. He’s just great with the puck. It’s something that we needed. I’m sure it’s a surprise to a lot of fans that are wondering who this guy is. He’s a tremendous talent and I’m happy we have him.” 

As evidenced by the perma-smile and bubbly, “aw shucks” attitude, Nummelin is happy to be in Minnesota, and back in the National Hockey League.

He never thought he would be here again, having given the NHL a shot in 2000-01 during Columbus’ expansion season. Nummelin was 28, and realizing his dream of coming over from Europe and playing in the National Hockey League. He stayed with the Blue Jackets for the entire season, but was hesitant to play the style of game that made him so successful in the three previous seasons in the Swiss League.

“With the other players, I was okay. With the coaches, I was okay. But I just couldn’t play my own game,” said Nummelin. “I tried to play how the team wanted me to go, and I had to leave some of the things that I do well. I wasn’t
 alt
 Nummelin scored the winning shootout goal against Vancouver on Oct. 10. He scored his first regulation goal last week against Nashville.
sure if I could do them or not. I think I was kind of too shy. I didn’t know how things worked, and I was too shy to ask. I had made up my mind that I wasn’t going to come back to the NHL”

There isn’t the slightest hint of bitterness in Nummelin’s voice when he describes his time in Columbus, and his decision to leave. He made up his mind that he would return to the comforts and familiarity of the Swiss League. In doing so, he was resigned to the fact that he had played his last game in the NHL.

However, if you think he returned to Europe with his head hanging and regret clouding his mind, you don’t know Petteri Nummelin.

“I think that my first year in the National Hockey League was a great experience. I was really happy. It kind of came in my head after the season that I should go back to Europe where I’ll get more ice time, and I’ll like it more.”

Nummelin did get more ice time, which shouldn’t come as a surprise considering he was one of the best, if not the best defenseman in the league. He averaged better than a point per game in each of his last four seasons in Switzerland, and capped it off by leading HC Lugano to the playoff championship with a whopping 29 points (9-20=29) in 17 postseason contests.

Last spring, Nummelin began to wonder if maybe another shot at the NHL was in his future, despite the fact that he will be turning 34 this month.

“I thought I should take one more chance and it may be different,” he recalled. “Everybody says it’s easier the second time.”

Wild President and General Manager Doug Risebrough thought the same thing. After a year of watching hockey under heavy restrictions of obstruction, which allowed for a free-flowing game, Risebrough felt that the “new NHL” would suit a player light on the scales, but heavy with talent. He sought Nummelin in a trade with the Atlanta Thrashers in exchange for a conditional draft pick in 2007.

Of course, Nummelin still had to sign a contract with Minnesota, which he did after getting the approval from his wife, his three young children and a good friend from his hometown of Turku, Finland, Mikko Koivu.

Explained Nummelin, “I talked with Mikko and asked, ‘what can you tell me?’ He said everything is perfect. It’s a good team, and a good group of guys. That was good enough for me.”

The signing of Nummelin sent Wild fans scrambling on Google.com for information on the new acquisition, especially after Risebrough’s statement to Wild.com that raised a few eyebrows, including the diminutive defenseman’s.

“Nummelin is going to play for sure,” he said on the day of the signing.

 alt
 Nummelin may be small, but so is his ego, making him a perfect fit in the Wild locker room.
He giggled sheepishly when told of this prior to his arrival at training camp. “I guess that gives me a good chance! I hope I get the chance and I’ll do my best.”

He arrived at the Wild’s training camp, and since day one, he has looked like a 10-year NHL veteran, rather than a player five years removed after an unsuccessful first attempt. Nummelin’s poise with the puck and tape-to-tape passes provided evidence that Risebrough’s assertion was right on.

Rolston was among the many won over by the diminutive blueliner, likely because he was receiving so many of the aforementioned passes that resulted in breakaways.

“I thought he was our best defenseman in training camp, and I think in the games too,” said the Wild captain for the month of October. “It surprised a lot of people, but obviously Jacques feels the same way because he plays him a ton.”

And, in every situation. Nummelin isn’t just used with the man advantage, where his vision and playmaking are enormous assets for the potent power play unit. He’s also a fixture on the penalty kill, and through the first nine games, he was on the ice for just one goal scored by an opponent in any situation – an even strength goal by Colorado’s Brad Richardson in the season opener.

There aren’t a lot of second-year NHLers getting the kind of responsibility that Nummelin is shouldering, but not every second-year player is 33 years old, and blessed with his knowledge of the game.

“I know what I can do with my game,” he said. “I’ve talked with (Jacques Lemaire) and he said he doesn’t want to change my game, but just add something to it. That’s of course easier. When you can do what you normally do, it’s much easier than having to think through everything in your head. I can just concentrate on the game.”

He added with another of his patented smiles, “Of course, it’s a great team.”

Nummelin is amazed at how easy it was for him to feel welcome in the Wild locker room. Certainly having Koivu showing him the town helps. The two grew up down the street from each other in Turku. But everybody else seems be drawn to the friendly Finn, and he relishes the camaraderie.

“It’s a great group of guys. Everybody works so hard for each other. I’ve said it 1,000 times already, but it’s so easy to come into this team. I feel like I’ve been here before.”

He actually had been here before; only it was in a Columbus jersey. The noise level generated by the Xcel Energy Center crowd for an expansion team that wasn’t going to make the playoffs awed him.

“I remember how loud it was here. Both teams were expansion teams and I think it was two points difference with about 10 games left. I remember that game. It was really loud.”

The noise level at Xcel is now loud for him, whether it be because of one of his long lead passes, a game-winning goal in a shootout, or his willingness to take on an enforcer that could eat him if he so chose.
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