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HELSINKI — Paul Maurice sort of flipped me the bird the other day. I’m not making this up, despite the covert nature of the gesture and the absence of video proof. Guaranteed, it was done with playful intent.
The Winnipeg Jets head coach is all class, yet isn’t shy about flashing his light-hearted side. I laughed out loud then, and grin now, reflecting on that moment inside the press room of Helsinki’s Hartwell Arena. The affable Maurice was seated before about two dozen keen reporters after guiding his team through a quick-paced practice, two days before the Jets and Florida Panthers met in the opener of the 2018 NHL Global Series.
On this day, he was second banana to forward Patrik Laine, darling of the media both here in Finland and in Winnipeg, his home away from home. Laine’s time in front of the microphone culminated with a Q-and-A in Finnish, a lovely language, indeed, with plenty of vowels and umlauts. (Example: “Toivon, että lohen keitini oli lämpimämpi.” Translation: “I wish my salmon soup was warmer.”).
After Laine’s adjournment, I posed the first question to his coach, requesting wryly that he please reply in English. That’s when his left hand, already settled on the table, slowly closed into a fist except for a lone digit. It was as sneaky as it was sublime. When called on the carpet, Maurice only smiled and professed innocence.
It was easily one of the highlights of my business trip to Finland. In fact, there were too many terrific memories to count, carved out during my seven-day journey to the Scandinavian country — my first foray into Europe — to cover the series.
I offer up a few recollections as I prepare to return home to the Manitoba capital:
• The temperature probably hit 30 C in the cabin of the aircraft I was aboard for the first leg of my trip — Winnipeg to Minneapolis — and droplets of perspiration started to form on my expansive forehead. We’d languished on the tarmac — a plodding, 100-metre tow from our departure gate — for about an hour, and our plane wasn’t making a peep.
The crackle of the PA system snapped the silence, and the pilot regretted to inform us neither of our two engines would fire.
• Once across the Atlantic, a 180-kilometre train ride between Helsinki and Tampere, the home town of Laine and Florida’s star centre, Aleksander Barkov — not to mention acclaimed Jets 1.0 defenceman Teppo Numminen — was particularly memorable, not only for the beautiful natural scenery, but also the folly of receiving incorrect information from a ticket agent about exactly when I should hop off.
Stranded on a drizzly Sunday morning, many kilometres short of my destination, at a station no bigger than a Broadway food truck, I stared in all directions for any signs of life — half expecting to run into Del Griffith, ‘the shower curtain ring guy’ from Planes, Trains and Automobiles. I made it to Tampere three hours later than anticipated.
• While there, I had the privilege of meeting Marko Ojanen, assistant-coach of Laine’s old team, Tappara, of Finland’s elite hockey league. He was generous with his time, sharing stories of the Jets young sharpshooter while taking me on a tour of the city’s largest arena, including the dressing room and coach’s war room. I also spent some time with Laine’s former linemate, Tappara captain Kristian Kuusela, who won a league championship with a then shy, reserved 18-year-old who’s now the NHL’s most lethal power-play sniper.
• Back in Helsinki, I was among a group of media folks for our first availability with the Jets on Finnish soil. Tired, and likely a bit cranky — though not outwardly — after a stinging collapse to the Toronto Maple Leafs the night before, Maurice, Laine and captain Blake Wheeler each stood and answered our questions, and then went off to either sleep or sightsee.
Laine was particularly witty, insisting he would not assume the role of tourism co-ordinator for his teammates. “I don’t know much about this city,” Laine offered, straight-faced. “They have their phones, they have Google, so they know pretty much just as much about the city as me.”
• My own sleep patterns were out of whack, and I found myself watching Netflix well past 3 a.m. several nights, yet dutifully made all but one availability with the two squads.
After each practice or game, Laine and Barkov were trotted out by the NHL to answer questions, and did so with honesty, humour and aplomb.
The pressure on the two Finnish players was immense, yet each didn’t just hold his own but pushed beyond what was expected of him on the ice.
Barkov showed why he’s considered one of the game’s best two-way centres; he’s drawn to the puck in both ends of the rink and possesses some kind of elevated sensory perception to generate opportunities while foreseeing the potential hazards.
• Laine, meanwhile, rediscovered his scoring touch, sending shock waves through the arena by pumping in four goals in just two games, and now has a team-leading seven this season. All but one has come with the Jets on the man advantage. Most encouraging for Jets supporters, however, was his play at 5-on-5 on a line with Adam Lowry and Brandon Tanev, neither a renowned playmaker but adept at hemming opponents deep and providing some possession time for the skilled Laine to make things happen.
The shot he unloaded to beat goalie Roberto Luongo to the far top corner Friday was so quick, so precise, it made more sense to believe eyes were simply being tricked on the play. Then we watched the replays in awe, didn’t we? Laine returned to Winnipeg with renewed confidence, ominous news for opposing teams if he can deliver.
• Brendan Lemieux has noted in the past he does things no one else in the organization can do. No one can argue his ceaseless energy, rascally style and family genes make him an intriguing player, especially one that’s just 22. But his reckless behaviour — laid bare Friday night with his stick-chop to the face of Troy Brouwer and a callous hit to the head of Vincent Trocheck — calls into question whether he can be a responsible, productive pro.
• The Finnish Flash was his usual charming and entertaining self during a chat with three Winnipeg reporters prior to the start of Game 1. While Teemu Selanne’s been asked to reflect on the remarkable start to his 21-year NHL career, there’s not an ounce of insincerity when he talks with enthusiasm about the years he spent in Winnipeg.
He also had some sage words about Laine, who was still hours away from ripping a hat-trick in a 4-2 Jets triumph. Selanne said it was inconceivable the young winger’s scoring ability would suddenly vanish during the off-season, and he expected goals to soon come in rapid succession.
“(Laine) needs a couple of good confidence games to get a couple of goals and then it’s like the Heinz ketchup bottle syndrome. Sometimes, you don’t get the ketchup out, but when it comes, it really comes. That’s what he needs. He needs to get that ketchup moving out.,” Selanne said.
Now there’s a prophecy that really cut the mustard.
• • •
Speaking of which, I ate well in Finland, savouring the elk filet, reindeer brisket, mounds of salmon and fresh lingonberry jam. I craved sunlight midway through the trip after days of rain, wind and the oppressive darkness of early winter.
But I thoroughly enjoyed meeting and socializing with many people from Finland. They were warm and gracious hosts.
“Kiitos, Helsinki.” Thanks.
Assistant sports editor
Jason Bell wanted to be a lawyer when he was a kid. The movie The Paper Chase got him hooked on the idea of law school and, possibly, falling in love with someone exactly like Lindsay Wagner (before she went all bionic).