TAMPERE, Finland— There’s no obvious sign of panic in the streets of this thriving industrial city, but the early struggles of one of its prized exports is generating some concern.
When Patrik Laine’s production is restricted, supporters in his hometown share the same dismay as hockey fans in the Canadian city where he plies his trade.
The Winnipeg Jets world-renowned young sniper has three goals — all on the power play – and two assists in the first 12 games of the 2018-19 season, his third in the NHL. He’s had chances, and clanked some iron along the way, and has fired 44 shots (tied for sixth-most in the league) but is still searching for his first even-strength marker of the year.
His last goal came six games ago in a 4-1 triumph over the visiting Vancouver Canucks.
Laine, plucked by the Jets second overall in the 2016 NHL Draft, has played the bulk of the season with centre Bryan Little and winger Nikolaj Ehlers, and has even been bumped up to play the right side with Mark Scheifele and Blake Wheeler — with no capital gains.
On Friday night in Detroit, head coach Paul Maurice replaced Laine with feisty Mathieu Perreault in the second period, leaving the 20-year-old on the fourth line. The Jets pulled out a 2-1 triumph over the Red Wings.
The move, while warranted, struck a chord Saturday back home in south-central Finland. ‘Why you gotta be so rude, Mr. Maurice?’ asked Finnish hockey site nhlsuomi.com.
“Tyly päätös! Patrik Laine heivattiin NHL:ssä nelosketjuun – näin päävalmentaja kommentoi ratkaisuaan.”
Translation? ‘Rude decision! Patrik Laine of NHL dropped to fourth line; head coach comments on decision.’
Twenty-four hours later, Laine was buzzing on a grand stage Saturday in Toronto. He started the night on the fourth line with Jack Roslovic and Brendan Lemieux but was hooked up with Adam Lowry and Brandon Tanev later in the game. Although he didn’t add to his five-point output, the 6-5, 206-pound right-shooting winger had a more sound effort, although the Jets let a two-goal lead slip away in the third period, resulting in a stinging 3-2 defeat to the Maple Leafs.
Laine was a integral part of the Jets’ rise to the upper tier of the Western Conference last season, completing his second pro campaign in North America with 44 goals, second only to Washington’s Alex Ovechkin (49). In his inaugural season (2016-17) in Winnipeg, Laine potted 36 goals, four behind rookie scoring leader Auston Matthews of the Leafs.
At this juncture in his rookie season, Laine had seven goals and three assists while taking 38 shots, and in his sophomore year (2017-18), he netted five goals, two helpers and had unleashed 35 shots.
The discrepancy is hardly shameful but certainly worthy of scrutiny, particularly with Laine’s much-anticipated homecoming this week. The Jets (7-4-1) and Florida Panthers meet in two regular-season games Thursday and Friday in Helsinki, which is about 180 kilometres south of Tampere, as part of the NHL’s Global Series.
The games were sold out in mere minutes when tickets went on sale in mid-March.
So, why the meagre personal statistics from one of the NHL’s much ballyhooed stars, a dozen games into a Jets campaign that’s filled with so much promise?
That question and more were posed to three influential people in the young man’s life, each with an intriguing perspective on not only what, if anything, is behind Laine’s limited success this fall but also the traits he possesses to flip things around.
The hockey gods were smiling on Kristian Kuusela when a 17-year-old kid armed with a missile launcher cracked the roster of Tappara of the men’s Finnish SM-liiga in the fall of 2015.
The Tampere squad, mired in a 12-year championship drought, was coming off its third consecutive defeat in the finals. Kuusela, in his 14th pro campaign at the time, recalls an intense thirst to win was becoming a distraction for the young father and the rest of his teammates.
The emergence of a young Patrik Laine would help rid them of the millstone around their necks.
“I first saw him in the ’14-15 season, he was with our farm team with Lempaala (second-tier Mestis league). That was the first contact with him when he came up to our team,” recalls Kuusela, Tappara’s 35-year-old team captain. “He was still really young and you could see he still wasn’t ready.
“When he came back to us in autumn (2015), everything changed for him and he was ready to take a spot. The self-confidence, you could see even in exhibition games, he wanted to be a part of the team. He wanted that spot and he took it.”
At the start of that season, the lanky teen with the sizzling shot played mostly second-line minutes on right wing, but was united down the stretch and the post-season with top-line centre Jani Lajunen and Kuusela, a shifty left-winger with a knack for puck distribution.
What a season Laine put together, scoring 17 goals and 33 points in 47 regular-season games, while denting the twine another 10 times in the playoffs. Three of his post-season goals were last-minute, game-tying tallies for the eventual league champs.
“It was a privilege to play with him. As a playmaker, that’s the guy you dream about playing with, a guy who could shoot like that. It was a privilege to just lay it out there for him to score,” says Kuusela, who posted a career-high 59 points alongside Laine. “It was fun to play with him. It was so easy. When you want to pass and the other guy wants to shoot, it makes for a good combination right away.
“To lose those finals like that, it was great to win one with him and kill the ghosts. What he did, those goals, I don’t think anybody can make those shots.”
Case in point, he says, was a snapper past a startled Karpat team goalie during the league semifinal series in the northern city of Oulu.
“They were ahead by one goal, (Carolina Hurricanes phenom) Sebastian Aho got a penalty. We pulled the goalie and got into their zone. Patrik got the puck to his spot (above the left faceoff dot). He just kind of dangled it a bit… he was five seconds keeping the puck like this (air stick-handling), looking and then zip, short side, top-left corner,” Kuusela says.
“That’s the kind of goal that you don’t expect. Maybe only one per cent of guys even have the confidence to take that shot from there because the goalie is right there waiting. It’s flair, to try things nobody else believes can work.”
Admittedly, Kuusela has watched only one Winnipeg game on the tube this season but is well aware of his young friend’s difficulty getting pucks by goalies through a dozen games.
He hears the nervous chatter from Laine’s faithful hometown fans – but doesn’t share their concern.
“The last two years, Laine has had the most headlines in Finland. Obviously, if you score 44 goals in one season you should be,” he says. “The Finnish media is like if he doesn’t score in two or three games, it’s a big crisis here. I think it’s funny.
“It’s early. Players go in spurts. If he’s getting shots, getting chances, it’s OK. He’s a young player, and they have ups and downs. Maybe it’s his down time right now. But his high levels are higher than anyone else on the team.”
Marko Ojanen doesn’t hide the fact he’s one of Laine’s biggest fans.
The 45-year-old assistant coach of Tappara is awed by the player’s gift of a rapid-fire release, his offensive instincts and mental maturity and toughness.
“He wants to win every game, and that’s why he gets a little bit p—-ed off when he plays not so good. He wants to be the best player in the world,” says Ojanen, noting he had a unique encounter with Laine in the spring of ’14.
Laine had suffered a knee injury in 2013 and was still in recuperation mode during the ’14-15 season when he made his debut with Tappara at just 16, dressing for six games and earning one assist. He spent most of that campaign with Lempaala.
Early in the off-season, Ojanen found Laine sitting in the team gym looking dejected, and figured it was good time for a pep talk.
“He looked like a pretty interesting guy. He was sitting there, looking like this (head on hands). I talked to him and asked him. ‘What is he doing?’ because he played pretty bad in Lempaala because he was really frustrated because he wanted to give the team more of himself. But his physical wasn’t there,” Ojanen says. “I talked to him and told him he had a choice. ‘You can come to our under-20 team in Tampere and start to really practice, more physical fitness, an individual program for him.”
The transformation from spring to fall was shocking, he says.
Once Laine’s commitment level improved, he began to dominate on a nightly basis. Tappara loyalists — more than 7,000 strong packed into Tampere Ice Stadium each home game — worshipped him like he was the fifth Beatle and, most importantly, his NHL draft stock rose dramatically.
He also played a major role in Finland’s gold-medal victory at the world junior championship in January 2016 — amidst the hysteria in Helsinki.
Ojanen had no doubts Laine would one day be an impact player in the NHL.
“Yes, for sure. But we didn’t expect it so fast. It’s incredible. We know he can score the 30 or 40 goals in the NHL sometimes, but right away in his first and second seasons, that’s impressive,” he says.
Things haven’t come as easily in Year 3, and when Laine’s not producing offensively his defensive shortcomings are only magnified.
Ojanen believes a temporary drop in confidence is solely to blame.
“He’s frustrated now, but it’s little things. I think he’s too hard on himself when he isn’t scoring those goals and that affects his other play. I think he needs just one or two and then he will get going.”
Like all quality hockey parents, Harri and Tuija Laine have been a tremendous support system for their famous son, the eldest of two children, helping to make his life in Canada more comfortable. In his rookie season, his mom came from Tampere to live with him until just after Christmas, and his father arrived for the holidays and remained in Winnipeg for the second half.
They’ve been back and forth many times since; in fact, mom Tuija has been spotted around Bell MTS Place several times this month.
Harri was home with teen daughter, Pinja, and hadn’t seen Patrik in the flesh in about seven weeks but caught the train Saturday bound for Helsinki to spend some time with his son prior the Jets’ back-to-backs with the Panthers.
The train left the station at 12:30 p.m, about seven hours after Harri clicked off his TV and climbed into bed after watching Winnipeg and the Leafs wage their second battle in four nights.
Call it Hockey Morning in Finland.
“I always stay up to watch his games, of course. It’s nice to see my son,” says Harri, in a brief but pleasant chat Saturday evening, still six hours prior to puck drop in Toronto. “I don’t see him in a couple of months. It’s good to watch him play. It will be good to see him in Helsinki. He’s doing well living in Winnipeg.”
Stories of Patrik’s penchant for firing pucks at stacks of aluminum cans in the family’s backyard when he was a boy have been well told. So, too, is the verifiable truth that without Harri’s coaxing, his son might have remained a goalie instead of switching to forward at the age of 12.
Eight years later, Patrik has scored goals in abundance and dad has seen them all, either live or on highlight reels. And he’s steadfast in his belief there are so many more goals to come, in short order.
“It’s a normal start. It’s not easy to score, that I understand. I don’t care when he scores goals, he is playing very well and team is winning,” says Harri.
While the talented forward’s self-deprecating commentary during media availability is fast becoming legendary, Harri picks up no hint of self-doubt during frequent overseas calls between father and son.
And he’s clearly one proud papa.
“He is being the person he wants to be. He isn’t acting. He says the things he wants to say, and I like that very much. I’m very proud of that,” Harri says. “The hockey is just hockey, but it’s Patrik the person. He is a very nice person and people like him very much.”
If Laine is feeling the dull ache of disappointment over his mini-slump, he didn’t let it show Sunday at a downtown Helsinki hotel in his first meeting with Finnish and visiting North American media.
“I don’t know much about this city. They have their phones, they have Google, so they know pretty much just as much about the city as me,” he jokes, when asked if he’ll act as the consummate tour guide for the rest of the Jets this week.
In fact, he’s very familiar with Helsinki, and Hartwall Arena, in particular. He scored seven goals inside those walls at the world juniors, including the opener in a 4-3 overtime victory over Russia in the gold-medal finale.
He’s in ultra-friendly territory this week, and there’s no better opportunity to rediscover that golden touch.
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).