By Paul Wiecek – Winnipeg Free Press
It’s a dressing room jam packed with NHL stars.
There’s Mikko Koivu. A couple stalls away is Valtteri Filppula. Over in goalie corner sits Tuukka Rask and Pekka Rinne.
Jori Lehtera, Aleksander Barkov, Teuvo Teravainen, Olli Maatta, Mikael Granlund — if they’re Finnish and can play hockey at a high level, they’re in that room somewhere.
And yet, for two days here this week in the bowels of the Verizon Center, the media mostly walked by all of them to get to the far corner of the Finland dressing room, where an 18-year-old blonde kid wearing a Winnipeg Jets T-shirt sat.
Patrik Laine understands it’s not supposed to work this way. In the stratified world of pro hockey, a kid who has yet to play a shift in the NHL is not supposed to get more attention than 10-year veterans.
So yeah, Laine admits it’s all just as surreal to him right now as it is to everyone else. Asked if there’s anyone in the Finnish dressing room that he grew up idolizing, Laine motions to a row of lockers across the room. “Almost everybody,” he says, “from that wall.”
It’s a funny line, one of many the Jets second-overall draft pick will drop with a deadpan delivery over the course of a couple days>
The kid, in other words, is great copy — on the ice and very definitely also off of it.
First things first. On the ice, your eye is drawn to him whenever he’s out there — and not just because he towers over almost everyone else at 6-foot-5 and, presumably, still growing.
He’s got a right-handed shot but can play either wing effectively and is one of those rare players who seems to have a magnet in his stick blade. In his North American debut in a pre-tournament World Cup of Hockey game here Tuesday night, Laine authored a night to remember, scoring a goal midway through the third period that history will surely record as just his first of many in an NHL arena.
But as memorable as Laine’s goal was, it was actually a play midway through the second period that perhaps had the Jets brass salivating most.
First, Laine blew by USA forward James van Riemsdyk in a race for a loose puck. Second, he turnstiled a very good American defenceman in Ryan McDonogh to get behind the U.S. defence, protecting the puck along the way with his ridiculously long reach.
And then finally, with a lightning quick flick of the wrist he let rip a blistering shot on USA netminder Jonathan Quick.
And so to review — speed, moves, puck possession and a deadly shot, the latter described to me this week by Finnish head coach Lauri Marjamaki as nothing less than “unbelievable.”
(Quick tangent: Sidney Crosby famously refined his shot firing into a clothes dryer in his parent’s basement; Laine learned to shoot using Coke cans attached to the four corners of a net in his backyard. He ruined a lot of cans and drank a lot of Coke, he says.)
(A second quick tangent: Laine does this thing during practice where he banks a puck off the boards, catches it softly with his stick blade and then juggles it using only the blade while he waits to take part in drills. It’s a demonstration of incredibly soft hands — and also a TV commercial waiting to happen.)
Laine called Tuesday’s game “a night I will remember for the rest of my life” on what was his biggest stage yet — a game in Washington. D.C. against Team USA, two days after the 15th anniversary of 9/11.
The fact it came against two Jets teammates in captain Blake Wheeler and defenceman Dustin Byfuglien just made it even more special.
It was by far Laine’s best effort in the three pre-tournament games he has played so far. And it suggests both that he can rise to an occasion and that the MVP honours he took down at last spring’s World Hockey Championship weren’t a fluke.
This kid can play already, and against the very best in the world.
But at least as much as what he’s done on the ice, it’s also what he’s done off the ice that has made Laine such a darling of the media right now.
Laine says what he means and he means what he says and that makes him as uncommon a hockey player off the ice as he is on it.
It is refreshingly rare in hockey to hear a player actually say what he thinks and fans everywhere would be better served if more hockey players spoke with such refreshing frankness.
But because they don’t, Laine’s frankness has been confused with brashness and before he’s even played a single NHL shift, he’s already rubbed some in the sport the wrong way.
It began last spring when Laine made headlines — and raised eyebrows — when he was quoted saying he felt he’d had a better season than Auston Matthews and clearly deserved to be the first-overall draft pick in June.
The fact Laine was right — he outplayed Matthews by many measures last season and capped off a remarkable year by taking down those MVP honours at the World Hockey Championship — was beside the point.
Hockey players just don’t talk like that — and especially not green youngsters.
And so I asked Laine here on Monday if he understood why some people took exception to such bold proclamations of self confidence.
It was an opportunity, I was expecting, for a very young man to talk about valuable lessons learned.
Instead — and I loved this part — he doubled down. “I know that’s how good I am and I can say that. It’s not a problem for me. And if that’s a problem for someone else, it’s not my problem. I don’t care what people think. I know I’m a good player and I’m going to stick with that.”
And with that, Laine was once again in the headlines.
By Tuesday, a popular hockey blog was running those quotes under the headline Patrik Laine Doesn’t Care If You Don’t Think He’s Great.
Now, there’s nothing wrong in that headline — that is, after all, basically what Laine said on Monday.
But there’s a nuance that seems to get lost with Laine in print. You can see for yourself with a Google search: his words regularly come across a lot more brash in print than when you actually watch him do an interview.
He sounds different than he reads, in other words. The way I took Laine’s comments on Monday was that he believes it is simply an empirically established fact that he is an outstanding hockey player and he’s not about to pretend he feels otherwise to maintain appearances.
You’re entitled to your own opinions, he seems to be saying, but you’re not entitled to your own facts.
Someone else said something similar a very long time ago: It really is hard to be humble when you’re great.
Without question, there’s a lot of brash young millionaires in pro hockey; Laine is not one of them, contrary to what you may have heard.
For starters, he’s uncommonly polite: he rises from his stool when reporters approach his locker, looks everyone in the eye as they ask him questions and then takes his time to offer a thoughtful and detailed response that makes you come away thinking he actually respects what you do.
He’ll learn. Boy, will he learn.
The Jets are the most buttoned down team in the NHL and the free-wheeling interviews Laine’s been doing until now are going to come to a stop when he gets to Winnipeg.
The Finns have simply been opening up their dressing room and letting Laine talk to whoever asks, for as long as they want. That will change dramatically with the Jets, who have always had minders listening in on every dressing room interview, ready to end those interviews the second things get, well, honest.
There is also the issue of how all this publicity for Laine will play in the Jets dressing room. It’s worth pointing out that the last Jets player who thought he was bigger than the team got his track suit thrown in the shower and then was run out of town a short time later in a trade.
I noticed Finnish captain Mikko Koivu was taping his stick and watching closely Monday morning as Laine held court before the media.
I wandered over to Koivu afterward and asked how it plays in the Finnish dressing room when a youngster like Laine is getting all the publicity.
“It’s been fine,” said Koivu. “You guys don’t know how he is in the room around all the guys. He’s very respectful and his work ethic is excellent. That’s something you always look at as a veteran is how the young kids commit. And he’s been very good with that.
“And in Finnish hockey generally, we’ve never really had a problem with (big egos).”
For what it’s worth, Laine was the last man off the ice both practices I saw this week.
Nobody knows better what awaits Laine once he gets to Winnipeg than Teemu Selanne and so I asked Selanne if Laine is going to have to be a little less, well, Laine in order to fit in once he gets to the NHL.
“That’s a great question,” said Selanne, who is with the Finnish team as a consultant this month. “And I don’t know that answer. I love to see guys with lots of confidence, but at the same time it has to come in a humble way. I’m not sure how it will go for him but it’s a good thing that his Mom is moving with him. Because he’s going to need a lot of help and support.”
Laine says his mother will accompany him to Winnipeg and he sounds just like any teenager when he’s asked what she will do for him. “The normal basic stuff at home — cooking and washing dishes and stuff like that.”
Sweet deal if you can get it. Laine says the two will live in a hotel to start, in part because he thinks it would be presumptuous to get a home in Winnipeg before he actually makes the team.
Selanne says his biggest concern when it comes to Laine isn’t how he will handle the media but how he will handle the monstrous expectations everyone has for him, including, by his own admission, Laine himself.
“The expectations right now are almost unfair,” says Selanne. “I think the fans, the media and the team has to be patient with him. People remember my rookie season when I came into the league, but I was already 22 when I started in the NHL, I’d already played in the Canada Cup, I’d played all over the place.
“It’s a totally different story when you’re 18 and haven’t really experienced much. It’s a new culture, a new city, a new style of hockey — there’s so much for him to learn and people forget that. Everyone just remembers there was another Finnish rookie who scored a lot of goals for Winnipeg, but the game is completely different now.”
Indeed, you can make a case that Selanne’s 76 goals as a Jets rookie in 1992-93 looks increasingly in today’s NHL like one of hockey’s unbreakable records, right alongside Bill Mosienko’s 21-second hat-trick.
Selanne says he will be watching closely to see how Laine, who until now has known only success in hockey, handles the inevitable disappointments and adversities that come with being a rookie in the NHL.
“I’ve told him to remember that you’re never as good as they say you are,” says Selanne, “and you’re also never as bad as they say your are.”
If the past week or so is any indication, Laine will be as hard on himself during the bad times as he is confident in himself the rest of the time.
Laine ripped himself publicly last week for his performance in Finland’s first pre-tournament game against Sweden, which suggests he may yet prove to be his own harshest critic.
The last word in all this goes to the kid. I asked him if he likes all the publicity and media.
“Yeah,” Laine replied, “just like everybody else.”
That’s a revealing answer, of course, because it suggests it hasn’t occurred to Laine that many — perhaps even most — superstar athletes actually loathe all the media that comes with having a special skill set.
It’s a good thing Laine likes it. Because this train is pulling out of the station at a high rate of speed.
There’s going to be no stopping it now.