The dream of playing a National Hockey League game in their native Finland began to take root all the way back in 2009, long before Patrik Laine and Aleksander Barkov were NHL stars.
It was that year when the Florida Panthers and Chicago Blackhawks played a pair of games, plus exhibitions against a local Finnish team in Tampere — the hometown of both Laine and Barkov — as part of the NHL’s global initiative. The 11-year-old Laine and 14-year-old Barkov were fortunate enough to attend those games nine years ago, and now they will lead their respective clubs against one another later this week when Laine’s Winnipeg Jets and Barkov’s Panthers face off twice in Helsinki.
Much like the Panthers’ captain, Laine, too, was at that game in Tampere, and it still serves as one of his strongest hockey memories from childhood.
“It’s obviously a dream come true to be able to play in the NHL, and now come to Finland and play,” Laine said. “It was awesome as a kid to go watch Florida play against my hometown team. Now to be one of those guys who comes here and inspires the kids here, it’s an honour; I’ll try to do my job as well as I can.”
The week-long visit, and two games Thursday and Friday, is something Laine has thought a lot about.
“I have been waiting for this ever since I heard we were coming to play here last year,” Laine said to reporters in Finland. “It’s been the games that I have been waiting for since the season started. So, it’s awesome to finally be here and be able to be back home.”
#JetsTV’s @MitchellClinton and @JamieThomasTV are joined by TSN’s @UtilityVoice to discuss the team’s arrival in Finland, Patrik Laine and much more.#JetsSuomessa | #NHLGlobalSeries pic.twitter.com/47IudXhK3u
Helsinki is not Tampere, which sits roughly 180 kilometers north of the arena. And Laine admitted he’s not too familiar with Finland’s capital.
“I don’t know much about this city,” Laine said jokingly when asked if he will serve as the Jets’ tour guide. “They (teammates) have their phones, they have Google, so they know pretty much just as much about the city as me.”
Still, this is a homecoming for Laine and there is quite a bit of responsibility on his shoulders.
“I have a lot of people coming, a lot of tickets,” said the Jets sniper. “Thank God I’m not handling that, my mom’s handling all the tickets, so good for her. I won’t need to stress about that.”
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The last thing that Jets coach Paul Maurice wants is a stressed out Laine. After recording 44 goals and 70 points in his sophomore season, the ‘Tampere Terror’ started the 2018-19 campaign rather slowly, with just three goals and five points in 12 games, including his current five-game pointless streak.
“Obviously, everybody knows that I am not playing well right now,” Laine said prior to boarding the flight to Finland. “I started on the fourth line (Saturday) and that was just a result of how I have been playing. But I have just got to work hard and be able to play the level I’m used to playing and just try to earn those minutes back.”
After an off-day expected to be filled with much sight-seeing, the Jets will hit the ice at the Hartwall Arena on Tuesday and Wednesday in advance of their back-to-back contests the following two days.
Maurice knows that preparation for these two games overseas can seem very different, but says that for the players, it’s “just another road game in a new city”. However, his team also has many duties to serve while touring Finland.
“The more fans we have, the more people that are exposed to the game, the more they’ll enjoy it,” the coach said upon arrival in Helsinki. “I think it’s also part of our duty. We’re playing in the NHL, working in the NHL, so we have a responsibility to the game itself, to show it properly and to put on a good show.”
With a seating capacity of 13,350, the Hartwall Arena is expected to be jam-packed for the mini Finn-on-Finn series this week. Although Laine and the Western Conference’s third-place Jets are the heavy favorites heading into action, Barkov and the struggling Panthers aren’t ready to throw in the towel.
“If we played 1-on-1, he probably won’t have any chance,” Barkov said with a laugh about a showdown with his fellow countryman.
“But, of course, to play against (Laine), he’s a really good friend from the same town, from the same organization. To play a couple games with our NHL teams is kind of a once in a lifetime thing.”
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