I remember getting an email in early September 2004, with the subject line, “Houston.”
Huh? Houston? What is this?
I opened the email and read the message. I had been assigned to the Houston Aeros of the AHL.
They play hockey in Houston?
Until that moment, I had been preparing to play my first season of professional hockey in North America for the Minnesota Wild in the NHL. But before I even had a chance to play in a game, I read a news story that included the worst word in hockey.
I had seemingly been waiting my entire life to play in the NHL. I was just 16 when I watched my older brother, Saku, become the captain of the Montreal Canadiens, and I just wanted my chance. I didn’t know what the lockout meant for me exactly at the time. I had been drafted three years earlier and had been playing in Finland since then.
I was scared about going to Houston, to be honest. I didn’t really think Texas was a hockey market. I had no idea what to expect. Looking back, the coaching staff there really shaped my career. Todd McLellan was in charge at the time. His influence on me, not only as a player, but also as a person, has been invaluable.
That season was my first time playing an 80-game schedule. You hear about the physical strains of a long season, but it’s the mental ones that get you — the bus rides, the late nights eating hotel food, the doubleheaders in Utah and San Antonio. You learn a lot about yourself.
I made some good friends on that team: Pierre-Marc Bouchard, Stéphane Veilleux and, of course, Brent Burns.
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Burnsie wasn’t quite the wild-man, free-wheeling defenseman he is now, but the talent he had was unmistakable. He was one of the guys who helped acclimate me into the culture of American hockey.
Finnish hockey has changed a lot in the last 1o years, but when I was drafted by Minnesota, people were still taking a very businesslike approach to the game. Players weren’t the stars that they are in North America. Hockey means a lot in Finland, but it is a whole different level for NHL players.
So when I came to Houston, my teammates began to teach me how to have more fun as a hockey player — something that took me a little while to get used to. I remember all of the rookies had to dress up for one of our team parties (I’ll remember that forever — unfortunately — but I’ll never tell anybody what costume I had to wear).
In so many ways that first year in Houston wasn’t what I dreamt of when I was drafted No. 6 by the Wild in 2001, but nonetheless, I was one step closer to the NHL.
I was not going to take an opportunity like that for granted, because I knew that nobody in Minnesota took the NHL for granted either.
When I was drafted, the Wild had just completed their first season. The only reason I knew this on draft day was because the night before the first round began, Minnesota’s Finnish scout, Matti Väisänen (who has since moved on), saw me at the hotel.
“Look, Mikko — don’t worry,” he said. “We’re going to take you tomorrow at No. 6.”
I had interviewed with so many teams in the days leading up to the draft — the entire thing felt like such a blur — that I couldn’t even remember meeting with Minnesota. So that night I started doing research on the team and the state. I discovered that Minnesota was called “the State of Hockey.” So naturally I assumed it would be a good fit. I mean, I loved hockey. Next, I read something about thousands of lakes. We have a lot of lakes in Finland — I was already warming up to the place.
Even before I got there, it reminded me of home.
Like Finland, Minnesota experiences all four seasons. It’s surrounded by nature and beauty — and most of all — the people there are in love with hockey. Just like home.
The hockey obsession is very real where I come from.
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I remember, when I was younger, I would wake up early on Saturday morning to watch my favorite show on Finnish TV: NHL Power Week. It was a 30-minute highlight show featuring the best plays from the previous seven days in the NHL. One of the most iconic parts — without a doubt — was the intro. I remember there were these goofy trumpets playing over a montage of great plays. Then, right at the end, Eric Lindros and Jaromír Jágr would come on screen.
Lindros: “The NHL is the coolest game on earth!”
Jágr: “Yeah, he is right!”
It was amazing. Check it out:
(Side note: It’s pretty surreal to play against Jágr two decades later.)
So, I’d sit there and watch intently every week, hoping to catch a glimpse of Teemu Selänne, or Jari Kurri — my heroes. The NHL wasn’t as much of a mystery to me as it was to my friends, thanks to my brother, Saku. We went to Montreal to see him play for the Canadiens a few times after he was drafted in 1993. I knew even then that I wanted to do what he did.
My chance would come after that season in Houston. A new CBA was agreed upon, and I headed into training camp in 2005 with a lot of confidence. I felt I had a real opportunity to earn a spot with the Wild. Preseason can be a nerve-racking time for fringe players, but mine was going well. I was contributing on both ends of the ice, and the coaches were playing me a lot. Unfortunately, in the final preseason game, I injured my knee. I was going to be out for around a month.
Seriously, that was just the worst timing. I had been pretty sure I was going to make the team, but suddenly everything was all up in the air. It’s a lot easier for a team to send an injured rookie down to the AHL and monitor him there during his recovery.
I didn’t want to go back to Houston. I just wanted to start my NHL career.
My parents were flying to Minnesota for the start of the season. Since I was on injured reserve, I offered to pick them up from the airport. On my way out of my temporary apartment, I randomly decided to check my mailbox.
There was a letter from the Wild.
I had made the team. They told me I could start looking for a place to live, and that they looked forward to my return to the lineup. I shoved it in my pocket, drove to the airport and showed my parents as soon as I saw them.
I’ve been a Minnesotan ever since.
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I’d sit there and watch intently every week, hoping to catch a glimpse of Teemu Selänne, or Jari Kurri — my heroes.
My rookie season, I learned a lot about what it takes to play in the NHL. In my first game, Patrick Marleau was carrying the puck down the ice toward me and I decided to give him a little room to the outside so he couldn’t cut in. Mistake. He blew by me on the outside with speed like I had never seen before and rang one off the crossbar. I got back to the bench and took a second to realize what had happened.
Lesson 1: Don’t give these guys any space.
But as fast as things were moving on the ice, the locker room was also a learning environment. The older guys on our team were great mentors.
Brian Rolston was one of the veterans who really looked out for us rookies — he was one of my best friends on the team. In one game early on, I think I scored and I remember heading into the locker room with a huge grin on my face. He came over to my stall as soon as I sat down.
“Hey, kid. Never too low, never too high. O.K.?”
I took that saying to heart and still keep it close, even now at 33 years old.
It’s one of the mantras that has helped me develop into a leader — an opportunity I’m incredibly grateful to have been given. The day in 2009 when I was given the Wild captaincy was one of the proudest of my life. We started that year with a new coaching staff and they wanted to get to know all of the players. There were three alternate captains for the first seven games. Before our eighth game, I was called into our GM’s office and the coaching staff was there as well.
“Mikko, we’re comfortable with you having the C. Do you want it?”
Before I said yes, I asked them if it was all right with the veteran players on the team. That was something that was very important to me; I wanted to make sure the entire organization trusted me, including our players. The coaches told me they had spoken to our team, and that everyone was on board. Being the captain of the Minnesota Wild has been one of the greatest honors of my life.
We’ve had our ups and downs in the years since, but we’ve been building.
Building for a team like we have now.
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
Becoming the team we are this year has taken time, but I believe all good things do. Our core has been together for a few years now. That’s really important to how our team plays. We all trust one another and are on the same page. When you add veteran talent like Eric Staal and Chris Stewart — all of sudden you have a team of players who really believe in themselves.
That belief all starts at the back with Devan Dubnyk — or Doobie.
People always ask me, “What makes Dubnyk so good?
As a forward, it can be hard to break down technically what a goalie does well, but I will say these two things:
1) Body language
When you’re scrambling on a penalty kill, or pinned in your own end, and you look back and see your goalie make a calm, collected save, it gives you so much confidence. Hockey is beautiful chaos, and when you have someone like Doobie back there looking at you like, Yeah, I got this, it makes a big difference.
2) Rebound control.
As a defensive forward, this is one of my favorite things about Doobie. When an opposing player takes a shot, he knows exactly where we want the rebound. He knows where our defenders are and where to send the puck after it’s been shot at him. His rebound control is so good, it’s almost like he’s using it to make passes sometimes.
If you got a shot on Doobie, then you somehow must have gotten past Ryan Suter.
Ryan is our rock on the blue line. He’s one of the most well-rounded defensemen in the entire league. He does all the little things right and is a calming presence on our back end. He’s an important leader in the locker room as well, along with Zach Parise.
Zach, Ryan and I often talk about ways to get our team closer to our ultimate goal. We talk about how imperative it is to build a strong bond with our group of guys — something that was especially important with a new coach. It’s necessary to believe in the guy next to you, which is something we’ve maybe lacked in the past. Coach Boudreau has come in and been fantastic. He hasn’t revolutionized what we’re doing, but he’s made sure we’re at the same level night in and night out.
But mostly, the thing we all agree on is how badly we want to make Minnesota proud.
This is my home. I’ve been part of this club for 16 years, and I’ve cherished every second. I bought my first home here, my wife and I love it here, and both our kids were born here. It’s a very special place to me.
Every time I run into a fan at the grocery store, or at the park, they’re always so kind. That’s the part that gets me. Even when we were struggling, people would come up to me and thank me. They’d tell me how much the team meant to them and that they knew we were going to turn it around. It’s unlike anywhere I’ve ever lived. I want to repay that faith.
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There’s a lot of hockey to be played this year, we know that. But we’re on a mission.
Our mission began in all different parts of the world for the guys in our locker room. For me, it started in Turku, Finland.
I’ve done a lot of growing up along the way, and it’s Minnesota that raised me.