BUFFALO, NY – Jesse Puljujärvi has the kind of charisma and charm that envelops those around him. In speaking to him, the 18-year-old forward from Finland smiles widely, and you anticipate he’ll answer whatever inane question is posed to him by the media in a way that defies its inanity.
But the words aren’t there for him. He knows them, in his native language. But he doesn’t know enough of them in English to allow that charm to translate, yet.
“Tomorrow is a big day. Nice,” he says, when asked about Friday night’s NHL Draft.
“I don’t know at all. Exciting day. Big day,” he says.
Puljujärvi is a brilliant talent. He’s 6-4 and filling out his frame, but is already a potent power forward. His 17 points in seven games during the 2016 World Junior victory for Finland tied Wayne Gretzky and Eric Lindros for second-most in all-time points for an under-18 player in the tournament. His hockey IQ is off the charts. He plays a more complete offensive game then his countryman (and expected second overall pick) Patrik Laine, who is the more explosive player – although both of them need to improve on the defensive side of the puck.
But where Laine and Puljujärvi are really separated isn’t their hands or the feet. It’s their mouth.
Laine is the confident, unfiltered rookie in the tradition of his idol, Alex Ovechkin of the Washington Capitals. He speaks, and everyone listens to a young player who can crack a joke as quickly as he can hype his game.
Which is to say that Laine is marketable beyond his on-ice abilities, immediately upon being drafted. Puljujärvi is right with him as a player. But culturally, there’s a language barrier to his personality. That was evident at media day for the prospects ahead of Friday night's NHL Draft in Buffalo. The scrum around Laine was rows deep. Puljujärvi's was much more intimate.
“He’s getting better. So much better. It’s nice to see him now. He can say some words. He’s trying hard,” said defenseman Olli Juolevi, a fellow Finnish draft prospect.
Juolevi has helped as much as he can to educate Puljujärvi on English words, and has helped out when Puljujärvi has needed it away from home.
“I just ordered him a taxi last night,” he said, with a laugh. “But he’s always trying. ‘Let me try this, let me try that.’ He wants to get better. He’s just a great guy. I love to help him, love to be his friend.”
Puljujärvi said he’s had one teacher in trying to learn English, and he’s learning “more and more.” Is it a tough language to learn?
“Little bit, yes,” he said.
In speaking to him, there are flashes of his personality overcoming the language barrier. For example, who is dressing him for the NHL Draft?
“Only me,” he said. “Hugo Boss.”
And when asked about playing on Laine’s “Call of Duty” team online, he says, “Yeah. But Laine’s better,” with a grin.
“You can see what kind of guy he is,” said Juolevi. “He’s always smiling, even if he doesn’t understand pretty much everything you’re saying. He doesn’t care about that. He’s himself. He’s not trying to fake anything."
Puljujärvi isn’t the first young NHL star to battle the language barrier. It is, after all, an international league. Heck, the guy who just captured the Calder Trophy for rookie of the year, Artemi Panarin of the Chicago Blackhawks, used an interpreter throughout the season. And like Puljujärvi, he’s a player with charisma to spare.
Panarin, of course, did his speaking on the ice. And it’s expected that Puljujärvi will do the same.
“He’s a good skater. Likes to score goals. Very powerful. Power forward who can also score,” was Laine’s scouting report.
Puljujärvi, who is recovering from knee surgery, said he expects to be ready for the NHL next season. “I’m ready to play next year. But I need to add more power," he said.
“He’s always battling through. He doesn’t care if his knee is battered. He just wants to go there and play hockey," said Juolevi. "If we’re playing a bad team, winning 6-0, he still wants to play hard and deliver hits. He’s one of those guys you want to play with, not play against.
“He enjoys it. He likes to play hockey. You always see him smiling on the ice. But of course he has skills, too. His skating, his big body. Just a great hockey player. He’s a complete player, too," Juolevi continued.
“I think if he keeps making small steps, he’s going to be one of the best players in the NHL, for sure.”
NHL success being, of course, the universal language.
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