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WASHINGTON, DC – Patrik Laine wasn’t in Alex Ovechkin’s locker room at Verizon Center. His Finland national team was changing in the smaller, cramped visitor’s room rather than the Washington Capitals’ more spacious dressing area where Ovechkin’s words have reverberated for the last decade.
But when Laine speaks, you can’t help but hear echoes of Ovechkin. That buoyancy. That swagger, if you’ll excuse the over-circulated label. That confidence that he knows who he is and what he can accomplish, and that defiance in not exactly being concerned if you agree or disagree with him.
“I know how good I am. I can say that. It’s not a problem for me. If it’s a problem for somebody else, it’s not my problem,” said Laine, taken second overall by the Winnipeg Jets in the 2016 NHL Draft last June. “I don’t care what people think. I know I’m a good player. I’m going to stick with that.”
Before the draft, Laine made the case that he was better than Auston Matthews, selected first overall by the Toronto Maple Leafs, both in words and in action. They both participated in the IIHF world championships, Laine for Finland and Matthews for Team USA. Laine finished the tournament with seven goals and five assists in 10 games. Matthews had six points and three assists in 10 games.
Before either has played a minute in the NHL, Laine and Matthews will compete in the World Cup of Hockey beginning this week – Laine with Finland, Matthews as part of Team North America, the 23-and-under tournament darlings. The competition should be fierce, perhaps even more than Laine saw at worlds.
“There are some teams in the [IIHF] worlds that aren’t that good. Hungary or France, or someone like that. Now, we’ve got the best here. It’s nice to see where we’re going, and where I’m going as a player,” said Laine.
Where he’s going on Sunday: Head-to-head with Team North America, which not only features Matthews but Connor McDavid, Jack Eichel and the tournament’s slickest looking jerseys — although that opinion isn’t unanimous, apparently.
“Pretty nice. But our jerseys are pretty cool too,” said Laine. “They’re the best.”
Patrick Laine is 18 years old. He was born two years after the 1996 World Cup of Hockey, when Finland was blown out 5-0 by Russia in the quarterfinals. He was six years old in 2004, when Finland made the final of the 2004 World Cup.
The rosters from those teams are like posters on Laine’s bedroom wall. Teemu Selanne and Saku Koivu played in both. Mikko Koivu, Laine’s teammate in this edition of the World Cup of Hockey, played in 2004.
He pointed towards the Minnesota Wild forward’s nameplate when asked about joining his idols on Team Finland this year. “Yeah, almost everybody from that wall,” said Laine, gesturing towards names like Koivu, Rinne, Rask and Filppula. “It’s amazing to be here with those childhood idols.”
His childhood idols, meanwhile, are ready to see him grab the torch for the national team. Selanne plans to sit down with Laine for a chat soon, not only about the World Cup but about playing in Winnipeg. Mikko Koivu vowed the same level of accessibility.
“If they want some help, and they ask, that’s what we’re here for. But at the same time, you have to give them the time and space. They’ll learn,” said Koivu.
What the veterans know about Laine is that, offensively, he can be one of the most dynamic players in the tournament.
“He has awesome game skills. And that shot is unbelievable,” said head coach Lauri Marjamäki.
The key for Laine is to generate that offense while playing within the rigid structure of the Finnish team, a structure that has produced consistent success through the years in international play despite having a smaller pool of players from which to choose than other hockey powers.
“He plays structure as well as anyone. And when you have a skillset like that, if can be the difference in the hockey game,” said Koivu. “He just has to know when and where to use it.”
Laine said he can play within the team’s structure and still play his game. “I’m going to show when the tournament starts that I belong here with these players,” he said.
Patrik Laine doesn’t care what the critics think of him. Unless that critic is Patrik Laine.
After Finland defeated Sweden in the first exhibition game of the World Cup of Hockey tournament last weekend, Laine wasn’t pleased with his effort, offering a more candid assessment than you’d expect from a first-year player in an exhibition game.
“He said what he wanted to say. He’s so critical of himself,” said Marjamäki, his coach. “But sometimes that’s good. He wants to be one of the best players in the NHL.”
Of course, that wasn’t just another exhibition game. They never are when the opponent is wearing the blue and gold of Sweden, the arch nemesis of Laine and his homeland. They meet in a game that matters on Tuesday, Sept. 20 in Toronto, in a Group B preliminary round game.
“We want to win the whole tournament, but when we beat Sweden, it’s always a better thing,” said Laine.
That might be underselling it. This is a USA vs. Canada-level rivalry, and Laine relishes it. “It’s not always about the hockey, either. The Finnish people want to be better than Sweden in everything,” he said.
While the popularity of this tournament around the globe remains to be seen, the attention back home will be palpable for the World Cup. Finnish fans will pack bars and restaurants. They’ll watch ever second of each game. “Hockey is rising in Finland. We’ve now won a couple of championships in juniors. It’s getting bigger and bigger all the time,” said Laine.
As are the expectations for Laine, not only in the World Cup, but as an NHL rookie this season. The most explosive offensive player to arrive from Finland since Selanne? Perhaps. The star who propels the Jets from the lower rungs of the Western Conference to contender status? Perhaps.
But for now, Laine will try to make an impact at the World Cup as an 18 year old playing for his nation, just like another 18-year-old player did in 2004: Alex Ovechkin, who was the youngest member of the Russian squad.
The next time we saw him, he was winning the Calder Trophy.
There’s no telling if Laine can match that accomplishment. But he may have already matched the confidence that he can.
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