The Columbus Blue Jackets forward is being used heavily to promote the 2022 NHL Global Series against the Colorado Avalanche, his face all over billboards and television.
Walk into almost any bar in town and there will be a Laine jersey, often autographed, hanging on the wall, be it a Blue Jackets jersey or one from the Winnipeg Jets, his premier NHL team. Some bars even have the blue and orange jersey of Tappara, the team in the Liiga, the top professional league in Finland, that Laine played for before joining the NHL.
Head to what is perhaps the city’s most famous wing, Hook Restaurant, and there Laine is at the forefront of the menu with the Florida Panthers Alexander Barkovhis co-creator of the hat trick, a dish that includes 33 chicken wings and waffle fries.
“Not everyone has a dish named after them,” Laine said, laughing.
There was much laughter this week for the 24-year-old, who is reveling in the opportunity to be in his home country during the NHL regular season, a rarity since he was picked No. 2 by the Jets in the 2016 NHL draft .
“These are exciting times,” Laine said. “Definitely a game or couple of games I was looking forward to. At the same time it’s kinda weird to be here at this time of year as in a normal year you can’t come back until the season is over. I enjoyed every moment that I was here. It’s fun to see my teammates and to be here, this time with other teammates. So it’s been great so far.”
It gets better. The Blue Jackets’ open practice Thursday was a hint of what’s to come in the next 48 hours or so.
Fans were ecstatic as Laine took the ice and followed his every move. Many wore his jersey, from one of his NHL clubs, from Tappara or from the Finnish national team.
Laine is a superstar all over Finland. It has been argued that Hockey Hall of Famer Teemu Selanne is the only player in Finnish ice hockey history with a bigger profile than Laine.
“He’s huge, so huge here,” said Jussi Parkkila, Avalanche’s goalkeeping coach and a native of Tampere. “Laine is massive here. When these young people see him, it’s a big deal. Laine is a big idol for a lot of young people.”
When Laine came to Helsinki for the 2018 Global Series as a member of the Jets to play against the Panthers, he shared the spotlight with compatriot Barkov, just 90 minutes from home.
Still, he stole the show with a hat-trick in the first game, a 4-2 win for the Jets. He also scored in the second game.
This time, Laine is the focus.
Blue Jackets general manager Jarmo Kekalainen predicts Laine will be treated like a rock star during his time here.
Video: Laine talks about returning to her hometown with Blue Jackets
There are more Finns in the rosters for the Blue Jackets (3-7-0) and Avalanche (4-4-1) who will play at Nokia Arena on Friday (2pm ET; NHLN, SN, ALT, BSOH). . and Saturday.
The reigning Stanley Cup champion Avalanche has forwards Mikko Rantanen and Arturi Lehkonen, but none is from Tampere. Parkkila comes from Tampere but is in the background as a coach. The Blue Jackets have a goalie Joonas Korpisalowho hails from Helsinki, and Kekalainen, who attended university here and played for Tappara and Ilves, the city’s other league team.
But none have the ties to that community, legacy of success, or Laine’s outgoing personality.
In 2015/16, aged 18, he helped Tappara lift the Liiga title after losing in the finals of each of the previous three seasons. He was named playoff MVP after recording 15 points (10 goals, five assists) in 18 playoff games.
A month later, he was drafted by the Jets after the Toronto Maple Leafs took over Austin Matthews at #1.
In 411 NHL games, Laine has 328 points (177 goals, 151 assists). He has scored in four games this season, his third with Columbus since he was traded a forward from Winnipeg there on Jan. 23, 2021 Jack Roslovic for forward Pierre Luc Dubois and a third-round pick in the 2022 NHL Draft.
“He was already a star before he went to the NHL and now you add what he did there and people follow the NHL so closely here, they look at the results every morning,” Kekalainen said. “He’s a legitimate star here. He will have a following there and many fans will be waiting for his autograph after the games and training sessions. I think it’s going to be really cool for him.”
For Laine, it was about more than hockey.
He’ll have a bucket-load of memories before the puck drops on Friday.
He’s invited his teammates to dinner, he’s attended a visit to Children’s Hospital that left a deep emotional mark on him, he’s spent time with friends and family at a time when he’s rarely had that opportunity since his professional career.
On Thursday, before practice, he went to Koulukatu, the famous outdoor ice rink in the center of the city, for a video shoot.
There was no ice, but he still had a smile on his face as he swept across the asphalt pavement, shooting at goal and doing puck tricks with his stick.
Almost everyone in Tampere has played at this open-air track. Laine played there almost daily when he was a teenager, participating in pickup games with players of different skill levels.
“Every game had kids, adults, everything and then we would throw everybody’s stick in the middle and someone would be blindfolded and then they would pull out the sticks and then you would have your teams,” Laine said. “It was so much fun. We did that all the time.”
After dinner with his family on Thursday, Laine has game day, an opportunity to play at the home of the team that first made him famous.
It’s not the same ice rink. In 2021, Nokia Arena became the home of Tappara and rival Ilves.
The Blue Jackets were given the Ilves’ dressing room for those games, a twist of fate that didn’t sit well with Laine, who still follows Tappara’s fortunes closely.
“It’s tough, I won’t lie; I might have stepped on the logo a few times,” Laine said, softening his message with a small smile.
But sitting at his former rival’s house is probably the only thing that will be tough for Laine over the next two days.
He’s ready to soak up anything that comes his way and enjoy it.
“I wouldn’t call that pressure,” he said. “I just feel like we’re playing and doing our job. I don’t think it’s really a pressure situation in this life. There are people who actually have pressure in their life in certain situations.
“I don’t feel like we’re under any pressure. We just go out there and do what we love and then look at the result afterwards. They want to play well, whether it’s here, in Columbus or anywhere else. They still want to perform . “
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