Imagine growing up idolizing a hockey player, and years later, you get to share the ice, train with him, pick his brain and seek advice.
That’s what the Wild’s Mikael Granlund gets to do back in Helsinki during the offseason with the Anaheim Ducks’ Teemu Selanne, Finland’s most famous hockey player and greatest ambassador.
Amid lofty expectations, Granlund had a tough initiation to the NHL last season, scoring two goals and six assists in 27 games and looking outmatched much of the time.
His skating didn’t seem up to par, or his strength.
“I know for a fact the way the year went last year, he was so disappointed and, I don’t want to say angry, but disappointed with himself,” said Selanne, 43, who ranks 11th all-time with 675 goals and 15th with 1,430 points. “His body language and mindset was, ‘I’m going to go back home, I’m going to train and do everything that it takes to reach the level that I can have success in this league.’
“He’s hungry. Everything, all the approach he had in the summertime, the practice work, his attitude there, it’s been fun to watch. I’m expecting him to break through this year as long as he gets a fair and good opportunity. You have no idea this kid’s character. He wants nothing more than to succeed and show Minnesota fans he’s a great player.”
Every word that comes out of Selanne’s mouth about Granlund is accompanied with a smile. He believes in Granlund, a 2010 first-round pick, who will be counted on a lot now that Charlie Coyle is sidelined for up to a month because of a sprained knee.
Granlund likely will assume Coyle’s second-line center spot until Coyle returns.
Selanne said Granlund’s training this offseason directly correlated with the areas he discovered he needed to improve in order to function in the NHL.
“He started skating very early,” Selanne said, laughing. “I know because we were on the rink at the same time, me on one side and he and his guys (NHLers like Niklas Backstrom, Valtteri Filppula, Tuomo Ruutu and Ville Leino) on the other. Then we combined the last month and I skated with them.
“He told me he needed to get more strength in his legs and speed, and that was his focus. Hopefully that’s paid off because I’ll tell you, the effort he puts into his training, he deserves to have success.”
Granlund is noticeably thicker and faster. He has made a concerted effort to adapt to the NHL, playing more physically, blocking shots, coming deeper into the defensive zone.
Selanne still believes Granlund can be a star and had a few heart-to-hearts with him.
“Every level where he’s played before, he’s found a way to be a star,” Selanne said. “The way he can see the game and his creative style of hockey, especially offensively, that’s the kind of player he can be. Obviously he needs good players around him, but the vision he has and the way he can see linemates, it’s something really special.
“I told Granny, and I always say to guys with that kind of talent who have all the tools, the biggest thing they need is confidence. And you have to find it somewhere, somehow, especially when you have disappointment after things don’t go as easy right away as maybe they did in the past. I don’t care who you are, if you don’t have confidence, you can’t be great. I told Granny he’s got find that confidence, or nothing he does off the ice will matter.”
Selanne knows how much Granlund looks up to him, but Selanne said, “It’s just great to be a 43-year-old kid who can still play with a 21-year-old kid. I remember when I came into the league, I had people show me how to conduct myself. I believe it’s really important for me to try to help these young guys.”
Selanne, one of the classiest NHLers around, has time for everybody. He says he is retiring after this season, meaning he sat out what may have been his final game at Xcel Energy Center on Saturday and played his final game at Winnipeg, where it all started as a 21-year old with a 76-goal season, on Sunday.
In St. Paul, Selanne watched the third period from the arena’s Ice Lodge, signing autographs and taking pictures with Wild fans throughout. After the Ducks landed in Winnipeg after midnight, Selanne signed autographs for a mob of fans at the team hotel until after 1:30 a.m.
Talk about a good role model for Granlund.
“Everybody loves him, everybody respects him so much,” Granlund said. “He’s that way back home, too. He’s such a great guy. He’s always happy, always nice to everybody. He’s such a good idol for all us young guys.”