Tomi Haula’s son might be a hardworking hockey-playing rookie for the Wild, but Tomi grew up playing American football.
Erik Haula’s dad played and coached in the Vaahteraliiga, a semipro football league in Finland. He was a kicker, defensive back and wide receiver for the Pori Bears, Tampere Rocks and Tampere Patriots. He then coached Tampere before spending his final seven seasons coaching the Turku Trojans.
Asked why Erik didn’t follow in his footsteps, Tomi Haula says bluntly: “I didn’t let him. He could get injured. My last year, I separated my shoulder nine times. Even when I kicked the ball, it went out. It was that loose. So I didn’t think football would be good for Erik.”
So, hockey it would be.
“His message was pretty clear,” Erik Haula said.
As Tomi Haula, 48, sat in the stands at Xcel Energy Center on Tuesday night watching his 22-year-old son burst down the rink on a shorthanded rush in a 2-1 victory over Tampa Bay, he flashed back to when his boy was a toddler.
“He was 3 years old and he was so small, he couldn’t climb the boards,” Tomi Haula said, smiling. “We used to carry him and put him on the ice, and he would just skate away.”
Haula’s career took off, and at age 16, he moved to Minnesota to attend Shattuck- St. Mary’s in Faribault.
“We didn’t actually know what’s the best place to go. We studied that quite a bit,” said Tomi Haula, now an agent and family adviser to several Finnish hockey players in North America. “We found Shattuck, and it was a great choice because of Tom Ward. I still think he’s one of the best junior coaches in the world.”
Erik Haula, whose mother, Minna, used to be a speed skater, led Shattuck with a 26-goal, 58-assist season in 2008-09 and would commit to the Gophers and get taken by the Wild 182nd overall in the 2009 draft. Still, the Haulas expected Erik would be drafted earlier than the seventh round, so sitting in Montreal’s Bell Centre for hours was excruciating.
“After five rounds, I went to the bar and had a beer,” Tomi Haula said, laughing. “The hard part being drafted in the seventh round is you never know if you’re going to get a chance.”
It’s a testament to Erik Haula’s work ethic that he did. Imagine moving to another country as a teenager and having to juggle hockey, life and schoolwork when English is your second language and your parents are across an ocean.
“I was really nervous leaving everything I knew and starting fresh at 16,” Haula said. “It’s not easy. It was hard, especially for my mom. She came with me to make sure I had everything I needed for the year. I’ll probably never forget saying goodbye in the parking lot at Shattuck. It was very hard.”
Tuition was expensive, so after getting drafted by Omaha of the United States Hockey League, Haula left Shattuck after one year, graduated from high school in Omaha and made the USHL’s All-Rookie team before spending the next three years with the Gophers.
Now, in his first year as a pro, Haula is seeing more action with the Wild than expected because of center Mikko Koivu’s ankle injury. Haula has played 24 games this season, scoring two goals and two assists in a fourth-line role. He will likely spend the Olympic break playing for Iowa of the AHL.
Wild coach Mike Yeo has immense trust in Haula, playing him on the penalty kill and late in a one-goal game Tuesday. Haula made a poised defensive play by diving on the ice to clear the zone his final shift.
“It’s one thing to skate fast. It’s another thing to think fast,” Yeo said. “That’s what I like about him.”
After that play, Haula went to the bench for a line change once the Lightning pulled Ben Bishop for an extra attacker.
“I said, ‘Why’d you go off? They pulled the goalie,’ ” Tomi Haula said. “He said, ‘Dad, this is one of the rules you better know. The rookies don’t stay when they pull the goalie.’ ”
After leading the Gophers in scoring the past two seasons, Erik is used to a bigger role. That will come with time. As General Manager Chuck Fletcher said Wednesday, “He’s shown us he can play here.”
“I feel like I’m taking little steps, learning the ropes,” Haula said. “I said from the beginning that I’ll just try to learn from the older guys and just try to play a good two-way game.”
Tomi Haula is proud of his son.
“He basically knows what he’s doing,” he said. “He’s been here so many years already that, I don’t know how to describe it, he doesn’t need my help too much anymore. It’s like he’s from Minnesota. I don’t think he’s ever going to come back to live in Finland.”