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He doesn't have blond hair. He's not stoic and private. He doesn't routinely chow down reindeer meat and go for daily saunas. His accent is barely noticeable.
He grew up watching American football, went to high school in Minnesota, goes to college at the University of Minnesota, and hopes to someday play for the Wild 8 miles away at Xcel Energy Center.
Erik Haula may have been born in Pori, Finland, but if you didn't know any better, you'd think he was born and bred in Minnesota.
"I hear a lot from people: 'You don't have an accent. No chance you're really from Finland.' I promise, I am. I just feel like a Minnesotan," said Haula, 21, the Gophers' often overshadowed, high-scoring, high-speed junior second-line keskushyökkääjä (center). "I've been here almost five years now -- one-quarter of my life. I love it in Minnesota, and hopefully I have a long future here."
The Gophers "were on him" from the moment he came abroad to Shattuck-St. Mary's at age 17. After being Shattuck's second-leading scorer with 84 points in 2008-09, Haula played for the Omaha Lancers of the USHL, where he was fifth in the league with 72 points.
In three years with the Gophers, the second non-North American in school history is the active leading scorer with 84 points, led the Gophers with 49 points last year, and is fourth in the WCHA this season with a team-high 11 points heading into this weekend's border battle with Wisconsin.
Yet, just like the 2009 seventh-round pick is always the forgotten Wild prospect when names like Mikael Granlund, Charlie Coyle and Jason Zucker roll off the tongue, it's fitting that Haula routinely takes a back seat to former Minnesota Mr. Hockey's Nick Bjugstad and Kyle Rau.
"Probably because he's not from here and people didn't grow up watching him," Gophers coach Don Lucia said. "We have our appreciation for our home-grown here, and maybe build them up a little bit more than maybe they should. But Erik's been probably start to finish so far this year our best player."
One of Haula's first introductions to sports was football. Not football, as in soccer -- American football.
His father, Tomi, was the longtime head coach of the Turku Trojans in the eight-team Vaahteraliiga, the highest level of the American Football Association of Finland.
As a kid, Erik was the water boy. Each team had two American imports who didn't play past college, so they'd live with the Haulas, and that's how Erik learned English.
"The league honestly isn't as bad as you'd think, but it's nowhere near the NFL," said Haula, a huge New England Patriots and Tom Brady fan who says the Vikings have grown on him.
As a teenager, Haula decided he wanted to chase his NHL dream in Canada or the United States, but when his parents insisted he get his college education, he decided Shattuck-St. Mary's, the prep school in Faribault, provided the best route.
"I'm really happy with the choices I've made so far," Haula said.
Besides Haula's obvious speed, playmaking skills and vision, Lucia raves about his defensive play and "high compete factor."
"All Erik's done is quietly work on becoming a better player," Lucia said. "He's a very good prospect and one of the top players in college hockey."
In the shadows
The Wild has several high-end, potential top-six forward prospects on the horizon, including Granlund, another Finn whom Haula routinely gives the grand tour to whenever in Minnesota. But with so many Wild blue-chippers coming, some wonder where (or even if) the 5-foot-11, 187-pound Haula fits in the Wild's future.
Director of player development Brad Bombardir adores Haula and "won't pigeonhole" his eventual role "as long as he keeps progressing."
Always driven, Haula gained motivation when he slipped to 182nd (the first pick of the final round) in the 2009 NHL draft despite being ranked 57th among North American skaters on the NHL Central Scouting list.
Inside Montreal's Bell Centre with his dad, Haula was scared, embarrassed and thought he came a long way for nothing before finally hearing his name.
"It was one of those moments I'll never forget -- sitting there in a suit, thinking you might not get drafted and both sweating to the max and just looking around ... hoping," Haula said. "Back then might not have gone the way I expected it to go, but now I look back, maybe it kind of fuels me. That's why I don't care [being overshadowed on the Gophers]. I know my role on the team, and I'm happy with it. And people can say or think what they think. I just focus on being the best player I can be."
Those who know Haula say this confidence is another example of being more Minnesotan than Finnish.
"You can really see that he has spent a lot of time in North America," said Samuel Savolainen, a Minnesota-based writer for the Finnish sports magazine Urheilulehti. "He is so much more social and confident in front of the media. Finnish kids his age are usually a lot more shy. They are kind of shy also to express their goals and dreams. Not Erik. Having gone to Shattuck-St. Mary's and the University, he is practically more of a Minnesota product than a Finnish one."
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|Minnesota - LP: J. Burton||6||FINAL|
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