When Wild forward Mikael Granlund was rising through Finland’s youth hockey ranks, his idols were older countrymen Teemu Selanne and Saku Koivu.
It wasn’t only their Olympic prowess and NHL stardom. Granlund loved their hardworking, understated personalities.
“That’s who we are,” Granlund said of Finnish hockey players. “It’s always about the team, and no one is bigger than the team. When you play on the national team for Finland, that’s the feeling you get.”
This helps explain the relatively muted answers Granlund gives on any subject that might draw more attention to himself.
His breakout performance for the Wild last season?
“I feel like you want to get better every single year,” he said.
The fact he played through a broken hand in the playoffs?
“I don’t think it’s that big of a deal,” he said.
His celebrity in Finland, where a postage stamp and an emoji bear his likeness?
“It really hasn’t changed my life,” he said. “I’m still the same person.”
But there is no mistaking Granlund’s singular importance to the Wild, as it prepares to open a new season Thursday at Detroit. He led the team in points last season, with 69, and doubled his goal total from the previous season, with 26.
He managed only two points (both assists) in the playoffs, as the Blues outscored the Wild 11-8 over five games. But it didn’t help that Granlund played with a broken right hand, suffered when he blocked a shot in Game 1.
“I don’t think anyone is completely 100 percent healthy in the playoffs,” Granlund said. “That’s just part of hockey, little bumps and bruises. I’m never going to make an excuse about that.”
Granlund was a finalist for the Lady Byng Trophy, given to the NHL player who combines outstanding play with sportsmanship.
The Wild rewarded him with a three-year, $17.25 million contract. At age 25, he still has big upside, and the deal would allow him to cash in again when he can become an unrestricted free agent in 2020.
“He doesn’t have to change any part of his game,” coach Bruce Boudreau said. “He’s a great player.”
After years of unfulfilled promise, the 5-10, 185-pound Granlund found his comfort zone last season playing on the same line as his longtime mentor, Mikko Koivu. That’s Saku’s brother, of course, and these Finnish players all seem to be hard-wired the same way — serious, hardworking and humble.
Mikko Koivu, 34, welcomes a conversation about Granlund more than he would one about himself.
“I think [Granlund’s] game has been kind of the same ever since he got here,” Koivu said. “I knew what he was capable of, but I think just the confidence — that’s the key.
“When you work hard and you do that on a daily basis for a lot of years — I think with his skill set and talent — it was only a matter of time.”
By the time the Wild made Granlund a first-round draft pick (No. 9 overall) in the 2010 draft, he had paparazzi following him in hockey-mad Finland. His lacrosse-style goal in the 2011 world championships was such a lasting image, the Finns turned it into a postage stamp and eventually the emoji, which is available on the app Lätkäemojit in the App Store and Google Play.
“That one goal became such a big goal in Finland, and it was never that big of a thing for me,” Granlund said. “But hopefully it gets some more Finnish people to follow hockey and play hockey, and young kids maybe got some inspiration for that.”
In September, Finland President Sauli Niinisto came to the Twin Cities as part of the tour celebrating 100 years of the country’s independence. Minnesota, after all, was home to about 97,000 people with Finnish ancestry in 2015, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Niinisto went to a luncheon with Granlund and Koivu, and donned a Wild jersey when he came to a preseason game to drop the ceremonial first puck.
“That tells you what kind of hockey country Finland is,” Granlund said. “I’m really proud of that.”
And the way Granlund conducts himself, on and off the ice, Finland sure seems to love him back.