Laine nearing Selanne-level fame in native Finland


At age 19, he’s already become a fixation in his native Finland, with national media covering everything from his hairstyle to his girlfriend to the kind of car he drives. But he’s not a heartthrob actor or soulful pop star or even a doe-eyed Instagram model. He’s Patrik Laine, one of the NHL’s top young scorers.

When it comes to all the attention the Winnipeg Jets winger has garnered in his homeland in such a short time, Laine just doesn’t get it.

“It was a little bit weird. There was a bunch of boring stories about me and what I’m doing. All kinds of stories, made at all times,” Laine said in the preseason. “That’s a little bit confusing and a little weird, but it’s fine.”

After being drafted second overall in the 2016 draft, Laine enjoyed a remarkable rookie season with the Jets, scoring 36 goals in 73 games to rank seventh in the league. An All-Star in his first season as well as a finalist for the Calder Memorial Trophy awarded annually to the NHL’s top rookie, Laine spent the offseason in his hometown of Tampere. It wasn’t long after returning home that he realized how drastically his public profile had grown in the country since leaving for Winnipeg.

He wasn’t the only NHL player to notice.

“Now everyone talks about Laine. Everyone wants to be Laine. It used to be everyone wanted to be goalies. Now they want to score goals. It’s changed,” said Boston Bruins goaltender Tuukka Rask, who also spent his offseason in his native Finland.

“He’s all over the news. Every time you open the internet, there’s something in the news about him because people click it and newspapers love it.”

Young athletes generating a wave of headlines is nothing new. Think Auston Matthews in Toronto or Connor McDavid basically anywhere in Canada. But Laine’s Finnish coverage goes well beyond the ice.

A photo of him and his girlfriend, Finnish women’s player Sanna-Mari Kiukas, attending a screening of “Baywatch” in a Tampere movie theater this past summer earned a headline on a Finnish news site. The same thing happened when he was seen driving a new BMW and when he began his off-ice workouts with his trainer. One Finnish site even published a story after Laine cut his lengthy golden locks.

This is Justin Bieber-level paparazzi madness. Laine, for one, doesn’t get it.

“You don’t know much about pro hockey when you’re growing up. You just think that it’s only hockey and it’s only playing,” said Laine. “But it’s a lot of work with the media and a lot of interviews and stuff. It’s a little bit different than I thought.”

The young scoring star was already generating headlines in Finnish sports media before the Jets called his name moments after the Toronto Maple Leafs selected Matthews first overall in 2016. Laine’s seven goals at the 2016 World Junior Hockey Championships tied Matthews for the tournament lead as Laine helped Finland capture gold on home ice. Months later, he was named playoff MVP as Tappara won the Finnish league title. Shortly after that, he was the youngest player on a Finnish national team that won silver at the IIHF World Championships in Russia.

By the time he reported to Winnipeg for his first NHL training camp, Lainemania had officially taken over Finland. The moment he arrived at Jets camp, he was greeted by a team of Finnish reporters. The foreign contingent would follow Laine the entire season, with the Jets at times accommodating as many as 10 members of the Finnish media on a given night. That hasn’t changed much this season.

Even Jets teammates, accustomed to Winnipeg’s passionate hockey media, were impressed by Laine’s ability to calmly handle locker room scrums in two languages.

“We always give it to him. We talk about how he’s a god in Finland. It’s crazy. This year with the media attention he had, I think we saw the stardom he has over in Finland,” said Jets center Mark Scheifele. “There’s probably Finnish media there every day talking to him. I’m like, ‘Give this guy a break. He’s 18 years old. Let’s get him a day off or two.'”

Between his goal-scoring exploits, his place in Winnipeg sports lore and, yes, his hair, comparisons with former Jet star and Finnish national treasure Teemu Selanne are inevitable. A member of the upcoming Hockey Hall of Fame class, Selanne is the high-water mark for Finnish sports superstardom. If Laine can maintain last season’s scoring pace — he has two goals and two assists in six games this season — he might not be far behind the hockey icon.

“He’s a big guy in our country, a legend who has been an idol to a lot of young kids who have played hockey in Finland,” Laine told NHL.com last season. “He’s just an amazing guy. He was an awesome player and it’s nice to know him.”

“Teemu has been here 20, 30 years. It’s tough for [Laine] to achieve that, but he’s pretty close up there,” said former NHL goaltender Niklas Backstrom, who currently plays in Finland. “Everyone follows him. I don’t know if it’s fair for a young kid. But there’s a lot of high expectations for him. I know he’s a guy who doesn’t really care about that. He has his own expectations.”

Backstrom can speak firsthand to Laine’s place in Finnish sports fandom. The country fell in love with all things goaltending thanks to Backstrom’s generation of top-notch local netminders, along with Pekka Rinne, Antti Niemi, Kari Lehtonen, Miikka Kiprusoff and Rask. Thanks to Laine’s scoring exploits, the country has renewed its love affair with the art of the snipe.

If it all means the Jets get to the postseason, Laine can live with that attention. Even if he doesn’t completely understand it.

“That’s important for the fans and the media back home. I know there’s a lot of people who like to know what I’m up to and how it’s going in my life and my hockey,” said Laine. “Every game, there is somebody from Finland. That’s pretty weird. It’s a long way from Finland to come to Winnipeg.”



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