ST. LOUIS, Mo. — The man most likely to be crowned playoff MVP is sitting at a podium in front of 75 reporters at the Stanley Cup Final and he’s talking about playing a tennis match with a frying pan.
Except only two or three people in the room have any idea that Tuukka Rask is talking about his legendary tete-a-tete with Henri Kontinen, rather than his role in the Boston Bruins’ 7-2 victory over the St. Louis Blues on Saturday night.
“It was six years ago,” Rask said in Finnish, after Game 3. “Kontinen played with a frying pan and I thought I had a chance, but no. He was too good with the frying pan and I lost.”
This exchange tells us a lot about both the NHL’s championship series and one of its biggest stars.
Clearly, the gravity of the moment hasn’t disrupted Rask’s sense of humour. He is on a historical run of consistency during these playoffs — posting a .900 save percentage or above in all 20 starts — but doesn’t mind producing a video clip that will go viral back home for reasons that have nothing to do with his play.
In fairness, he was asked a question about the tennis match by Antti Makinen, the Finnish-language play-by-play man for Viasat. He was merely obliging the tongue-in-cheek query.
It’s a running bit the two have engaged in throughout this championship series, in part because Makinen wants the Cup Final to generate more buzz back in Finland — where the recent gold medal win at the IIHF World Hockey Championship is still commanding the biggest sporting headlines — and also because, well, this is supposed to be fun.
And, at heart, Rask is a fun guy.
He’s the kind of guy who would make a bet that he could win a tennis match against a world-class pro using a frying pan and then actually follow through on it. (After Kontinen beat him in two sets, the frying pan hung above the bar at Höyry in Tampere).
This kind of exchange is only possible because the Stanley Cup Final plays out in several different languages. There are English-, French-, Swedish-, Finnish-, and Chinese-language broadcasters on site calling the games and reporters of Russian, Czech, Slovak and German heritage engaging with players in dressing-room scrums and availabilities from the podium.
Typically, the NHL allows for one native-language question at the end of official press conferences and it doesn’t always play out as light-heartedly as the Rask/Makinen exchanges. On Sunday afternoon, Blues forward Vladimir Tarasenko scowled at a reporter who asked him in Russian about the possibility of falling behind Boston 3-1 in the series.
As for Rask, he’s following in the proud tradition of players from his country, who like to have some fun at the expense of reporters that don’t understand Finnish.
It started with former Toronto Maple Leafs goaltender Vesa Toskala, who did a legendary interview years ago where he answered hockey questions by discussing the process of getting his driver’s licence. You can see it with English subtitles here:
That’s why the Bruins goaltender didn’t even flinch last week after making 18 saves in a Game 1 victory over St. Louis and getting asked by Makinen if he’d ever had problems using a car’s clutch.
“Yeah, in driving school,” Rask replied in Finnish. “I had a Toyota Corolla and then I had some issues with the clutch pedal. Nowadays I have an automatic, so it’s not a problem anymore.”
That video clip ran on loop back in Finland.
One of the interesting things about Rask is that he would likely have been at this Stanley Cup Final even if the Bruins didn’t make it this far. He spoke with Makinen last summer about potentially serving as his colour commentator on the game broadcasts for this series, calling it his backup plan.
Instead, the 32-year-old has a much more important job tending the crease for a Bruins team leading 2-1 heading into Game 4 on Monday.
He’s been a stoic figure throughout this magical playoff run — rarely showing much emotion while arguably playing as well as he has at any point previously in his career. He was a backup to Tim Thomas on Boston’s Stanley Cup team in 2011, and has a celebratory picture from that year hanging beside his locker stall in the visitor’s room at Enterprise Center.
“I’ve got the same one in my man cave,” said Rask. “The trainers want to make us feel at home. That’s why they put them up there.
That’s one of the better quotes he’s given in English during this series. He’s saved the goofy stuff for his Finnish answers.
Even if most of the media here have no idea what’s going on, he’s telling the 5.5 million people back home in Finland that the pursuit of a lifelong dream can be fun.