What is the only Finnish word in the English language?
Answer: Sauna. (Or “SOW-na,” if you want to sound like a Finn.)
That means Jesse Puljujarvi had one word mastered when he arrived in Edmonton. According to the Oxford Dictionary, that’s one down, 171,475 to go.
“Living over here is not that different from Finland,” the 19-year-old said this week, in Finnish. “There are a lot (more) hockey games, and the language is the hardest.”
The oft-asked question to an Edmonton scribe from vices around the NHL goes something like this: “How is Puljujarvi doing there, anyhow?”
The answer, after a three–point game Saturday, his finest National Hockey League effort thus far in a 5-2 win over the Vancouver Canucks? Not badly.
“It was a fun night and a good win. I think we all played well as a team, as did our line,” he said in broken English after the game. “(Leon) Draisaitl and (Milan) Lucic are very good players.”
It’s a confusing time in the life of a young Finn, Puljujarvi being the increasingly rare European teenager who arrived with barely any English. From Finland, no less, a language that has zero congruencies with our own.
Where Jari Kurri honed his English skills in the ‘80s by watching episodes of Happy Days and the Flintstones, Puljujarvi will soon be paired with an English teacher. Right now, he gets by on a smile and some fabulous NHL tools.
“I try to talk a lot to improve my English, and I heard they are getting me an English teacher. That is a good thing. I could really use one,” Puljujarvi said to Finnish journalist Jouni Nieminen, who translated these quotes. “I have been here almost two years now. It’s been hard. I hope I will learn.”
During the bye week he stayed in Edmonton, inviting a friend from Oulu, Finland for a visit. They found an outdoor rink in ice cold Edmonton and strapped on the blades with some local kids.
An NHLer spending the bye week in Edmonton skating outdoors. He truly does have some growing up to do.
“When I was a kid, its all I ever liked, just playing hockey outdoors. I didn’t like school or anything else as much. I enjoyed playing and being outside,” he said.
Watch him practice, his tongue hanging out like a Golden Retriever puppy, and Puljujarvi becomes the very definition of a raw, young NHL protégé. He is six-foot-four, shoots the puck a ton, has enough dangle to have deked through Henrik Sedin to set up a goal Saturday, and skates well for a big man. Very well.
At 19, he is just barely beginning to emerge. With size and skills like he has, this iceberg could be a deep one indeed.
“The sky is as tall as he wants it to be,” said Connor McDavid, who had but one assist Saturday but dominated the game at times. “He’s big, skates well, is confident, has a great shot, goes with the puck… But I think it all goes back to his size. He’s six-four, still young, trying to (grow) into his body. He’ll be that solid-on-his feet, good puck battle guy. Good in front of the net. The sky’s the limit for him.”
Beyond language difficulties, the culture shift for a teenager — under the scrutiny of NHL fans and media — is massive. Food, street signs, understanding what the coach is asking for in practice, trying not to mess up the drills…
Because of a popular comic strip the Finns, Nieminen explains, grow up thinking Donald Duck is lead guy at Disneyland. Then they get there, and there’s this mouse everywhere. And the mouse’s wife!
North America can be a backwards place. Homesickness can set in easily.
“The adjustment to the NHL,” begins his coach Todd McLellan. “The expectations: His buddy (Patrik Laine) was playing in Winnipeg last year scoring 35 goals, and everybody (compared the two).
“He’s further along this year, more confident, we feel better about him. Yet, he could have been playing (over Christmas) in Buffalo in the World Juniors, that’s how young he is.”
He’s 19, a fourth-overall draft pick just beginning to figure things out.
Maybe they don’t all have to be No. 1’s after all, hey Edmonton?