BRANDON, Man. - Toni Rajala scored two goals Sunday en route to a 4-0 shutout of the QMJHL champion Moncton Wildcats by the host Brandon Wheat Kings at the MasterCard Memorial Cup. After the game on Sunday, the Finnish star gave the assists on his pair of snipes to his parents – Janna and Tapani – halfway around the world.
Every day the Rajalas would take turns driving their son – the second youngest of four - an hour each way from their home in Parkano, Finland to the rink in Tampere for practices and games. They did it for seven straight years, from the time Toni was eight to the time he turned 15 and started playing on Tampere’s top junior squad in Finland’s SM-Liiga. Mother and father have since moved to Tampere
“I would do my school work and take a little nap,” said the Brandon forward of the car rides.
“It was a huge thing and I appreciate it very much. That’s why I’m here, because my parents did so much for me.”
These days in Brandon, the car rides are much shorter, though he’s still being chauffeured around town, only now it’s courtesy of Brayden Schenn’s wheels.
“It’s like a little taxi for him because he doesn’t have a car or a licence so I drive him around everywhere,” said the Wheat Kings captain.
“We’re actually really close because I live right by him so I drive him to the rink every day,” adds the three-year WHL veteran. “I’ve tried to help him; I’m only six hours away from home (driving) and I know how hard it is - he’s all the way (on the other side of) the world.”
When the Wheat Kings had a three-week layoff between getting knocked out of the Western Hockey League playoffs and the Memorial Cup, Schenn took Rajala home with him to Saskatoon for a week to help ease any feelings of isolation the winger might have had in his first North American season.
“He didn’t have anywhere to go,” said Schenn. “So I wanted to help him out and keep him away from the homesick side.”
But Rajala, a fourth-round pick of the Edmonton Oilers in 2009, isn’t exactly the helpless, cowering wallflower. According to his Brandon teammates, “Raj” is the first to start dancing and joking around in the dressing room. His fun-loving attitude, they say, is contagious.
“Every day he comes to the rink, he’s smiling and singing and dancing around the dressing room,” said teammate Travis Hamonic with a laugh. “It’s guys like that, that really give positive energy to the room.”
It’s not just in the room though, as the second-line winger gave a boost of energy to the Wheat Kings’ Memorial Cup hopes with two big goals to start Sunday’s game after a terrible 9-3 loss to Windsor in the tournament opener. Rajala used his slick skating and deft moves to score his team’s first two goals – one in the first period and one in the second – to give the tournament hosts a big 2-0 lead against a Moncton club that allowed a three-goal lead to slip away against the Calgary Hitmen 24 hours earlier.
“We talked about it before the game, that we needed that first goal. I scored and it was good,” said Rajala.
Before the game Schenn and his teammates were joking about how tournament success seems to follow Rajala. At the 2009 under-18 tournament held in the U.S., Rajala broke the scoring record set by Washington Capitals star Alexander Ovechkin (18 points in 2002) with 10 goals and nine assists in six games.
“Raj loves the tournaments,” said Schenn with a big smile. “Good for him, he’s had a great year and for him to pop those two (goals) was a huge confidence booster.”
In the regular season Rajala averaged more than a point per game with 26 goals and 37 assists for 63 points in 60 games for the Wheat Kings. He said the transition to the North American style of game took a lot of getting used to despite the success of his rookie campaign.
“The rink and the ice are a little bit smaller,” said the 19-year-old. “So it’s a faster game... a little bit tougher (physically) here.”
Next on Rajala’s to-do list will be to share the news with his family back home, since they’re unable to watch any of the games live because of the time difference. He said he usually calls every day to update his parents on his latest Memorial Cup exploits. They in turn, wait almost impatiently, for their son to return.
“They are excited but they want to see me as soon as possible,” said Rajala. “But this tournament is first and then back to Finland.”
Sunaya Sapurji is the Junior Hockey Editor at Yahoo! Sports.
You can reach her at: firstname.lastname@example.org.