SAN JOSE, Calf. – When Patrik Laine isn’t playing hockey, he’s a sniper of a different kind.
Laine is a member of an eight-player “Call of Duty” team from Finland that competes online. “We’re playing everyone else in the world,” said Laine, the 18-year-old scoring machine from Tampere.
“And, of course, dominating.”
Well, of course. Why wouldn’t a team with Patrik Laine dominate? He had eight goals in seven U-18 world junior games. He had seven goals in seven U-20 world junior games. Then, in the IIHF world championships, he had seven goals and five assists in 10 games, leading Finland to the silver medal earlier this year.
And why wouldn’t Patrik Laine share the fact that his team dominates? Confidence is his calling card as the NHL Draft approaches, even if that confidence has some observers deleteriously referring to it as swagger.
“People can think what they want to think. I don’t care,” said Laine.
“People who know me know I’m a good guy, have lots of confidence, I play the right way. I don’t think it’s a bad thing, but people can think what they want to think.”
Laine met potential NHL teams at the recent NHL Draft Combine, and then met with reporters before Game 4 of the Stanley Cup Final in San Jose. In both situations, he securely sold his talents, as the Toronto Maple Leafs contemplate their top pick.
"I think I have the ability to someday become the best player in the NHL, Maybe other guys are good at many different things, but not really good at one thing. I think I am,” Laine said at the NHL Scouting Combine on Saturday. "Toronto has a tough decision to make.”
On Monday, Laine doubled-down on that, when asked about the competition between himself and U.S. phenom Auston Matthews, who is expected to be the Leafs’ pick at No. 1 overall.
“We’re quite even. I’m better than him in some stuff, he’s better than me in some of the things. I wouldn’t say one is better than the other. I think we’re quite even right now,” said Laine.
He’ll say the honor of going first overall, like his idol Alex Ovechkin of the Washington Capitals, isn’t paramount. But it’s clear Laine believes he’s earned it.
“I want to be No. 1 because I want to show people that I want to be the best player in this draft, and that’s the thing that I wanna be. The first one,” he said. “I would be lying if I said I couldn’t go first. That’s always been my goal. After this season, I think it’s really possible to go first.”
Laine looks up to Ovechkin as well as to Teemu Selanne, as is the obligation of every Finnish player born after 1992.
He famously declared he wouldn’t wash his jersey after Ovechkin checked him at worlds. As for Selanne, Laine said he only met him once during the U-20 tournament, but didn’t grab his autograph.
Now, Laine’s the one being asked for autographs, from fans in Finland but also from the aggressive hounds that patrol the exits of NHL events like the draft combine, looking to sell them on eBay or at merchandise events.
“Going outside and having to sign those autographs” was his least favorite part of the combine, he said.
But it’s part of the gig when you’re a star. Just like talking with the media which, Laine says, he enjoys exponentially more.
Like, for example, when Laine gave an instant classic interview with Sportsnet at the draft lottery, offering loopy answers to questions while FaceTiming.
“I just wanted to be me in the interview. I didn’t have to pretend I was someone else,” he said. “I want to be like this. In an English interview or a Finnish interview. I have good confidence on the ice and off the ice.
While it might seem like Laine lacks a filter at times, he’s aware that his words carry weight and make headlines, here and back home.
“I just want to come here and give good interviews. I don’t have to be nervous giving them. I know what I can and can’t say. That’s good to keep in your head during these interviews.”
So what can’t you say?
“I not gonna say those things,” said Laine.
Matthews is angling to become seventh American taken first overall. Laine would be the first Finnish player. They join McDavid and Eichel and Hall and Seguin as rookies perpetually linked by their draft position.
Like those players – and also the King of All Rookie Rivalries, Crosby vs. Ovechkin – there’s a difference in demeanor and personality between Laine and Matthews. One’s a little more pop, and the other one’s a bit of rock ‘n roll.
OK, the other one’s actually hip-hop, per Laine.
“I’ve like Eminem,” he said. “It’s a rock culture in Finland. Everybody’s listening to the rock ‘n roll. I don’t like that.”
Laine said he and Matthews are buddies, and try to draw a line between their on-ice competition and off-ice time. “We’re friends, but we don’t have to talk about hockey. We know we’re going to be good players in the NHL someday,” he said. “We don’t need to compete in our free time. Focus on some other things. We don’t have to race in our free time.”
The Leafs are expected to take Matthews at No. 1, mostly because he plays center and that’s an essential building block they need. Laine, however, stated his case to the Leafs at the combine.
“I think they were quite neutral. They said they will have a hard choice. I’m glad I don’t have to make that decision,” he said.
That would leave Laine at No. 2 for the Winnipeg Jets – which, incidentally, is where Selanne broke into the NHL as a dynamic rookie of the year.
“It would be nice to play in the city where he played. They city is crazy about him. And he’s coming back to the outdoor game,” said Laine. “They have the smallest rink, and the best fans in the NHL, I’ve heard. It’s a cold city, which I’m of course used to.”
Laine also relishes the chance to have Matthews on another Canadian team, competing for attention. “It’s good to have a guy push you forward,” he said.
There are other motivations, too. Like seeing a countryman score the game-winning goal in a Stanley Cup Final game, as Joonas Donskoi did in Game 3. “It was nice to see that those Finnish guys can score in OT, and be the hero of the game,” said Laine.
“Sometimes I think about what it would be like to be me, score that game-winning goal. I just want to work hard and, one day, not think about what it feels like. I can really feel it.”
So let’s all say a little prayer, Cult of Laine, that he gets to feel it. That the Winnipeg Jets are elevated to contender by adding him to a collection of burgeoning stars. That he breaks through Manitoba anonymity like Selanne did. That Winnipeg, in turn, doesn’t squelch his individuality with media puritanism; or that his track suit doesn't end up in the Jets’ shower one day.
He just wants to be Patrik Laine. So, hopefully, he’s granted that chance.
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