NEW YORK — Ville Nieminen remembers the day clearly. It was September, 2, 1995 and he was playing hockey in his native Tappara, Finland, when his Russian linemate, Alexander Barkov, came bursting through the dressing-room doors before practice. It was good news.
“He said, ‘We had a baby boy this morning!'” says Nieminen.
“I said, ‘Congratulations!’”
The Barkovs named their baby boy, Aleksander, after his father though they quickly adopted the Russian short form, Sasha.
Sasha Barkov remembers his first meeting with Nieminen, whose pro career included eight seasons with seven different NHL clubs. He was an 8-year-old playing street hockey outside his family’s home with a few neighbourhood kids.
“It was the (NHL) lockout, so (Nieminen) came to Tappara to play,” Barkov says, speaking on a late June afternoon. “I was playing with my friend outside and he came with his son and we all started to play hockey together. That was the first time I met him.”
As a kid, having a real, live NHLer in their midst playing street hockey was a dream come true.
“I was a very big NHL fan,” says Barkov. “I dreamed about the NHL and when he came I was like...”
There are no words. He drops his jaw and gasps.
As fate would have it, Nieminen and Sasha Barkov are playing together again in Finland’s top hockey league with hometown Tappara. And, in an even stranger twist, the 17-year-old is now playing on the same line as Nieminen, just as his father had done so many years ago.
“The first day we stepped onto the ice with (Sasha) last season, I said, ‘I have played with this guy before,’" says Nieminen. “He plays exactly like his dad.”
That play has helped make the younger Barkov the top-ranked European prospect for Sunday’s NHL Entry Draft where he’s expected to be a top-five pick. It would be the first time since 2004 that Finland could place three players in the first round since two other prospects – defenceman Rasmus Ristolainen and winger Artturi Lehkonen – are also very highly touted.
“It would of course be nice for Finnish hockey," says Goran Stubb, the NHL’s director of European scouting. "The NHL draft is a kind of a scale or thermometer on how you are doing on the youth side. Three players in the first round for a country with only 5.5 million people is not bad.”
This year in Tappara, playing alongside Nieminen, the young centre had 21 goals and 27 assists in 58 games. The fact that he’s already been successful playing against men in an elite-caliber league lead many to believe that Barkov could be the most NHL-ready teenager of any of the prospects available in the first round.
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Stubb believes he can make the jump to the NHL next season.
“His nose for the net, his vision and the fact that he can score very surprising goals,” says Stubb of Barkov’s strengths. “And he does also have a very good understanding of his defensive duties.
His biggest asset might be that he never plays a bad game.”
If there’s one weakness in his game, Barkov admits it’s his skating. He feels there’s room for improvement and he’s been working on getting it up to NHL speed.
“I’m not such a good skater,” says the Finnish forward. “I’m very slow.
“I think there’s only one thing I have to improve on at the NHL level is my skating. Otherwise everything else is at a good level.”
Nieminen says one of Barkov’s biggest strengths is his determination and work ethic off the ice. On Friday morning, the linemates were up at 7 a.m. for a lengthy jog in Manhattan.
“We are celebrating (the draft) by going to the gym, going to eat and talking about hockey,” says Nieminen, who will be with the Barkov family at the Prudential Center in Newark, N.J., when the teenager’s named is called Sunday afternoon. “He’s very disciplined, very focused.”
That focus was instilled by Barkov’s father, Alexander, who played in three world championships for Russia and is now an assistant coach with the KHL’s AK Bars Kazan. It was the elder Barkov that helped Nieminen reach his full potential. So Nieminen says he’s returning the favour by mentoring his mentor’s child.
“His dad taught me to be a good player,” says Nieminen. “So my job is to help him.”
And, as it turns out, the mentoring is being extended to one more generation. This time it’s Sasha Barkov who is helping Nieminen’s 12-year-old son, William.
“You know, this year Sasha was teaching my son to shoot the puck,” says Nieminen. “Sasha’s father taught me how to play hockey. I helped teach Sasha how to play hockey and now he’s telling my son how to play hockey.
“We are all from the same city. We are hockey people. We like to share the info that we have.”