TAMPERE — The next Patrik Laine or Pavel Francouz could be in the stands when the Columbus Blue Jackets play the Colorado Avalanche at the 2022 NHL Global Series here in Finland.
It starts Friday with a game at Nokia Arena (2 p.m. ET; NHLN, SN, ALT, BSOH, SN NOW) and concludes with another game Saturday.
Laine, a forward with the Blue Jackets, was 11 years old in 2009 when the Florida Panthers played Tappara, a Finnish Liiga club, here as part of the NHL Premiere series.
He was in awe as the idols on the club team he watched growing up played against the Panthers. It was the first time he had seen NHL players live, seemingly close enough to touch.
“It was it was pretty cool to see the NHL players live and playing against my heroes that were playing for my club team,” he said. “I’m so excited for the kids to get to see us play and see the Avalanche play with guys like Nathan MacKinnon and Cale Makar. It’s going to be exciting for them.
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“For me, it was a dream come true to watch NHL guys and now, obviously, we are in that position.”
Laine is the star attraction now. Seven years after watching the Panthers play in his hometown, he was selected No. 2 by the Winnipeg Jets in the 2016 NHL Draft. Heading into Friday, the 24-year-old has 328 points (177 goals, 151 assists) in 411 NHL games.
He has one goal in four games this season for the Blue Jackets, who are hoping to rebound after a sluggish start to the season. Despite making the biggest splash this offseason by signing forward Johnny Gaudreau as an unrestricted free agent, Columbus enters the Global Series 3-7-0, including 1-4-0 in its past five games.
The Avalanche are 4-4-1, having lost two in a row and three of four.
One of those losses came at the New Jersey Devils on Friday. Francouz stopped 22 of 23 shots in a 1-0 loss.
It was 14 years ago, during the NHL Premiere in 2008, when Francouz sat in the stands in Prague watching the New York Rangers play the Tampa Bay Lightning.
He was 18 years old at the time and playing for HC Plzen of an under-20 league,
Though the NHL debut of Lightning forward Steven Stamkos may have been the biggest headline from those games, Francouz’s eyes were focused on New York’s Sweden-born goalie.
“I’d seen NHL highlights, but this was kind of unique and special,” Francouz said. “Obviously, Henrik Lundqvist was in net for the Rangers and he was a big, big idol for, I think, all European goalies.”
So he knows what the kids at sold-out Nokia Arena will be going through with Laine and goalie Joonas Korpisalofrom Helsinki, playing for Columbus against the defending Stanley Cup champions, who feature Finland-born forwards Mikko Rantanen and Artturi Lehkonen.
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Those kids, he knows, will be wide-eyed, watching the stars that seemed so far away until the NHL decided to come to their town.
“These games are great for the Finnish people,” Francouz said. “They can see the League in person … and there was NHL games in Prague and I got the chance to go there and it was that was really one of the best experiences at that time for me.”
It took Francouz some time to make it to the NHL. He signed as a free agent with Colorado on May 2, 2018 and made his debut that season. In 60 NHL games, he’s 36-17-5 with a 2.49 goals-against average and .920 save percentage.
The dream came into focus and seemed more real after watching Lundqvist.
“It kind of showed you that these guys are humans too,” Francouz said. “But the hockey level was obviously different than what we were used to seeing in like Czech league. So that was a really good experience for us.”
Blue Jackets general manager Jarmo Kekalainen played in Tampere and went to university here as well. He understands what this visit means to the rabid hockey fans and young players just starting to harbor dreams of the NHL.
“Hockey is at its best when it’s live,” he said. “When you can sit in the rink and get to soak in the atmosphere and see how fast the game is, there is nothing like it.
“People are looking forward to it. The tickets sold out in minutes and everybody’s trying to get in now desperately at the last minute. We’re looking forward to it here in Tampere, let’s put it that way.”