“They were playing my old team, the men’s team at the time, so I was watching that game,” Laine said. “I got to see a team full of NHL players playing against my heroes that were the men’s team at the time. That was pretty cool. I still remember it all these years later.”
Now, of course, the shoe is on the other foot. While the Panthers visited Tampere 13 years ago with a young Laine in the stands, this time, he’s on the Blue Jackets as they head to his hometown for a two-game set with Colorado as part of the NHL Global Series.
In the years since Laine got to watch players at the highest level come to his own backyard, he’s become one of those heroes, a player whose exploits on and off the ice have made him one of the most talked about players in the NHL both in his home country and abroad.
But at his heart, he’s still the same kid that walked into the Hakametsä arena almost a decade and a half ago to watch the sport he loves. And he hopes this trip allows those in his hometown to make memories just as he did all those years ago.
“I’m sure a lot of the kids now are going to hopefully feel the same way in 15 years when they look back at (these games),” Laine said. “I’m just going to try to make it a memorable couple of days for everyone and all the fans and spread the game over there. Hopefully I bring a good show.”
At this point, it’s hard to imagine Laine as anything but an NHL superstar with a personality to match his game. It’s a role he seemingly was born to play, as he’s filled out to be a 6-foot-5 standout with a rocket for a shot, someone whose talents have made him one of the game’s most popular players — and whose love for high fashion and cars befits someone with his confidence and ability.
Yet growing up in the Tesoma neighborhood of Tampere, he was simply just a kid in the hockey-mad country that is Finland.
“I remember just having a stick and a tennis ball playing with my dad in our parking lot,” Laine said. “Those were my earliest memories of hockey, probably. Pretty soon after that, I think he took me to the local team and I started playing at a young age.
“I just fell in love with the sport right away. It was just so much fun to play. Not only on the team, but whatever it was — street hockey, playing on a pond, outdoor rinks, wherever you could play. That was fun at the time. You just wanted to play with your friends and pretend that you were one of the NHL players and just try to have fun. Yeah, it was great back then.”
As Laine said, much of that time playing the sport as a kid was spent with his father, Harri. The game of hockey was what helped bond the two together all the way through Laine’s journey to the NHL, until the elder Laine passed away last year.
“He always used to play,” Laine said. “He played in juniors and then he had a couple of injuries and couldn’t play anymore, but he always played in the beer leagues two or three times a week throughout his whole life. That’s probably one of the reasons I love hockey because I was watching him, even though he wasn’t playing professionally or anything. Still, it was always fun as a 10-year-old to get to go to their skates every now and then to play with a bunch of 40- and 50-year-olds. But yeah, that was kind of our thing we got excited about. He was probably the biggest reason I got into hockey.”
It was clear Laine had some skill and some talent at a young age, but his end goal simply was to play for Tappara, as the NHL was just a pipe dream. While Laine was a young standout with the junior team for Tappara growing up, one isn’t just born with his booming shot. Laine spent hours upon hours at the rink working on his skills, even through injury, said childhood friend Joona Luoto, who also became a professional hockey player and signed with Columbus this offseason.
“I think we were playing junior A and he had his knee surgery done at the end of the season,” Luoto said. “It was these stupid summer practices, and we’re shooting at 7 a.m. in the morning, and he just shows up with his crutches and starts to shoot some pucks. It was like, ‘Here we go again.’ But that’s his attitude about working. He doesn’t like to just stay at home.”
At one point, Laine made the decision to bet on himself, dropping out of school at the age of 15 to pursue his hockey dreams. He figured he could always go back to school if he wanted to, but the dedication was there to try to make it in hockey.
“I spent pretty much all the off time I had practicing, working on my shot, whatever it might be,” he said. “Some guys probably would say I missed a lot of things I should be doing as a kid and as a teenager, but I don’t think so. I have a pretty good life here. If I didn’t do that, I might not be here, so I’m happy the way it worked out for me.”
Making It Big
Laine struggled to stick with Tappara’s main squad at the age of 16 during the 2014-15 season, playing just six games at the top level. In the Mestis, the second-highest level of hockey in Finland, he also struggled to find his footing, posting five goals and 12 points in 36 games with LeKi.
It was still clear he had a future in the sport, though, as Laine not only made Finland’s team for the Under-18 World Championship, he posted eight goals in seven games at the tournament. A year later, Laine had a breakout season with Tappara, notching 17 goals and 33 points in 46 games and scoring 10 times in 15 playoff games as the squad won the Finnish Liiga championship.
His star really took off, though, at that winter’s IIHF World Junior Championship, which was held in Helsinki. Laine, Jesse Puljujarvi and Sebastian Aho were the top three scorers at the tournament, and Kasperi Kapanen’s overtime goal in the final against Russia pushed Finland to a gold medal in a run that captured the attention of the entire country.
“There was always a buzz about him,” Blue Jackets goaltender Joonas Korpisaloa fellow Finn, said. “I think I heard about him first when he was 16. That tells you a lot. He was a really big prospect at that time. At the time, the World Juniors was in Finland and that’s where everything exploded.”
For a kid whose primary goal was just to play hockey at the pro level in his home country, it was a massive success, and that performance also cemented him as someone who could chase a bigger dream. That summer, Winnipeg made him the second overall pick in the NHL draft, and he immediately showed he could play at the highest level with 36 goals his rookie season with the Jets.
Since then, he’s become a bona fide star, and even though he changed teams in a blockbuster trade that sent him to Columbus in January 2021, he’s remained one of the most popular players in the NHL. It’s true in the capital city and abroad, and his actions are followed closely by the Finnish media, as just about everything he does becomes a headline in his home country.
It can be a lot, but as Laine says, one day people will stop asking for his autograph so he might as well embrace the spotlight. At the same time, those who know him say he’s remained the same Patty they’ve always known.
“I think he’s just an unreal player,” Luoto said, “and I would say he’s a way better person than he is a player. I’m glad to have him as one of my buddies.”
And now, for the first time since his Tappara days, Laine will be able to take the ice in his hometown and play in front of the city that helped make him. It’s an opportunity he doesn’t take lightly, as he remembers what it was like all those years ago being in the crowd with all of his dreams ahead.
“Being able to play in my hometown should be really exciting for hockey fans back home and for myself and Korpi and hopefully for these other guys as well,” Laine said. “It’s been exciting news ever since they said we would be going over there.”