Okay, I will be honest. I feel like we are on the precipice of another shutdown. Each day, I am seeing more states enact further restrictions and seems like ice hockey is one of the first items to go. It doesn't seem right but I am afraid that my opinion on the matter won't change the reality. I just spent the past weekend observing players with the Tri-State Spartans. Conversely this weekend, I will likely be stuck at home forbidden to attend any live games.
The more I thought about it, the more I found myself feeling stuck and useless. So I started digging through some of Coach Littler's reading favorites looking for an escape. I found the following article about Miro Heiskanen. I love articles like this because it shines a light on all the work, detail and effort a player puts in to make it to the show and rise to the top. I do not know how each of you feel at the moment but it is probably likely that several of you feel lost and discouraged as well. I tis my hope that this article will help elevate your spirits as it did mine.
MIRO HEISKANEN - CONN SMYTHE CANDIDATE
By Matthew DeFranks, Dallas Morning News
How did Miro Heiskanen become a Conn Smythe candidate for the Stars? We asked his coaches in Finland.
On any given afternoon a decade ago in Espoo, Finland, one could find Miro Heiskanen on the ice at the sports complex Matinkylän Jäähalli, hour by hour building his way to become the future Conn Smythe candidate he now is with the Stars.
It was an open skate, available to players in Espoo to practice before their team session in the evening. It was optional, and it happened three or four times a week during hockey season, meaning around 100 times across eight months. The hour-long sessions were for anyone in theory, but truly desired by the preteens who desperately loved the sport.
“I would say he was there every time,” said Saku Martikainen, one of the Espoo Blues coaches at the open skates. “Obviously, you’ve got to love the game. You could see from when he was young that this kid really loves hockey.”
Heiskanen, then anywhere from 9 years old to 13, has blossomed into the Stars' best skater during their run to the Stanley Cup Final against Tampa Bay, which is now tied at 1 entering Wednesday night’s Game 3. He’s become a bona fide No. 1 defenseman on the Western Conference champions, and one of two primary choices — Anton Khudobin is the other — to be named the playoff MVP should the Stars win the Cup for the second time in franchise history.
He’s met the expectations placed on him as the No. 3 pick in 2017, and he’s already one of the best defensemen in the world at just 21 years old. His 23 playoff points are fourth-most in the league this year, and most among defensemen. No player has played more minutes than Heiskanen in the postseason.
“Good for him to spread his wings and show how hockey is played,” said Juha Ikonen, Heiskanen’s youth coach with the Espoo Blues.
Ask coaches who knew him in Finland as a short boy who always played against players two years older, and they’ll say the signs were there. But not like this.
Jussi Ahokas, who coached Heiskanen with Finland’s junior national team:
“He was good, but wasn’t like a really super, super, super talent. Nobody could believe at that point that he would be so good as he is.”
“He wasn’t the best player then, but his attitude toward practicing and everything related to hockey was really, really ambitious.
One could tell that if someone would make it, if it’s only one guy, then it is this guy.”
“He was one of the good players in his age group, but he was never the best.
One thing that stood out, now looking back, was that he was really coachable. He didn’t speak much. I don’t think he still does. You never have to tell him twice what to do.”
When Heiskanen arrived to play for Ikonen — whom multiple people called the best youth hockey coach in Finland — with the Blues, he was actually a forward. It was Ikonen who converted him to defense because the position required on-ice awareness and allowed for more time to make decisions with the puck.
“In my view, his capabilities suited best for playing D, but kids, most of them want to score goals,” Ikonen said. “Still, someone has to be a defenseman. Nine-year-old boys, they really don’t think what position is in their best interest to play in the future.”
It can be crazy to look at preteens through the lens of the Finnish national team and their potential NHL contributions, but when international tournaments include U-16 age groups, looking for young talent becomes essential.
Ikonen said some of the players Heiskanen would face were two heads taller than he was. So Heiskanen had to rely on his hockey sense and skating to make his way through games, much like he does now at the NHL level.
“He plays the same game in every level,” Ahokas said. “It’s pretty much happened. He’s been adapting so fast. That’s the funny part. You could see those when he played with his midget team, Junior A team. You could see the same kind of plays. Then he jumped to the pro league, he played the same way. Now, he jumped to the NHL and does the same things.”
Heiskanen hit a growth spurt and began to dominate for the Finnish junior national teams, first U-16 and then U-18 and U-20. “Then you could see the boy is special,” Ahokas said.
Jere Lehtinen, the former Stars winger whose No. 26 hangs in the American Airlines Center, is from Espoo. As Heiskanen was climbing the ranks in his home country, Lehtinen was in Dallas and would hear about the kid from his hometown.
“I heard the name,” Lehtinen said, “but I didn’t know that much.”
When Lehtinen moved back to Finland in 2014, Heiskanen was two years from playing in Finland’s Liiga as a 17-year-old against men and was three years from being drafted by the Stars. Lehtinen watched Heiskanen — the “tiny guy” who wore a cage on his helmet — and said he stood out every game.
Now, Lehtinen runs Finland’s national hockey program, and watched as Heiskanen took on the world’s best at the Karjala Cup, the World Juniors, the Olympics and the World Championship.
“After the tournament playing against top players, [Connor] McDavid and those guys, he was fine there,” Lehtinen said. “He can play NHL, no problem for him.”
Agent Ian Pulver, who represents Heiskanen along with Juha Ylonen in Finland, was told by Hall of Famer and former Red Wings forward Igor Larionov to expect the next Nicklas Lidstrom when he watched Heiskanen play.
“That’s what I went looking for,” Pulver said. “That’s what we saw.”
Humble and confident
Anyone who’s interacted with Heiskanen knows he’s a quiet person, very polite to greet people but mostly a timid personality, especially in English, his second language. He’s humble yet confident, and Stars interim coach Rick Bowness has said many times that Heiskanen knows just how good he is.
“What you see on the ice is what you get off the ice from Miro — efficient, smart, not loud but attentive and caring.”
“If you asked how you’re doing, ‘Yeah, I’m doing fine.’ Rest is just practice and hockey.”
“You have to find the right questions if you want to get to know him more.”
Ikonen said that Heiskanen was one of the most ambitious players in the program. So how did he show that? Did he talk about going to the NHL?
“No, no, have you met Miro?” Ikonen said. “How come you ask that?”
The entire combination has led to the player the Stars are benefitting from today.
It’s the player who skates well enough to be both an offensive threat and defensive disruption on the same possession. It’s the player who can take over the game seemingly at will. It’s the player who can change momentum when Dallas needs it — whether through a power-play goal or by killing a penalty.
“I think he’s the best defenseman in the world right now,” Martikainen said. “Knowing a little bit where he comes from, and seeing him a little bit when he was young, it’s great to see that somebody who’s been looking and reading about the NHL is now there being one of the stars.”
On the day Ylonen spoke with The Dallas Morning News last week, he also spoke to Heiskanen’s dad, Jukka.
“I was just asking what do you think his biggest strength is,” Ylonen said. “He said
‘He just loves the game so much.’”
It started with those many hundreds of hours spent at Matinkylän Jäähalli.
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