By Jason Pearson, griffinshockey.com
Ask a professional hockey player how long they believed in Santa Claus as a kid and the array of potential reactions is endless: a valid answer, a sideways stare, or anything in between. Ask Vili Saarijarvi, the Red Wings’ third-round draft pick in 2015, and he supplies a grinning reply.
“I still believe,” he said in the back hallways of Van Andel Arena, one day after a mid-December winter storm unloaded on downtown Grand Rapids.
When prodded further, and after the interviewer allows he was a Santa believer until the early years of this century, the 20-year-old Finn relents and offers a more realistic response.
“I would say probably 12 or 13 (years old).”
It wouldn’t be a complete surprise if Saarijarvi’s – pronounced SAH-ree-YAHR-vee – initial answer was fact, seeing as how he grew up in Santa’s backyard.
A city of roughly 60,000, Rovaniemi, Finland, is situated about four miles south of the Arctic Circle, which equates to plenty of sunshine in the summer months to make up for the hibernating sun in winter.
“In the summertime, there’s a lot of light and the sun doesn’t go down. Wintertime it’s pretty much the opposite with a lot of snow. I was actually looking yesterday and the sun got up at 11 a.m. and sunset was 1:25 p.m.,” Saarijarvi said.
Regardless of the sun’s habits, every year more than 300,000 believers from around the world make a pilgrimage to Rovaniemi, the Official Hometown of Santa Claus.
According to folklore, Santa’s original home resides somewhere in Lapland, Finland’s northernmost plot. To keep his actual whereabouts a secret, Santa established an office in Rovaniemi, the capital of Lapland, in 1985. Since 2010, Rovaniemi has held the recognized “official hometown” status.
The place tourists head to is called Santa Claus Village.
“There’s three different buildings; well, it’s getting bigger now, but it used to be three different buildings,” Saarijarvi explained. “There’s a Christmas store, a building where Santa is and there’s a restaurant. You walk through this hallway with pictures and history stuff about Christmas and Finland, and there’s fake reindeer and elves – things little kids would get excited about – and then at the end of the hallway you get to go meet Santa. He’s sitting on his chair and right away he knows your name. When I was little I was like, ‘how does he know my name?’ but now that I’m older, [I realize] they ask for names before.”
Saarijarvi estimates he’s visited the village 15-20 times, with his last visit coming two summers ago when Vili – “Uncle Vili” – and his older sister, Nadja, took Nadja’s two children. But the bulk of his trips to see Santa came as a youngster.
“Every November, end of November, we would write the list of what I was wishing for for Christmas, and then we went to see Santa,” he said.
Congruent to how North American youth give Christmas lists to the local mall Santas, lists are also provided to the red-suited fellow when visiting him in his natural habitat.
“It’s cool to have something like that in your hometown,” Saarijarvi said. “A lot of people come to visit from all around the world. It’s one of the most popular things in Finland I would say.”
For those tried and true Michiganders who might be wondering, Saarijarvi – who enjoys Poronkäristys, a traditional Lappish reindeer dish, back in Finland – has indeed been to Bronner’s Christmas Wonderland in Frankenmuth, although he would have liked to have seen a few more Finnish items on display. He played the 2015-16 campaign – his second in North America – with the Ontario Hockey League’s Flint Firebirds, about 30 minutes south of Michigan’s little Bavaria. His last trip to Bronner’s came just a few weeks ago when he took advantage of an off day to visit his old billets on the other side of the state and take in the store.
A 5-foot-10, 178-pound defenseman, Saarijarvi has spent his first full professional season between Grand Rapids and Toledo in the ECHL. His trips to the Walleye have largely been to get more playing time, as four of the Griffins’ blueliners – Brian Lashoff, Dylan McIlrath, Dan Renouf and Robbie Russo – have NHL experience, while second-year pro Joe Hicketts is knocking on the NHL door and fellow rookie Filip Hronek has played well.
In nine games with the Griffins, Saarijarvi has logged four assists, including one in three straight games from Dec. 13-16.
“I’ve been learning a lot and trying to bring my positive energy to the guys when I’m in or out of the lineup,” he said. “I just try to bring myself to the rink every day and be myself and work as hard as I can.”