Nothing pleases Teemu Pulkkinen – and his coaches – more than shooting the puck and scoring goals.
Story and photo by Mark Newman
Teemu Pulkkinen has always been happiest when he's playing hockey. He’s always enjoyed the game, and as a kid nothing made him happier than heading outdoors with his friends and his older brother Toni.
"We did everything – running, biking and playing soccer – but playing hockey was the best," he recalled about growing up in Vantaa, Finland, a city about 10 minutes from the capitol city of Helsinki.
Pulkkinen started as a goalie but soon discovered that was not for him. "I played the position for about a year and then one game, I let in too many goals," he said. "I told my mom that I'm not going to be a goalie anymore."
He discovered it was more fun to score than to be scored upon. "When you lose games, you feel like you're all alone. Of course, you're only part of the team, but as a goalie, you feel responsible. It was fun, but when you're the goalie, it's serious."
Pulkkinen moved to forward and the rest, as they say, is history.
As a 15-year-old playing Junior C U-16 hockey in Finland, he scored 47 goals in 22 games. As a 16-year-old in Junior B U-18, he recorded 36 goals in 32 games. The following year, as a 17-year-old, he scored 20 goals in 17 Junior A games, often playing against guys who were two or three years older.
He clearly knew how to shoot the puck and score.
"When my father played, he had a good shot," Pulkkinen said. "He always told me to practice and shoot the puck – that's the way you score goals. I wanted to learn, so I practiced a lot."
Pulkinnen started playing in Finland's top professional league when he was barely 18 years old. During his first full season in the Liiga, which is colloquially called the Finnish Elite League, he was almost a point-per-game player, recording 18 goals and 36 assists for 54 points in 55 games. "I had great linemates and got lots of ice time," he explained.
His play at the international level was equally impressive. A look at his IIHF numbers for two World Junior and two U-18 championships reveals an astounding 26 goals and 24 assists for a total of 50 points in just 25 games. “I played a lot with Mikael Granlund, who's now playing with the Minnesota Wild. He's one of the best Finnish hockey players at the moment, and he's a great playmaker, so we had a great line, good power play."
Even so, the points, it seemed, came almost too easily. Perhaps it was a blessing for his development when he struggled a bit during his second and third seasons at the pro level in Finland.
"I didn't get as much ice time and my self-confidence went down – that's how it goes in hockey," he said. "When you get lots of ice time, you feel good about yourself and you score goals. But if you don't score, everybody starts waiting for you. You don't like to think about pressure, but it happens when you don't score goals. Everything becomes hard."
He was eager to come to North America and joined the Griffins near the end of the 2012-13 AHL season. He saw action in two regular season games, then played in 14 playoff games before Gustav Nyquist and Joakim Andersson rejoined the Griffins for the team’s final playoff push.
"I wanted to see how things go – I didn't expect anything," he said. "I just wanted to have fun, and it was really fun. When the guys came back from Detroit, I didn't play in the finals, but I was very happy when the guys finished the job and reached our goal of winning the Calder Cup."
Pulkkinen is playing a bigger role this season, especially with the departure of Andersson, Nyquist and Tomas Tatar from the Griffins’ lineup. He is getting more ice time and more power play time, too.
Griffins head coach Jeff Blashill has been pleased with Pulkkinen's progress.
"Teemu is one of those guys where the puck seems to follow him around the ice," Blashill said. "It's probably because he's a pretty smart player offensively, and he finds a way to win puck battles. When he's got the puck on his stick, he's got a real weapon of a shot. As he learns to hit the net even more often, he'll be even more successful."
Being smart positionally – "Skate to where the puck's going, not where it's been," according to Wayne Gretzky – is not something that Pulkkinen claims to have learned from his father or his brother or even his coaches, but is rather a skill he just picked up as he played the game.
"It comes from the time when I was a young kid and I played so many games," Pulkkinen said. "You just enjoy yourself when you're playing as a young kid and you learn where to go. It just comes naturally. I don't know if it's something that you can learn. In fact, at my age, I think it's something you can't learn anymore."
One thing Pulkkinen has learned is that when you have the puck and the space, you shoot. "When Teemu shoots the puck, he has a chance to score from anywhere on the ice," Blashill said.
Pulkkinen had seven goals in his first 19 games, a pace that would give him 28 for the season – but he hopes that's only a beginning. "I have to score more and do better," he said. "I'm going to work hard every day."
If there's one area where he will have to improve, it's his two-way play. He will have to become a better defensive player to become a regular in the NHL.
"The improvement that Teemu will need to show will lead him to become a complete player," Blashill said. "He needs to learn how to play from the defensive side of the puck, how to make stops in the defensive zone – all habits that come over time. I believe he's getting better at those habits and that he will continue to improve."
Pulkkinen knows that no matter how many goals he scores, it's going to be his defense that will help him excel at the next level. "That's a big point for me," he said. "In a smaller rink, you have to know where to go and what to do in certain situations defensively. I have more to learn, but I think it's been a good experience so far."
In the end, it's his shot, his ability to score, that will get him noticed. It's what led Ari Vuori, the Red Wings’ scout in Finland, to compare him to Hockey Hall of Famer Jari Kurri and for Detroit scout Haken Andersson to call him "a poor-man's Brett Hull" – suggestions which make the young Pulkkinen blush.
"I don't want to be like anybody else – I just want to be myself," Pulkkinen said. "People can think what they want, but the most important thing is how I see myself. It's what I do inside the rink, and it's all about having fun. I'm not looking to be anybody else."
And so he continues to have a good time, especially on a team that has the potential to repeat as Calder Cup champions.
"If you look at our lineup, we have so many good players," he said. "I can honestly say it's like we have too many good players. So for me, I just have to make sure I play good every night to keep my spot. I know I have to score goals – that's why I'm here – and that's what I want to do. Score goals and have fun – that's what it's all about."