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01/21/2006 12:03 AM - It’s a whole new ballgame for Valtteri Filppula, who is adjusting nicely to his first season in North America

Story and photo by Mark Newman

“I’d rather be lucky than good.”

– Lefty Grove, Baseball Hall of Fame pitcher

Valtteri Filppula would have you believe that a couple of the biggest goals in his young career were lucky. In truth, it’s Grand Rapids hockey fans who are lucky, being able to watch the 21-year-old center from Finland prove his potential as a future NHL star.

“He’s come in and done a fantastic job for us,” says Griffins head coach Greg Ireland. “He’s realizing what it takes to be a North American pro while establishing himself as a guy who not only has the potential to play in the National Hockey League, but most likely to be very good.”

His teammates call him “Flip,” a conscious corruption of his given name, but he’s neither insolent nor indecisive. Instead, he’s a gifted hockey player who in fine Finnish fashion downplays his skills with a mixture of reservation and reluctance to admit the obvious.

“I’m just trying to do my best and work hard – that’s all I can do,” he says, reflecting upon his first season away from home. It’s a learning process that takes him back to his earlier youth when he began discovering the joy of hockey along with another love, baseball.

Filppula was an avid baseball player for most of his childhood, until about the age of 13 when his hockey workouts began extending into the warmer months.

“I liked baseball,” he says, “but when hockey started to be more serious with summer practices, I didn’t have time to do both.”

The baseball of Filppula’s youth was fundamentally different from the game played elsewhere. The Finns play a peculiar brand of baseball they call “pesapallo.”

The most obvious difference is the position of the pitcher, who stands across the plate from the batter and tosses the ball straight up into the air like a fungo hitter.

But it’s hardly the only difference. The field is a lopsided pentagon on which, in the words of legendary sportswriter Red Smith, “base runners all act like Dodgers gone berserk. That is, they start for third base and then get lost.”

Runners zigzag from base to base, the distance between each varying in length. Getting to third on one hit is a home run. The catcher is stationed in front of, not behind, the hitter.

Games are divided into two periods of four innings each; a period is won by scoring the most runs. If both teams win one period, an extra, decisive period consisting of one inning is played.

Pesapallo, not hockey, is considered Finland’s national game. It was developed in 1922 by the late professor Lauri “Tahko” Pihkala, who combined old European bat and ball sports with the American invention.

Filppula’s father, Raineri, played baseball in Finland’s top league and encouraged his boys – Valtteri has an older brother, Ilari – in their athletic pursuits. As Finland’s most popular summer sport, pesapallo – or “pesis,” as it’s also called – helped develop the boys’ competitive juices.

“I was the pitcher,” Filppula says, describing the trick of throwing the ball over the circular plate, which writer Smith reported as looking like “a trash can cover, two feet in diameter.”

In the Finnish game, the pitcher delivers the ball vertically, soft-tossing the pitch into the air a minimum of one meter above the batter’s head. Pitchers may alter the height or spin of the ball to try to compensate for the fact that they stand only two feet from the plate.

Naturally, hitting the ball is much easier, which increases strategy. Batters try to place their hits in the field of play – the essence of Wee Willie Keeler’s admonition to “Hit ‘em where they ain’t” – while the fielding team counters with defensive schemes and anticipation.

More importantly, at least where Finns are concerned, vertical pitching speeds up the game.

“I watch the games here and it’s like strike, strike, strike,” Filppula says, bemoaning the existence of flame-throwing pitchers in the major leagues here. “Pitchers are so good, it’s hard to hit the ball.”

He admits that he hasn’t closely followed baseball here, in part because he doesn’t know any of the teams, but also because being a professional athlete means his schedule often doesn’t allow time.

Filppula came into the Red Wings’ training camp last fall as a highly touted rookie, a can’t-miss prospect whom Detroit had selected with its third choice in the 2002 NHL Entry Draft.

He heightened those expectations with his play at the 2004 World Junior Championship. He was named a First Team All-Star and finished the tournament fourth in scoring after helping Team Finland capture the bronze medal.

It was his goal that knocked heavily favored Russia out of the medal race. With only 13 seconds remaining in a tie game, Filppula sent a fluttering shot from the blue line that completely fooled goaltender Konstantin Barulin and gave Finland a 4-3 upset win.

“That was a lucky one,” he says. “I was at the end of a shift and I just wristed the puck toward the net. I was skating away when I saw the red light. I didn’t believe it. The goalie just missed it.”

The victory was especially sweet since it came in front of family and friends, as the 2004 tournament was played in Helsinki. “The whole place was packed and the atmosphere was great,” he says. “I don’t think anybody believed we were going to win that game, but our whole team did really good.”

Playing for Finland was a major honor, Filppula says. “It’s always a dream to play for the national team, whether it’s the world championships or the Olympics.” Playing in the latter, he adds, would be a “dream-come-true.”

Getting to the National Hockey League, of course, offered an even bigger thrill. He made his NHL debut in mid-December against the Florida Panthers, when he centered a line with Dan Cleary and ex-Griffins forward Mark Mowers.

Filppula picked up his first NHL point when he assisted on Cleary’s goal at 6:45 of the third period, which tied the game at 1. He sent the puck into the boards, from where it bounced to Cleary, who shot it past Florida netminder Roberto Luongo.

“It was a lucky bounce in the corner,” Filppula says, who kept the puck, which was retrieved by Red Wings teammate Kris Draper.

The assist hopefully will be the first of many for Filppula while wearing the winged wheel. His coach in Grand Rapids is almost certain that his young star’s day to shine will come.

“I think he does a lot of the little things,” Ireland says. “He competes very well away from the puck. He’s very responsible defensively. He’s a tenacious forechecker.

“When you get a chance to play for (coach) Mike Babcock and the Red Wings and you do those things, you’re going to have success. I think he’s got a great future ahead.”

For his part, Filppula just hopes his luck continues. “It’s been a lot of fun here – we have a really good team,” he says. “If I get another chance to go up, I will try to do better.”

Ireland knows the young Finn is bound to make another good impression. “I know they were very pleased with him during the short span he was up the first time,” he says.

After getting a point in his NHL debut when he made the most of four minutes and five seconds of ice time, Filppula saw even less action in his second game. He skated three times for a total of 90 seconds.

“It’s hard when you don’t play a lot,” he admits. “If you only get three shifts, you’re not really playing.”

Not that he’s complaining. He called his first taste of the NHL “a great experience,” one that he would repeat under any conditions. “It felt really good,” he says. “I don’t really know how to put it into words.”

As for ice time, he’s getting plenty in Grand Rapids, where he has excelled on a line with Tomas Kopecky and Darryl Bootland. He’s one reason the Griffins have staged more come-from-behind victories than in any season in recent memory.

“I think it shows the character of this team,” he says. “We’re not going to give up. I think it’s going help us at the end of the season when we get into the playoffs.”

Filppula’s international experience has shown him that teamwork may help propel a hockey club further than any individual achievement might. “(In Finland) we didn’t have any real stars, but we had four good lines. We had really good team spirit and that helps, too.”

He sees parallels with the Griffins. “We have a really good team and the team spirit is great here,” he says. “I’m sure that’s going to be really important later in the season.”

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