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Making Spirits Bright

Oct 12, 2018
Written By: Randy Cleves

Defensive prospect Vili Saarijarvi hopes to be dashing his way into the NHL.

Story and photo by Mark Newman

Christmas comes only once a year, but for Vili Saarijarvi, hockey is the gift that keeps on giving.

Long before Santa Claus left street hockey gear under his tree, he remembers the joy of skating with a puck on his stick and how it would bring an elfish smile to his young face.

Saarijarvi hails from Rovaniemi, Finland, which, although some 1,600 miles from the North Pole, is the official hometown of Santa and his reindeer. Located in the Arctic Circle, its winters provided the perfect setting for boys dreaming of playing in the NHL.

“With long winters, I played a lot of hockey,” he said. “We used to live right next door to an outdoor rink and when it got dark, they’d put on the big outdoor lights and we’d be good to go until 10 p.m. That’s literally what I did my whole childhood, starting at age 3 when I first put on my skates. I’ve been in love with hockey ever since.”

Long hours at the rink enabled Saarijarvi to become an exceptional skater. As a boy, he always played forward, which allowed him to use his skating ability to speed past slow-to-react defensemen and create scoring chances.

Then fate – or perhaps it was destiny – stepped in.

“When I was about 14, one of our defensemen got sick,” he recalled. “The coach said, ‘Vili, you’re a defenseman today.’ I was so upset. And, well, he never let me play forward again. But I’m thankful for him now because it’s worked out pretty well so far.”

As a defenseman, Saarijarvi soon became a top prospect. Scouts were intrigued not only by his skating but also his hockey smarts, passing and scoring potential, many projecting him as a promising offensive D-man with the skill to run a power play.

“When I played forward, I always wanted to score,” he said. “I wanted to play with the puck and make plays. Now that I’m playing defense, I still have the same abilities, so it’s fun. Learning the defensive game was the hardest part, but it was a pretty easy transition, because being a good skater allowed me to get out of bad situations defensively.”

During his teen years, Saarijarvi was often skating with players who were two or three years older. Most of the time, he played on teams older than his age group, although he was happy to play whenever or wherever he could.

“If we didn’t have a game, I would play with guys my age,” he said. “I was always asking if I could play. When I got called up to play with guys who were even older, it was good experience for me. I loved it.”

Not only was he was maturing quickly as a hockey player, he was also growing into a young man. “When I was 15, I moved to play for the junior team in Oulu,” he said. “We don’t have host families in Finland, so I just lived on my own from the time I was 15 to age 17.”

He came to the U.S. before he was 18, starting his junior career with the Green Bay Gamblers in the USHL.

“When I signed a contract with my Finnish team, I had an option that I could play overseas,” he said. “I took the option and I was very happy for the opportunity to come play here. I didn’t have any problems other than language.

“I knew very little English: yes, no, maybe, and I did a lot of smiling. We had English in school, but it’s so different here. I knew a few basic words, but when I heard the guys talking, the words came so fast that I had no idea what was going on.”

Saarijarvi brushed up on his language skills by watching both English and Finnish movies with subtitles, in addition to getting a helping hand from his billet family and his roommate Grant Frederic, who now plays hockey for Miami (Ohio).

After the Red Wings selected Saarijarvi in the third round (73rd overall pick) of the 2015 NHL Entry Draft, he was unsure of whether he would stay in the U.S. or go back to Finland to continue his junior hockey career before turning pro. “We talked about it and made the decision to stay, which everyone felt would be better for my development,” he said. “It’s been good. I love it and I wouldn’t change anything.”

Those words make Saarijarvi grin, especially when he thinks back on the season that followed. He spent 2015-16 playing for the Flint Firebirds, an organization that fired former Griffins defenseman John Gruden as its head coach not once but twice in the same season.

Gruden was fired a month into the team’s inaugural season, then was reinstated and given a three-year contract extension after a successful player walkout, only to be dismissed again three months later. (The OHL subsequently suspended the Firebirds’ owner for five years and took over the organization.)

“What happened to John was terrible. He deserved so much better,” Saarijarvi said. “He was one of the greatest coaches I’ve played for and he was a great guy off the ice, too. I was very thankful to play for him and assistant coach Dave Karpa because they helped me transition from the USHL to the OHL and take the next step in my junior career.

“It wasn’t fun when all that stuff was happening, but we made it through the season and I’m proud of my teammates. You think back, ‘Did that actually happen?’ That’s insane, to get fired twice in a season.”

In January 2016, Saarijarvi helped Finland win the gold medal at the World Junior Championship in Helsinki.

“It’s a pretty special thing to be a member of your national team because you get to play against the best players from different countries in your age group,” he said. “There’s nothing better than getting to wear your country’s colors. You have to be proud of the experience.

“Winning the gold medal in Helsinki made it so much more special because it was home. I had a couple of friends who flew down to attend the party that we had afterward. It was a lot of fun and something I’ll never forget. That’s for sure.”

Finland marked the golden moment by creating a commemorative postage stamp featuring Saarijarvi and a pair of his teammates in celebration. “My family bought a bunch,” he said. “I don’t know if people are still using them, but it was pretty cool that my face was flying all over the country.”

Saarijarvi himself flew to Grand Rapids at the conclusion of the 2015-16 season before the Red Wings assigned him to Toledo where he made his pro debut, tallying a goal and three assists in five games with the Walleye. “I was happy that I got the opportunity to go to Toledo and play those five games,” he said. “They gave me confidence when I went back to juniors for my last year.”

He finished his junior career with the OHL’s Mississauga Steelheads after requesting a trade. “I’m a big competitor so I wanted to be part of a team that had a good chance to win,” he said. “I want to win.”

Saarijarvi helped the Steelheads win the Central Division title as well as the Eastern Conference playoff title before advancing to the OHL finals. Although Mississauga fell short of winning the championship, he was able to watch the Griffins capture their conference crown on the way to winning the 2017 Calder Cup.

Last season, which marked his first full year in the pros, saw him notch 11 assists in 42 games with the Griffins while adding two goals and four assist in 10 games with the Walleye. After struggling to crack the Grand Rapids lineup early in the season, he helped build his confidence with his play in the ECHL.

“When I went to Toledo, I was a little frustrated and not so happy, but I had conversations with (Wings director of player development) Shawn Horcoff and I felt better about it,” he said. “I was able to get the ice time that I needed there, and when I got called back up, I think I played good hockey.”

Knowing that he has a lot to learn, Saarijarvi is thankful that he can draw lessons from the NHL experience of Griffins teammates Brian Lashoff and Dylan McIlrath. “It’s great to have veterans like them,” he said. “They know what it takes and they want to help us, so it’s huge for me and the other young defensemen.”

He admits that he had to battle through his share of ups and downs during his first pro season. “I was used to being the go-to guy and now I was one of the younger players,” he said. “I don’t think I was quite ready when the season started, but everything happens for a reason. Mentally, it was a tough year, but I think it will be helpful in the future.“

Saarijarvi feels this will be an important year in his development. He knows that it is crucial for him to establish himself as a top prospect in the Red Wings’ organization. “I think – I know – it will be a big year for me,” he said. “I had a great summer and I feel confident and ready to roll. I’m looking forward to it.”