BRATISLAVA – Coming up through the juniors, he was called too small to make it. He wasn’t too fast on the skates, and his shot wasn’t anything to write home about. And if experts could say all that about Wayne Gretzky, be assured it has all been said about Mikael Granlund, too.
In the Finnish national team’s media guide, he’s listed at 175 centimetres, but the 19-year-old forward, the Minnesota Wild’s first-round draft choice in 2010, set the record straight on the eve of the tournament, noting that he’s not 175 centimetres and 77 kilos, but instead 179 centimetres and 83 kilos.
But, in the words of author Mark Twain, “It’s not the size of the dog in the fight, it's the size of the fight in the dog." Hockey is a game, and in a game, you don’t have to be the strongest, the tallest, the fastest, the one with the hardest shot, or the most bonecrushing checks, as long as you’re strong enough, tall enough, fast enough, and shoot well enough – and have that little “something”.
And Mikael Granlund has that. What else can you say of a player who scored 13 points in 6 games in the World U18 Championship, like he did in 2009. He played in the Finnish World U20 Championship squad the same year, as a 16-year-old. Last year, he was voted Rookie of the Year in the Finnish SM-liiga. This season, he was tied for lead in post-season scoring, when his HIFK Helsinki won the Finnish championship.
"He’s got a true player’s character, meaning that the tougher the game, the better he plays,” says Jari Laukkanen, who used to coach Granlund in the Kärpät Oulu juniors.
Granlund’s every move has been analyzed and studied for a couple of years now, ever since he left his hometown Kärpät Oulu for HIFK Helsinki, after a controversial contract dispute. All along, Granlund’s just been doing the thing he does best, playing hockey, and playing well.
He was only 16 when he played in his first World U20 Championship, and he came through, and collected three points, tied for fifth on the team. He had to sit out months due to contract dispute, came back, and played in the World U18 Championship months after. This season, he missed two months of action due to a post-concussion syndrome, then was arguably the playoffs best forward.
"Injuries are, unfortunately, a part of this job, and there’s not much I can do about it. The only thing I can do is try to come back better than ever. Naturally, missing two months showed somewhere,” he says.
Granlund has handled all challenges thrown in his way, silencing his doubters, one by one. His skating does look heavy, and even his 179 centimetres look small on the ice, but none of that seems to matter. Granlund protects the puck well, he’s hard to knock down, and his passes find their way to the tape of a teammate like they always have.
Last season, Jalonen gave Granlund a chance to get on the World Championship team, but ended up cutting the then-18-year-old forward from the team.
Not this year. Instead, Jalonen named him to the team right after the Finnish finals.
“He moves better than last year, he’s grown physically, he’s better at battling for the puck, and his confidence is even better this year. He’s become a man. Mikael’s an exceptional player in that he always makes right decisions with the puck, and never fails,” he told IIHF.com.
Unlike in the SM-liiga, Granlund started the World Championship playing on a wing, which helps his transition into the top level.
“It takes some of the defensive responsibilities off his shoulders so he can save energy for his offensive play,” Jalonen says.
Mikael Granlund’s first World Championship goal sent Finnish media into a frenzy as papers turned it into an almost epic moment in the country’s history. Not only was his 4-1 goal against Denmark the first one for Granlund – and a masterful deflection, too – it was also “the first goal by a Finnish player born in the 1990s”.
Even the coach was generous in his praise after the game against Denmark.
"It was fun to see, he’s a true iceman. He’s never nervous, I’m sure he’s got ice in his veins,” he said.
“And the best part is that he’s not going to let this get to his head. He just does what he wants to do, and he loves to play hockey,” Jalonen added.
So much so, that on Sunday, Granlund was once again the last player to come off the ice after Finland’s practice. And only partly because the kid had to stay there to collect the pucks.