We want our heroes to be larger than life. And whatever superlatives have been used in the past to describe the stars of the yesteryear, we’ll have to top them now.
Because our heroes, today, are always better than anyone else’s.
That's why to me, Wayne Gretzky will always be the greatest player ever, tied with Valeri Kharlamov. Gordie Howe, sure, he was probably good, and Bobby Orr, with his skating and hockey sense, probably took hockey to another level single-handedly, but to have them even that high on the list, I have to do something that’s against the rules of such list making.
I’d have to think. Rationalize. Intellectualize.
At the same time, we sometimes make our heroes even bigger than we originally meant. It’s like we’d like to believe that to truly appreciate the previous generation, we have to make them larger than life, even when they might have gone underappreciated in their prime. Or, maybe especially then.
We all have our own lists, with our own favorites, for our own reasons. That list is the truth as far as we’re concerned.
I was thinking about this when I received the news of Erkki Laine’s death. The 51-year-old former Team Finland winger was found drowned after a boating accident. (Nobody is really larger than life).
In 2009, when news travel fast - bad news still faster than the good - newspapers (sites) and other media put up quickly drafted obits about Laine, portraying him as a Team Finland star, Olympic silver medalist, a legend, one of the best players of his era, and in Sweden, a Färjestad and Leksand profile.
And he surely was all that, in hindsight, yes, even a legend. Maybe not for everybody, but for the young hockey fans in Lahti where he was from and where he returned to after his tour in Sweden. Or for everybody in Leksand where he moved to as a twentysomething, together with Kari Eloranta, another youngster from Lahti.
Laine carved himself a nice niche in Sweden where he played eight seasons in ten years, splitting them evenly between Leksand and Färjestad. First four years in Leksand, then two years in Finland, then four years in Färjestad. He played 308 games in the Elitserien, including the playoffs, and collected 308 points. 211 goals.
That’s right: 211 goals.
He won the Swedish league goal scoring title twice: 1981 and 1985.
Yet, he never played in a World Championship. He played in two Olympics but I doubt that he’d played in Sarajevo in 1984 had he not played in Finland that year. In 1982-83 he scored 41+15=56 points in 36 games for Kiekko-Reipas, Lahti and finished third in the SM-liiga scoring. The following season he lit the red light 29 times in 33 games.
But, out of sight, out of mind, always close, but never getting the call. The next time Laine donned the Team Finland sweater in a major tournament was in the 1988 Olympics where Finland finally, after decades of disappointments won the nation’s first hockey medal.
That team had some of the biggest names in Finnish hockey: Raimo Helminen, Reijo Ruotsalainen, Teppo Numminen, Janne Ojanen, Jarmo Myllys.
In fact, 14 of the 22 players on the Calgary silver team are in the Finnish Hockey Hall of Fame, and two, Numminen, and Ojanen, are shoo-ins once eligible.
Erkki Laine is not.
And now it’s too late.
Except for all those fans who did see him play, and who did understand that they were in the presence of a special talent. A legend.