BUFFALO – Erik Haula, a 19-year-old forward for Finland, is both well-rounded and focused. The polyglot from Pori is only the second European to play for the University of Minnesota Golden Gophers (after Thomas Vanek), but the freshman is taking time off from his college hockey to play for his country here in Buffalo.
“We haven’t gotten a medal here in five years,” he states with historic importance of the U20, “so that’s our goal. We’re passionate about getting a medal, and that’s what we’re going to do.”
Haula is direct and to the point, not wasting time or zigzagging through life when a straight line is the more effective approach. He got to the University of Minnesota with the simplest of ambitions.
“When I was 15 or 16 years old,” he related, “me and my mom and dad decided that I’d come to the States and get an education and play hockey. I wanted to play at a high level and university hockey was a good fit for me.”
The education component was important for Haula. At 5’11” and 187 lbs., he’s not going to muscle his way to the NHL, and being drafted 170th overall by the Minnesota Wild in 2009 is also no guarantee an NHL career awaits.
“I wouldn’t say which one is better, Canadian junior or U.S. college hockey, they’re both excellent,” he noted, “but for me, I get the education as well as the hockey in Minnesota, so it’s a better fit for me.”
Haula’s career plan started in 2007 when he was playing for the U20 team of his hometown club, Ässät Pori. He wanted to press the “fast forward” button on his hockey career and decided to attend Shattuck St. Mary’s in Faribault, Minnesota for the fall of 2008. The prep high school is famous for notable alumni including Jonathan Toews, Zach Parise, and Sidney Crosby.
“That was basically one reason I went there,” Haula said of those big-name players. “And we knew the coach, Tom Ward, is an excellent coach, so those were the main reasons.” He roomed with Swede Alexander Fallström. A year later, Haula moved up to the USHL, with Omaha, and one year later he was eligible for U of M.
Along the way he played for Finland at every prestigious age event, starting with the Under-17 World Hockey Challenge, in 2008. From there he moved to the U18, in ’08 and 2009, winning a bronze medal in the latter year, and now he is with the big boys at the U20.
The Gophers are in the middle of the pack of the WCHA standings this year, and Haula is tied for third in scoring with three goals and 15 points through 18 games. In addition to his native Finnish, he speaks Swedish and English, the English coming through practice of a strange sort. When he was a kid, his dad coached the Turku Trojans, a football team that plays the game the American way, à la the National Football League. The family would often have players staying with it, and as a result Erik practiced his English far more often than most kids.
“You can’t even compare that level of football to the NFL, but it’s the same game,” Haula said. “Maybe four or five guys on a team over there would come here and get hammered, and the others wouldn’t even make it. It’s a sport that’s getting bigger and bigger back home, but not everyone knows about it in Finland.”
Of course, Haula’s dream is like every other player who puts on skates – he wants to play in the NHL. He’s on the right track, and has been drafted, but he knows that dream is still a ways away.
“We’ll see what happens. I just want to finish this tournament first and go back to Minnesota, finish the year strong, and go from there.“