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December 27, 2012

Sami Vatanen: From Finland With Love

By: Dan Marrazza

Emerson Etem's overtime goal against the Albany Devils last Saturday night was important for the Admirals. Obviously, Etem's goal won the game. And equally as obviously, Etem's goal gave Norfolk its second straight win and its sixth victory in its last nine games since its six-game November losing streak, while bringing the Admirals' record to .500 for the first time since Thanksgiving.

But also, considering the members of the Admirals are as much people as they are hockey players, Etem's overtime goal enabled Norfolk players to head into the team's Christmas break on a positive note, with much of the team dispersing throughout North America to enjoy the holidays with their families before reconvening at Scope for the team's bus ride to Syracuse.

Sami Vatanen/Photo by Rob TwineRookie defenseman Sami Vatanen stayed in Norfolk for Christmas, though, with his home in Jyvaskyla, Finland being too far away to travel to during a short break in the long season.

"It's hard when I can't be home," said Vatanen. "My family takes it harder than I do, I think. They want me to be there, but I think they're kind of used to this. I was home last year, but before that it had been three or four years since I had been home. It's part of this job. At least I can always be there on Skype."

While Skype is the type of invention which greatly enhances many peoples' abilities to communicate more intimately while separated, it still isn't a substitute for the smells, tastes and feelings that come with a traditional holiday season. Plus, when you grow up with the types of traditional Finnish Christmas customs that Vatanen grew up with, nothing in Hampton Roads, the United States or anywhere on the planet can come close to being an exact replacement for what you're used to.

Because in Finland, Christmas is king.

Christmas is such a serious venture in Finland partially because it's a local belief that Santa Claus – who Finns refer to as "Joulupukki" – is actually a native Finn who lives in a northern region of the country called Lapland, rather than the North Pole. In fact, 345 miles north of Vatanen's hometown in central Finland, there's an actual Santa's Workshop amusement park called Santa Claus Village, which is said to be "the home of Santa Claus."

Northern Finland's Santa Claus Village, which is basically a carbon copy of most Americans' vision of how the North Pole looks – well, at least how it looks in Elf and Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer – is actually as outrageous as it sounds, too. Because how can there be a word more appropriate than "outrageous" to describe a life-size Santa's village north of the Arctic Circle where tourists can visit Santa's office and post office, where people from around the world can mail their gift wish lists?

While "outrageous" might be the word Americans would use for it, Vatanen wouldn't use any words to describe Finland's Santa Claus Village.

"I don't know anything about it," said Vatanen with a wide smile. "Nothing about it."

Sami Vatanen/Photo by John WrightBut while 21-year-old Sami Vatanen doesn't want to discuss the place where many of his countrymen believe Santa Claus's magical sleigh ride begins every year – after all, Sami doesn't want to look "crazy" in his new country – he was willing to discuss a part of Finnish Christmases that he does miss, which may or may not make him look "crazy," itself.

"When I'm home, my whole family goes in the sauna together as soon as we wake up on Christmas," said Vatanen. "Then we go again, like three or four times in a day. Everybody does it. Finnish people love their saunas."

OK, a family – Sami with his parents and younger sister – excursion to the sauna isn't the craziest thing ever. However, in the realm of American pop culture, one could only imagine what would happen if the Griswold family went into a sauna together, or if Kevin McAllister had a local sauna to booby-trap for incoming burglars Harry and renowned banshee-screamer Marv.

In Finland, however, Vatanen said that the craziest part of holiday saunas is what some locals do afterwards.

"In winter, some crazy guys jump in lakes after getting out of the sauna," joked Vatanen. "Right now, it's like -20 degrees with a meter of snow in Finland. I don't jump in the lake after going in the sauna, though. I'm not a crazy guy."

Considering that Vatanen's hometown of Jyvaskyla is known for its 328 lakes and numerous rivers which comprise over 20% of the 133,000-person city's entire area, one can only imagine what the site of "crazy" post-sauna swimmers looks like this time of year.

Beyond its wild holiday swimmers, Vatanen's hometown's claim to fame – at least in 2012 – is that it's home to the current champions of Finland's top professional hockey league. The team, which goes by the name "JYP," was Vatanen's junior and professional team prior to this season, too. His arrival to the Admirals this season came after he won his country's top championship at the same time Norfolk was in the midst of its Calder Cup run last spring.

"Winning a championship at home was a dream come true," said Vatanen. "Jyvaskyla is my home and I played there all my life. We started pretty slow last year, but we got better a little before Christmas and kept going. It was a big thing for our town when we won the championship."

In terms of how Vatanen's Finnish championship run prepared him for North American hockey, the mere experience of winning in a high-level league is the most obvious way. But although Vatanen's championship experience is irreplaceable, there are a few areas of North American hockey that playing in his home country couldn't prepare him for. For starters, European rinks are 15 feet wider than North American ice surfaces.

"With that extra width on the rink there maybe isn't as much contact as in North America," said Admirals head coach Trent Yawney. "Also, the North American men are a little bit different on a smaller rink than the European guys are on a bigger rink – and that's no disrespect to the European guys. But it's a reality that we have a smaller rink, bigger players and that he's not a big guy."

Sami Vatanen/Photo by John WrightAt 5-foot-10 and 175 pounds, in a league where the average player is over six feet tall and weighs more than 200 pounds, Vatanen is clearly a smaller player who has to make up for his height and weight disadvantages in other areas. But although Vatanen's lack of size will always give him critics, Admirals associate coach Mike Haviland doesn't believe Vatanen's small stature is an obstacle that can't be overcome.

"I don't think size really matters as much as smarts," said Haviland. "If you're smart enough to contain guys and if you have a good stick, it doesn't matter how big you are."

"For Sami, being in the right position is very important," added Yawney. "If it becomes a physical confrontation with a bigger guy, he's going to lose. But Sami can make up for it with positioning, good stick control and good gap control."

"Sami is always going to be a guy who gets points because of his vision and shot," said Yawney of Vatanen, who is third amongst AHL rookie defensemen with 17 points (3g, 14a) this season.

No matter how good Vatanen's positioning is, his diminutive size will always be something that some pundits hold against him. But although not always common, there are precedents of smaller defensemen having successful careers who Vatanen can look to as role models. After all, a small, 180-pound defenseman named Erik Karlsson did just win the Norris Trophy as the NHL's top defenseman last season. And size didn't stop 5-foot-10, 200-pound Brian Rafalski from being one of the top defenders on three Stanley Cup winners since 2000, or 5-foot-10, 195-pound Kimmo Timonen from amassing nearly 1,000 career games as one of the NHL's steadiest blueliners over the last dozen years.

"I think Sami has a bit of Kimmo Timonen in him," said Haviland. "He can run a power play and as he grows as a man, he'll get stronger and put on a little weight."

"But Sami does need to continue to adjust to be successful," added Haviland. "He's a guy who needs to have the right angles to be successful, and there are different angles on the smaller rinks here than in Europe. But he's a tough, competitive guy who is adjusting. His competitiveness should allow him to continue to adjust."

Although Vatanen's competitiveness and toughness have earned him praise from the Admirals' brass, he still hasn't jumped into a sub-zero lake after coming out of a sauna.

Because that's tough! Or crazy.

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