Finland has love-in with Winnipeg thanks to Selanne and Laine

Pekka Jalonen lives 6,600 kilometres from Winnipeg but everything he does seems to lead him back to Winnipeg.

Finnish journalist has followed the career of Teemu Selanne and is now covering Patrik Laine

Jets players Patrik Laine (left) and Tyler Myers check out the outdoor ice at Investors Group Field, ahead of Saturday's NHL Heritage Classic. (Cameron MacIntosh/CBC)

Pekka Jalonen lives 6,600 kilometres from Winnipeg but everything he does seems to lead him back to Winnipeg.

The Finnish journalist, who covers some of that country's greatest hockey players, spent time in Winnipeg when Teemu Selanne broke into the NHL with the Jets in 1992.

Now, Jalonen finds himself back, following the next Finnish superstar to land in the city, Patrik Laine. There is an ferocious appetite in Finland for anything  and everything about the 18-year-old hockey phenom who was taken second overall in the 2016 NHL entry draft.

"Everybody wants to know about Patrik and what he's doing here and what he's saying," Jalonen said.

Teemu Selanne tapes his stick ahead of a practice with Jets alumni at the MTS Centre on Friday. (Winnipeg Jets/Twitter)

In just 10 days, he has written 80 stories. One of those was about Laine's stunning performance in Wednesday's game against the visiting Toronto Maple Leafs.

It was the first NHL showdown of the highly touted rookies — Laine and Toronto's Maple Leafs' Auston Matthews, who was the first overall pick in the same NHL draft.

Down 4-0 halfway through the game, the Jets stormed back with Laine scoring three times, including the game-tying goal with less than a minute to play and then the overtime winner.

The performance earned him the first star of the game and a newly-minted nickname: Hattrick Laine.

"It was like a Hollywood story," said Jalonen.

But it wasn't an easy game to cover, he added.

"He made me do a lot of work. I had to rewrite my story all the time," Jalonen said about Laine.

"But of course I was happy. I get a much better story when he is scoring the goals and winning the games than if he is losing and doing nothing.

While that was a performance that gave people in Winnipeg and the NHL a taste of Laine's talents, those in Finalnd have known it for a while.

His popularity started growing with his team's gold medal victory at the World Junior Hockey Championship in January and continues after his club team, Tappara, won the gold medal in the Finnish Elite League.

Everybody loved the Winnipeg Jets in Finland.- Pekka Jalonen

Laine was then named to Team Finland for the 2016 IIHF World Championship, becoming the youngest ever Finnish player at the tournament.

In his debut game he scored two goals and one assist, becoming the youngest player in the tournament's history to score three points in a game. He then repeated that performance in the next game.

By the time the tournament was over he had scored seven goals and five assists for 12 points in 10 games and was named MVP.

Stories about Laine are the most popular stories in Finland now, so Winnipeg is on a lot of people's minds, just as it was back in the 1990s.

When Selanne entered the NHL, "everybody loved the Winnipeg Jets in Finland," Jalonen said.

"Then he moved to Anaheim so everybody loved the Anaheim Ducks. Now we have Patrik Laine so everybody loves the Winnipeg Jets again."

Jalonen originally came to cover Laine's first few games with the Jets but realized the NHL's Heritage Classic alumni game — pitting the Jets and Edmonton Oilers legends against each other — was also happening around that time. That meant Selanne and another Finnish hockey star, the Oilers' Jari Kurri, were going to be in the city.

And of course, the greatest NHLer of all, Wayne Gretzky, as well. His bosses decided to keep him in Winnipeg a little longer "and I was happy to stay here for two weeks," Jalonen said, adding it will be nice to see Selanne again.

While Laine is incredibly popular, Selanne has moved to another tier, becoming like "a rock star in Finland," he said.

They have become really good friends since Jalonen first started covering him 28 years ago when a young Teemu was with the Finnish junior national team.

They now only see each other a couple of times a year, when their paths cross. That path, this weekend, might lead to a familiar Winnipeg nightspot.

Selanne was known to pay a few visits to the Palomino Club and once took Jalonen there. He hasn't forgotten that.

"It was really fun there. There was a lot of girls around us," he said.

With files from Ismaila Alfa