I remember stepping off the plane in Minnesota for the first time and thinking about how hot it was outside.
It was the summer of 2004, and I had just flown in from my home country of Finland for the first time since I’d been drafted by the Minnesota Wild in 2001. I was headed up to rookie camp at Breezy Point…not a bad way to get introduced to the state of Minnesota.
That day was the beginning of my nearly two-decade-long love affair with Minnesota that culminates in this night. To have the team that gave me my start in the NHL lifting my number to the rafters is a greater honor than I know how to say.
When I set foot in the State of Hockey as a 21-year-old that summer, there’s no way I could have dreamt I’d play over 1,000 games spanning 15 seasons in a Wild sweater, serving as Captain for many of them. Playing at the Xcel Energy Center in front of the greatest fans in the world is an experience I’ll carry with me for the rest of my life.
I’m so grateful to the people that made this journey possible. There are countless coaches, teammates and staff that made me a better player and teammate. And to my family – my parents, my brother and my children – for supporting me and shaping me as a man and father.
Back in my draft year, some people speculated that I might get chosen by the Montreal Canadiens where my brother played. At the time, I had no idea Minnesota was even interested in me. I’ll never forget when the Wild was up, my dad turned to me and said, “This feels right.” As destiny would have it, a moment later, I heard my name from him. It was the best thing that could have happened to me.
As a young player, getting the opportunity to play for a coach like Jacques Lemaire was a lot like a teenager living with a strict parent. Sometimes we had our battles, but I can admit now…he was always right. He knew exactly how to push a stubborn Finnish kid like me, and I’m thankful for the lessons. In the years to come, I was lucky enough to have countless other mentors and teammates along my journey that I learned so much from – in hockey and in life.
When I was named captain in 2009, I wanted to do right by the older, more veteran guys on the team, like Andrew Brunette and Owen Nolan. Out of respect, I wanted to know I had their support. They and so many others had my back and believed in me, and their support helped me step into and grow with the role.
The guys I’ve had the privilege of playing with in Minnesota has been the honor of my career. So you have played in front of you every night.
The people of Minnesota welcomed me and my family with open arms from the time I was a 22-year-old making my NHL debut, and I’ve never stopped feeling the love. Hockey is different in Minnesota than it is anywhere else. You love hockey. It’s a way of life here and a rite of passage. I’m proud of this state and this organization, and I can’t wait for the day fans in the State of Hockey get to celebrate a Stanley Cup.
Fans, thank you for everything. I’ve been humbled by your passion, your hockey knowledge, your unrivaled enthusiasm, and your unconditional support of myself and this team. You made me feel like one of yours, and I will be forever grateful.
Rakkaudella (that’s “With Love” in Finnish),