ABBOTSFORD, BC -- A new culture, a new country, a new city, a new language and new teammates. These are just a handful of some of the things Markus Granlund has had to adjust to in his first professional season.
Off the ice, there have been some uncomfortable moments like getting around the city or ordering food foreign to his native Finland. Luckily for Granlund he's had a fellow Finnish companion to make the adjustment a little less of a rough landing.
Joni Ortio's been described as a "saviour" by head coach Troy G. Ward in his ability to help Granlund in most facets of his life from translating English to helping him get around town. It doesn't hurt that they've grown to be close friends as well.
As Ortio stepped off the ice from a morning practice, he grabbed one of Granlund's sticks from the rack and hid it behind a curtain in the tunnel. Of course, it was revenge for Granlund doing the same thing to him earlier.
Seconds later, when asked about his new role in helping Granlund, Ortio smiled and joked, "I've helped him score a lot of five-hole goals," referencing the forward's knack at scoring five-hole goals not only in-game, but continually frustrating Ortio at practice.
It's fair to say the two countrymen have become close over the past two seasons. They were teammates last season on HIFK of the Finnish Men's league, SM-liiga, and rejoin this season on the top team in the American league, the Abbotsford Heat - both players are fundamental reasons for their team's success.
"I'd like to think that I've been a big help," said Ortio on a less jocular note. "I had no one when I came over. I didn't have an issue with the language like he does. He's gotten a lot better though, but obviously he still needs to do some work with that. It's just every day things like how to get around in the city, help him get his own place. I'd like to think I've been helping him a lot."
The Heat's starting net-minder knows exactly what Granlund is going through, which is why he's more than willing to help him.
"It's tough. You don't know any of the guys, you don't know the 'D', you don't know how everything works. I mean, it can be tough. For me it was good because I spent about a month here that previous year, so at the end of the year I just tried to get to know the guys, get to know the organization. So that probably helped me a little bit. But it's all new. Everything's brand new when you get here. You got to figure it out from scratch, so it can be very tough."
Perhaps the biggest difficulty for Granlund has been the language barrier. While his English is getting better every day, it's still somewhat shaky. According to Ortio, Markus' major hurdle is just a matter of gaining the confidence to speak it more often.
"He always asks me, 'What does this word mean, what does that mean?' so I'm trying to help him out to the best of my capabilities, but he's gotten a lot better.
"I think it's just about him getting more comfortable speaking out loud because he's not as bad in English as he might come off. He understands it pretty well and he actually speaks it pretty well, but he just has to get confidence to speak out. It's not like guys are going to make fun of him for speaking broken English. He's just got to be brave enough to speak out."
For Granlund, there's no reason to be nervous around his teammates. They love him. it's a common sight to see the Oulu, FIN proaduct having fun on the ice during practice, joking with his peers. The timely goals during games can't hurt either. The 20-year-old leads the AHL in shootout winners and insurance markers and currently sits ninth in league goal scoring.
"Guys love him out there," Ortio remarked. "He's a really funny guy. You wouldn't know it speaking to him, but he's a funny guy."
When asked what are some of the main things Ortio has assisted Granlund with other than the obvious, Ward immediately replied, "Food. Nutrition. Nutrition has been a big part of it.
"For us to go to A&W or for us to go to Culver's or Chipotle when we're on the road - like he gets into a Chipotle and he's like, 'What the heck am I ordering here?' He has no idea. So when we're in the States ordering food or we're here, Orts has been a big influence I think just on his sleeping [habits] and helping him get around and how to manage his day-to-day life. I couldn't imagine trying to manage my day in his country. So Orts has been calming off the ice."
On the ice, Granlund is as calm and comfortable as you can get and his point totals certainly reflect that. In 24 games with the Heat, he has picked up 12 goals and 23 points - good for third in team scoring just behind leading scorer Ben Street and defenceman Chad Billins.
Entering the season there were a lot of question marks about his ability to manage the off-ice stuff any European typically goes through. But Ward knew from experience going into this season what it would take on his part to help Granlund.
"Just by having our quality touches one-on-one as people. Like today just talking to him on the ice, talking about his girlfriend being here. Just making sure that I find some way of talking to him every day.
"The one thing I haven't done that I'm going to do, but it's a big thing for me, is I believe I have to learn his language too. So a lot of my Euros, I'll ask them - we did this in Pittsburgh back in the day when we had about 15 Europeans on our team - I'll ask them how to say hello and learn to speak their language a bit, but I haven't pushed that with him. If you're asking me personally, that's my connection. I'll try and speak his language."
The key to Granlund's development from the coaching side of the fence, according to Ward, is simply creating a friendly repertoire with him.
"I think it's about me and him as people together and how we laugh and how we talk and how we share our time together. That helps the whole coaching side of it.
"You gotta remember, if I wasn't joyful or if I wasn't nice or I wasn't open to having conversations with him, we're basically not going to talk all day because that's more of a dictatorship … I've just got to find those personal touches. That's what I need in order to be good with him."
Ward's tenure with the Pittsburgh Penguins gave him a new perspective on coaching players going through the transition of coming over to the North America.
"My first year in Pitt," Ward relected, "I was 35 years old. I was an assistant in the NHL. We had 13 or 14 Europeans - from Czechs to Russians to Swedes. We had a lot. So it was the same thing there. Trying to draw planes, trains, wherever we were, we tried to have some conversations with guys trying to get to know them.
"I think if you said, 'I've got a good personality and I want to know that girl that shows up at Starbucks every day, but I don't have a chance to meet her,' - you might have a chance to have a conversation, but it just takes getting to know what a wonderful guy you are. The only way you can do that is - people often times think it's through dress or if I change my clothes or if I put gel in my hair a certain way - I just think it's through the heart. As long as you open up, I think you'll have some connection. If you're a good person, you should be able to do that."
In the meantime, the goal for Ward is to create an environment for Granlund where he'll feel comfortable on the ice. That means finding the right linemates for him and getting him adjusted to the close quarters of North American ice.
"What we try and do is we try and make them feel comfortable in their setting and get them used to it by way of, what I call 'routes.' So he understands his routes, then sometimes you have to put him with someone he'll feel comfortable with … If Markus feels protected, he'll go through the wall for you, but if he's nervous it'll take a while. So we've got to be patient with that. That's the way it was early at the Penticton camp. A little bit of nervousness, but as we went through this process, he's gotten better and better and better."
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