Crossing oceans for the love of hockey
The smell of onions sautéing with hamburger fills the air as Wilderness forward Niklas Lehtimäki prepares one of his favorite comfort foods: makaronilaatikku, (ma-ka-ro-ni-laa-tik-ko), a Finnish hot dish.
Cooking is one of Lehtimäki’s favorite hobbies along with soccer, four-wheeling, playing cards and going to movies. He cooks often for his billet host,Thomas Proulx of Cloquet. Teammate Tyler Hart is also staying with Proulx this season.
Lehtimäki, 19, came to Cloquet to play hockey for the Minnesota Wilderness, the North American Hockey League (NAHL) junior team that makes its home in Cloquet’s Northwoods Credit Union Arena.
However, while most of the players hail from Minnesota or nearby states, Lehtimäki traveled some 25 hours from his native Kiukainen, Finland just to be a part of this experience.
Lehtimäki began his adventure in the U.S. by being detained by customs when he arrived at the Chicago airport. They left his bags — including his gear — sitting in the middle of the busy airport as they brought him back to the customs area. The issue was his visa. When he received it from the embassy at home, they gave him nine months to stay in the U.S. The customs in the U.S. said it was only good for six months. They got it straightened out and Lehtimäki continued on his journey.
Wilderness defender Janis Jaks, 19, (pronounce the ‘j’ like a ‘y’) also crossed the ocean to follow his passion.
Jaks is from Riga, Latvia, which was a 4,386-mile trip for him. His only concern on the trip over was making his connecting flight in Amsterdam. The line for checking in was long and his flight was preparing to board, but he made it.
Riga was voted the most beautiful city in Europe. Latvia is on the Baltic Sea, so has milder temperatures than Minnesota as well as higher humidity.
Jaks’ favorite hobbies include cooking, soccer and traveling.
Jaks’ billet family includes Keri Schneberger and her three children — Jayden, 15, Payton, 13, and Ashtyn, 10 — in Cloquet. The children are active in a variety of sports such as hockey, basketball and dance.
Jaks watches Ashtyn’s games when he can. After the games he offers the 10-year-old pointers and tips to help improve her game.
The younger siblings enjoy hosting one of the Wilderness players.
“We’re supposed to be more quiet now,” confided Ashtyn, “but we’re not.”
“We get to go to the games (Wilderness) now,” added Payton.
Like many of his teammates, Lehtimäki began skating at the tender age of 3. He is the oldest of three children and all three play hockey. He said his little sister Neea, 14, is his favorite hockey player.
"The ice is bigger at home," said Lehtimaki, "games here are faster, more physical … I like it better."
Jaks also started playing young, but is the only hockey player in his family.
He attended a private Polish school in Latvia, where English was taught from early grades on. He is on break from school while he is here in the U.S. and will finish up and graduate when he goes back home.
Jaks speaks both Polish and Russian as his country is near both, as well as his native Latvian.
He grew up playing hockey in the nearby countries, as well as going on family vacations there. His favorite country is Italy. “The weather is perfect in the summer and the winter,” said Jaks.
Lehtimäki said Finnish schools and colleges do not offer sports, so he had to travel 45 minutes each way every day just to play hockey.
At the age of 15 years, his parents got him an apartment in the city to make it easier.
Both Lehtimaki and Jaks found an agent to help guide them to make the best choices for their future with hockey. The agents help the young men to make the connections to a team or coaching staff that fits their skill level. The teams are allowed up to four players from foreign countries.
Lehtimäki narrowed it down to either Austria or the United States.
The U.S. won out, and when Lehtimäki told his parents, his father was excited for the opportunity.
Lehtimäki laughed as he remembered his mom’s response.
“She said, ‘No, you are not leaving,’” he reported.
Jaks’ parents’ response was similar to Lehtimäki’s: his father was excited and his mom didn’t want him so far away.
Jaks was invited to play on the Latvian u-20 team during the Christmas holidays. The team took third place.
He kept his dad in the loop about his plans, but didn’t tell his mom.
When he walked into the living room as she was watching television, she was shocked and excited to see him. Jaks smiled at the memory.
Both of the young men are able to keep in contact with their families often and easily with social media.
Lehtimäki talks to his family almost every day.
“We talk more than when he lived at home,” said Jari, his father, in an interview over Skype.
Lehtimäki’s first stop was Des Moines, Iowa, to try out for the USHL team there.
When he was cut, his next stop was in Cloquet for the Wilderness team.
Lehtimäki enjoys it here. “It is a lot like home: the weather, the hills, the trees,” said Lehtimäki, “except no one speaks Finnish.”
English is taught beginning in elementary school in Finland, so Lehtimäki speaks it fluently. His mom is the only one who does not speak English at home, so they speak Finnish.
Lehtimäki plans on going on to college to play hockey and study business.
“I like money,” he said, laughing.
For now, though, he is enjoying playing for the Wilderness and hanging out with his
Being a part of the team means volunteering in the community and the players do a variety of activities, such as reading to first- through third-graders in area elementary schools, visiting sick children in the hospital, ringing the bell for the Salvation Army and practicing with some of the youth hockey teams.
“It’s a great opportunity for him to come here with the Wilderness,” said Jari, “they have good team spirit and are playing well.”
His father’s only regret is he can’t see his son’s games in person and has to watch them on fasthockey.com. They are hoping to make a trip to the U.S. this spring to watch both Nik and his brother, Miro, who plays on the Iowa Wild AAA U18 team.
Wilderness Coach Corey Millen is happy with the way both Lehtimaki and Jaks contribute to the team this season.
"They are both good quality players,” Millen said. “We are lucky to have them on the team.”