From Espoo to Omaha: How Omaha Hockey’s Teemu Pulkkinen found himself playing for the Mavericks

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Jordan McAlpine 
CONTRIBUTOR 

Teemu Pulkkinen is now in his fourth season with the Mavericks hockey program. The Espoo, Finland native has come a long way to get to this point. Photo courtesy of Mark Kuhlman/Omavs.com.

“Nimeni on Teemu Pulkkinen, ja pelaan jääkiekkoa Yhdysvalloissa Nebraska Omahan yliopistossa.” That translates from Finnish to “My name is Teemu Pulkkinen, and I play hockey at the University of Nebraska at Omaha in the United States.”

Throw it back to the fall of 2015, and there are no guarantees the shy 20-year-old Finn would’ve been able to fully comprehend, or even say that in English.

“I understood a little bit of English at the time, but it was hard to explain and express myself at first,” Pulkkinen said. “If you’re the only Finnish guy you can’t really go to anyone else or talk with that language, so I learned pretty quick I was going to have to get out of my comfort shell and try my best. Luckily it came pretty quick.”

That fall the Espoo native was gearing up to start his first season in America, playing with the Sioux City Musketeers of the USHL. The move to Sioux City proved to be a drastic change from Pulkkinen’s hometown of Espoo, which is the second-largest city in Finland.

“Coming to Sioux City was my first time ever coming to the U.S. Honestly, I barely knew anything about the country or living here, so I just took the chance. Thankfully I’m still here and it was a good choice.”

Looking back on that year he admits it was a culture shock, both on and off the ice. As it would be for anybody living in a new place, it was difficult at first, but he says it has only benefited him going forward.

“It was a fun year, but definitely a different experience than what I was used to back home. It’s a lot faster and it’s more physical. Guys are bigger, stronger- it was a shock at first. The games were tough and it kind of had like a pro hockey feel to it, but I enjoyed it, and it’s been a good adjustment the last few years.”

Along with dealing with a new style of play and losing 15 feet on the width of ice, the biggest challenges came away from the rink. Living 4,600 miles away from his friends and family back home, the world as he knew it had been turned upside down. All the way down to the small details of the food and culture he had grown accustomed to.

With so much unknown ahead of him, there would be help along the way. Little did he know some of the most important people he’d meet in his life would be awaiting him in the northwest corner of Iowa, his billet family.

“He very was shy at first,” said Pulkkinen’s billet mom Christina Monell. “Especially given that he had never been to the United States before, let alone living with people that he didn’t know. His English was still pretty broken, so for us to all learn and help him together, that was really fun.”

Christina and her husband, Jesse, have been billet parents for eight years now in Sioux City. In addition to hosting Sioux City Musketeers’ on a yearly basis, they also have two children of their own. During the 2015-2016 season they also housed Conner Valesano, who she says was a fantastic fit.

“Those two were perfect for each other. Conner is super outgoing, a little bit crazy, but he really led the way for Teemu. It was just a perfect combination, and selfishly they were my hardest two to let go still to this day.”

For Valesano, he says it was a unique experience, but one he was happy to be a part of.

“Right away it was pretty obvious he was nervous and shy, but he was a very polite kid and we became close pretty quick. The guy barely spoke any English when I first met him, so just seeing him adapt to life here in the states was really cool. I just wanted to be someone he was comfortable talking to and opening up with, so I was happy to be there for him whenever he needed me.”

The Monell’s have hosted two players every year that they’ve done this. However, Teemu was the first European player they welcomed into their home. From the day-to-day adjustment of living in America to the smack talk during family ping pong tournaments, he’s the player they’ve formed the best bond.

“Him and our entire family, we still speak on a regular basis,” said Monell. “Sometimes you have a little bit of different relationship with the billets each year, and I have three boys out of all eight years that I still have a very special bond with. He is hands down the one we’ve grown closest with, and we treat him like our own child.”

Pulkkinen as a member of Sioux City Musketeers on the ice with his host family. His billet mom, Christina Monell, says the family nicknamed him “Teesh.” Photo courtesy of Christina Monell.

Seeing how far he came throughout the year was very special and rewarding, but Monell still vividly remembers those first couple months she spent with him.

“The excitement he had that first year was awesome to see, and I think it was because it was just so different for him. I also think he had a little bit more freedom being on his own for the first time. He used to always joke with us if we told him he couldn’t do something, ‘Hey this is the U.S. and A, you can do anything you want.’

“He would always call it the U.S. and A at first, and it’s the funny little things like that where you sit back and realize how far he’s come. Watching him experience everything that first year in Sioux City and just loving life, it was so fun to watch him make that transition.”

Pulkkinen and Conner Valesano pictured with the Monell family. They hosted both players during the 2015-2016 season. Photo courtesy of Christina Monell.

Four and a half years later, Teemu Pulkkinen stands outside the Omaha locker room doing an interview with The Gateway on a cold January afternoon. Preparing to take on the number one team in the country later that week, the senior ranks fourth on the team in points. Just a few weeks earlier while playing Arizona State, he tied a school record for assists in a game with four.

A lot has changed since those first days in Sioux City. His English now holds very few blemishes, he’s comfortable as can be with the North American game and Omaha feels like home. After reflecting and thinking about the whirlwind that has been his time here, it’s an experience he doesn’t take for granted— and he’s learned a ton along the way.

“Obviously I came here for hockey at first, but now thinking back, you can take a lot of smaller things away too. Like the language, school, and also, living by myself. I don’t really have any family around so I’ve learned a lot about myself and those are the things I didn’t think of when I first came here. Just being both a better player and a better person going forward with my career, it’s been fun.”

In addition to hockey, one of Pulkkinen’s favorite sports to play as a kid was soccer. Here he is pictured as a 10-year-old kid. Photo courtesy of Teemu Pulkkinen.

That learning started at a young age back in his homeland, which is where he was first introduced to a pair of skates.

Espoo sits on the southern tip of the country on the shores of the Gulf of Finland, which leads out to the Baltic Sea. Here in the United States, whether it be in the land of 10,000 lakes, the northeast or even right here in Nebraska, many hockey players form their fondest memories skating on the frozen lakes as kids.

It might have been a little more dangerous than a lake in some people’s eyes, but he too got his start skating outdoors.

“I’ve heard stories,” Pulkkinen says with a smile beaming across his face. “I was two years old with my grandpa and it might sound crazy, but we were actually skating on the ocean ice, so I wasn’t even at the rink.”

“Honestly though – I don’t really know what got me into hockey. I guess when I was a kid I just enjoyed playing different sports. I played soccer, hockey and a bunch of others, but I don’t remember a specific reason. Looking back, I would say the team aspect was my favorite part. It was fun and I enjoyed it from the start. I always loved going to the rink and I enjoyed the game. I still do, and I think it goes back to those first times on the ice.”

From there he would play his youth hockey with Espoon Palloseura, otherwise known as EPS. Pulkkinen would go on to play for the Espoo Blues U16, U18 and U20 teams before heading to Sioux City.

10-year-old Teemu Pulkkinen in his EPS #49 jersey, which is where he played his youth hockey. Photo courtesy of Teemu Pulkkinen.

Growing up in Finland, a country that has produced countless NHL stars over the years, there were a lot of options for a young Teemu Pulkkinen to look up to. Teemu Selanne, Saku Koivu and Mikko Koivu, these were the guys he remembers growing up watching. He also talks about going to watch the guys on the local SM-Liiga team play, the Espoo Blues.

However, you don’t have to look far for one of the people who mattered most in his hockey career, as they grew up under the same roof. His younger brother, Tommi.

“He was huge. We for sure shared a lot of memories and did a lot of things together. Right now he only plays for fun, but it was huge for me to have him to share my hockey knowledge and experience with, and he did the same for me.”

18-year-old Teemu Pulkkinen pictured before a game with the u18 Espoo Blues. Photo courtesy of Teemu Pulkkinen.

Fast forward to where he’s at now and there are so many people he says he has to thank, Tommi included. However, he says this journey wouldn’t have been possible without his billet family, which he admits played a part in him choosing Omaha. At the same time, he also loved what the school had to offer.

“I just fell in love with the rink,” Pulkkinen said. “The coaches we had here, the atmosphere at the games- it was awesome. Plus, it’s an NCHC team, so you know the conference is great. Also, I think having Sioux City so close helped because of my billet family. I still have a great relationship with them and they’re pretty much my family here (in the United States), so to have them close was another big reason.”

Pulkkinen pictured in 2017 with the Monell’s two children, Avery and Evan. Along with them is Aapeli Räsänen, the Monell’s billet at the time. Räsänen, who is also from Finland, is currently playing at Boston College. Photo courtesy of Christina Monell.

Only being an hour and a half away was big, as it also allowed him a chance to get to Baxter Arena and watch several games that year he played in Sioux City. However, it was also refreshing for the family moving forward to know he was a short drive away.

“Besides loving the facilities and the campus, I think a big part of it was having that proximity to us, because he did have other options,” said Monell. “Since we’re so close, the first two years he came and spent the holidays with us. He still spends time with us when he can, whether that be us heading to Omaha or him coming back, so it’s nice for us to know he’s right down the road in case he needs anything.”

Pulkkinen and the Monell family pose for a photo after a game in Sioux City. Teemu skated in 43 games for the Musketeers during the 2015-2016 season. He put up 15 goals and 16 assists that season. Photo courtesy of Christina Monell.

Once settled into Omaha, Pulkkinen’s first year as a Maverick was an interesting one. That season he skated in 35 games, putting up four goals and ten assists, but he also got to play for one of college hockey’s most iconic coaches in Dean Blais.

“Going back to my freshman year with Coach Blais, it was definitely different. With ‘Blaiser,’ he was old school and I actually enjoyed how tough he was. He didn’t give anything for free and challenged us to be the best we could be, which really helped with it being my first year.”

Teemu Pulkkinen on the ice for practice at Baxter Arena. Through 21 games this season, he has put up 14 points. Photo by Jordan McAlpine.

That freshman year, Pulkkinen also scored his first career collegiate goal. On November 5, 2016, a 6-4 win over Colorado College.

“It took a while; I can tell you that (he said with a laugh). At that time, you start to wonder if you’re doing the right things and why you’re not getting rewarded, which was tough. As a player you want to score goals and do good things on the ice, so it was definitely a relief to get the first one out of the way. You just have to stick with it and it’s going to come sooner or later.”

Since that first goal, a lot has changed. Now in the midst of his senior season, Pulkkinen has spent the past three years under Mike Gabinet, who was also an assist his first year on campus. He says Gabinet has only helped grow his game.

“I’ve enjoyed playing for both of them and I’ve learned a lot from both coaches. With Coach Gabinet, obviously he’s a younger coach with some new perspectives on hockey, but he brings a lot of structure and the defensive side of the game- which I really enjoy. Moving forward as a player, you need both sides of the game, so to learn the different ways they coach helped and they both have a bunch of good qualities.”

Teemu Pulkkinen on the far right as a young kid. He says he doesn’t remember what exactly got him interested in hockey, but he began skating when he was 2 years old. Photo courtesy of Teemu Pulkkinen.

In his four years Pulkkinen has gone on to skate in 118 total games with the Mavericks, scoring 19 times and putting up 49 points. However, it’s off the ice where he’s settled in the most.

“It feels like home now. I’ve lived here three and a half years now and I always will call this place home now. Every time you get a chance to give back to the community, and I love to do it. What they give us, it’s our responsibility to give back to them as many times as we can, and the people are great here.”

It’s those people and those types of bonds that have made this journey across the globe a special one for Pulkkinen.

“Obviously you have expectations before every new chapter you enter, but you have to do the work and try to enjoy it as much as possible at the same time. Luckily, there’s been a lot of good times.”

Pulkkinen says one of his favorite parts of his journey have been the bonds he’s formed along the way. One of the most important is his billet mom from his time in Sioux City. Photo courtesy of Christina Monell.

For the Monell’s, who are some of the people that know him best, the same can be said.

“We just absolutely loved him, and we still do. Yeah it was tough when he moved out, but we knew he’d be back at times and still be close. This time, when he’s done with school and hockey at Omaha, it’s going to be really hard. Knowing that he’s going to leave and more than likely go back to Finland, I can’t even think about it. It just makes me want to cry.”

Without taking the initial chance to come to America, none of this would’ve been possible. Those people closest to him are very proud of who he’s become, but at the same time, they’re not surprised.

“I know how much joy hockey brings him, so I couldn’t be happier for him,” said Monell. “The fact that he was able to come to an entirely new country and be successful, it’s incredible, and it takes someone pretty special to do what he has. For him to do it and do it so well, we’re extremely proud of him.”

He’s come a long way from the quiet kid that first stepped foot in America, but it’s been a fun journey to get to this point. Now comfortable with the language, he has no difficulty saying he’s a Maverick, and he’s proud of it.

“It’s just been an unforgettable experience. I’m super excited to be here and happy I chose UNO.”

From Espoo to Omaha, Teemu Pulkkinen, #14.

 

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