How Bruins prospect Urho Vaakanainen made sure off-ice transition was as smooth as his play


BUFFALO -- On the ice Urho Vaakanainen seems completely unaffected by any mayhem in his midst, coolly moving the puck or handling an oncoming puck carrier with poise.

As it turns out, life off the ice has been the same for Boston’s 2017 first-round pick (No. 18) even as he made the transition from his native Finland to North America last season.

But it turns out, while Vaakanainen’s talent and maturity carry him through on the ice, he needs a little assistance away from the rink. So he brought some help from across the Atlantic with him.

“My girlfriend was here for pretty much the whole time, almost. So that made it a lot easier and yeah. But I felt like it’s kind of the same as in Finland, just play hockey, practice, eat,” Vaakanainen told over the weekend at the Prospects Challenge where he played for the Bruins rookie team.

Vaakanainen and his girlfriend Iina have been dating for 4 ½ years after meeting through mutual friends. While he attended to his full-time job as a hockey player, she attended to the full-time job of keeping the couple’s affairs in order and making sure Vaakanainen had the proper morale support as he found his as a AHL and NHL rookie.

Now 20, Vaakanainen’s season couldn’t have been more scatter-shot, as he started in Providence and then had his first taste of the NHL ended after two games because of a vicious elbow from Ottawa defenseman Mark Borowiecki. The recovery from his concussion wound up taking eight weeks, meaning there was little time to bond with teammates in Boston or feel like he’d actually made the big time. Every day was a mystery about how he would feel.

“Well it was kind of tough, especially when you really didn’t know when you’re getting back,” Vaakanainen said. “It was kind of day to day for the whole eight weeks. So yeah it was tough because I would prefer to have a broken wrist or something to a concussion because you know when you’re getting back and stuff. But yeah guys in Boston took care of me, so it made it easier.”

Vaakanainen returned to the ice when he went to play for Finland in the World Junior Championship. He left with a gold medal, which now resides in his parents’ home. He got to go to one party after the event, but then it was back to North America to join the P-Bruins. (As an aside, his Finnish teammates had another party in the summer, but he was too sick to attend.)

After the WJC, in mid-January he had a three-point weekend for the P-Bruins. March, though, brought a shoulder injury that meant another few weeks on the sidelines. He finished with 14 points (four goals, 10 assists) in 30 games in the regular season and then had no points in four games in the Calder Cup playoffs. Of course, points have never been a way to measure Vaakanainen’s value. He’s more of a guy judged by his ability to distribute the puck out of his own end and use his superior skating to help keep the puck out of his team’s net.

He plans to change that perception.

“I feel like I’m pretty good offensively,” he said. “I feel like guys tell me that I’m like a defensive defenseman or stuff like that, but I don’t really feel like that. I feel like I have a lot to give offensively too, so yeah.”

He finished up as a Black Ace for the Bruins during their run to Game 7 of the Stanley Cup final, even practicing with the full squad a few times late in the postseason.

Providence coach Jay Leach acknowledged the long-proven fact that often defensemen take longer to develop than forwards. As Leach put it, Vaakanainen is close to being NHL-ready but “still has some things to figure out.”

“From what I see with Vaaks, sometimes he tends to complicate things,” Leach said. “He really wants to make a difference and I think sometimes he’ll find himself outside of the areas in which he wants to be or should. And then you’ll see a lack of an ability to close and get in those competitive areas. I do find he’s engaged winning the battle.”

Aside from injuries, Vaakanainen found one more thing challenging during his inaugural North American season.

“Healthy food is expensive, that was the biggest issue,” he said.

Well if he’s able to keep his development on an upward trajectory, maybe even taking advantage of the available ice time Boston will offer this camp with contract squabbles and injuries diminishing the Bruins on the back end, there’ll be plenty of money in his future contracts to own at least part of a Whole Foods.