A stint at the Los Angeles Kings training camp has Helsinki-born defenseman Alex Lintuniemi California dreaming — and the Ottawa 67’s have benefited from his enhanced focus and dedication to the game.
“I was there with them for a long time and it was a good experience for me,” Lintuniemi said. “It was amazing being around with the NHL guys. They’re Stanley Cup winners so it’s nice to see what you have to do to get to that level.
And what did he learn?
“Work hard every day. Every day you have to be a pro,” he said. “It’s simple.”
That consistency of effort is something that was lacking last year, and the change has been noticeable, explained 67’s head coach, Jeff Brown.
“It think it’s been tremendous. I think if there was a knock on him last year it was that he wasn’t intense enough and didn’t work hard enough — all that kind of stuff,” Brown added. “Just seeing what it’s like at the next level has certainly opened up his eyes as to what it’d be like hanging out on the beach in L.A., you know. I’m sure he wants to get back.
“He’s come back, he plays 30 minutes a game. He’s played hard and has played well.”
It’s Lintuniemi’s second season in the OHL. Last year he played a full complement of games, scoring four goals and adding 17 assists. That performance — along with a 6’3”, 225-pound frame — helped him get selected 60th overall in the 2014 NHL Draft as the Kings’ second-round pick.
Last year was a good transition season for him, Lintuniemi said, adding that one aspect of the North American game has always appealed to him.
“I’ve always really liked the smaller rinks, even back in Finland. It’s just the way I play,” he said. “The smaller rink is good for me because I’m big. I guess some players prefer the bigger rinks, but I like them small.”
Culturally, the Finn has fit in nicely, Brown added. “He gets along great with the guys, he’s a good teammate, and he’s well liked in the locker room,” he said. “I think the transition’s been fine. Obviously it was a little tougher last year, but I think this year that’s not an issue at all.”
Having preseason experience at the NHL camp, combined with a year transitioning to the OHL under his belt has helped Lintuniemi understand what he needs to improve upon. “Of course you have to work on everything, but I have to work on my shot a lot and my skating,” he said.
His coach agrees, stating that not just how you shoot, but where has been a big focus this season.
“He’s got a good shot, he needs to work on it a little bit, but at the same time he’s had opportunities to shoot that he just doesn’t take,” Brown explained. “We’re working on that and when you shoot, you shoot to score — you’re not shooting to get a shot on net and he’s certainly working on that.”
In 24 games so far this season, the Helsinki product has one goal and 10 assists. And though he’s a bigger defender, he is not overly physical. He racked up only 26 penalty minutes last season and has only a dozen this campaign to date. Brown said those numbers are to be expected considering how important Lintuniemi has been to the 67’s.
“It’s tough to be overly physical when you’re playing 30 minutes a game,” Brown said. “But he plays physical enough.”
As with any 17 year old, homesickness can set in and Lintuniemi admits that distance has been a factor.
“The biggest challenge is probably being away from your family and friends,” he said. “But I’ve been really fortunate that my billet family has been really nice and I’ve got some great teammates.”
He added that thanks to technology — specifically Facetime, Skype, texting, and phone calls – he is able to keep in touch.
And there’s also one 67’s superfan in Helsinki.
“My dad actually watches almost every game. This year he’s watched all of my games,” he explained, adding that a seven-hour time difference is a challenge, but one his father has embraced. “A 7 PM game here is like 3 in the morning for him, but he still watches.”
The elder Lintuniemis have yet to come overseas to watch him in person, but the plan is in place for them to come later in the year. And the rearguard hopes to don the Finnish colors this year at the U20 World Junior Championship in Montreal and Toronto.
“It’s really close. I hope I make the team this year,” he said. “It’s a good opportunity to learn more.”
In the meantime, Lintuniemi is continuing to work on his game and hopes to eventually emulate one of his idols — Detroit Red Wings’ defenseman, Niklas Kronwall.
“I like to watch Nik Kronwall,” he said. “He’s a very calm player, big hits, smart, and gets lots of points.”
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