A Long Wait for the Show

By Chris Kitching

The moment many Minnesota Wild fans waited for since June’s entry draft
arrived on Wednesday night, a little longer than they had originally hoped,
but just as pleasing.

Right-wing Tony Virta was called up by the parent club March 20 to help fill
the holes created by injuries to forwards Sergei Zholtok and Wes Walz, and
Aaron Gavey’s battle with the flu.

Virta, playing in the first National Hockey League game of his career,
failed to register a point in a 3-1 loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets. Prior
to his promotion, the 29-year-old prospect had spent all season with the
American Hockey League’s Houston Aeros – the Wild’s primary affiliate.

“I wasn’t nervous, but it was new,” said Virta to the Pioneer Press. “I was
surprised. Maybe it’s because we played Columbus, but there wasn’t much
hitting at all. I don’t know what was happening. There are a lot of young
players in the AHL, and there was a lot of skating and hitting. I just have
one NHL game, and it was against Columbus, so I really don’t know if I know
what to expect.”

In 67 games with the Aeros, Virta has been a pleasant surprise, leading the
team in scoring with 25 goals and 58 points, his first season in North
America after spending the majority of his professional career in his native
Finland with TPS Turku, where he was the Finnish player of the year last

Virta led the team in scoring with 27 goals 60 points in 56 games, while
Minnesota’s first pick in last year’s draft, Mikko Koivu, saw action in 22
games tallying only one assist.

After a number of seasons of pro hockey in Europe, an NHL team finally took
a chance and gambled on Virta, with the Wild picking him up in the fourth
round, 103rd overall last year.

This will be GM Doug Risebrough’s best opportunity to see how Virta stacks
up against the best players in the world, and may be the deciding factor if
the Wild choose to pick up the option on his two-year contract.

If they choose to, that would sit just fine with Virta.

“I like North American hockey. There’s more action, and I like that. I try
my best to get to the NHL.”

Virta, however, is not considered a prospect due to his age, and the amount
of games he has played professionally in Europe.