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Washington Capitals defenseman Roman Hamrlik, top, fights with Winnipeg Jets right wing Antti Miettinen for the puck during the second period of an NHL hockey game on Friday, March 23, 2012, in Washington. (Evan Vucci/AP)
Washington Capitals defenseman Roman Hamrlik, top, fights with Winnipeg Jets right wing Antti Miettinen for the puck during the second period of an NHL hockey game on Friday, March 23, 2012, in Washington. (Evan Vucci/AP)

Winnipeg Jets

Antti Miettinen's incredible journey Add to ...

Lots of NHL players go through tough times because of injury, relocation or just poor play. But not many players have had as strange a season as Winnipeg Jets forward Antti Miettinen.

A native of Finland, Miettinen, 31, started his NHL career in 2003 with the Dallas Stars. He spent four years with Dallas, including a couple of stints in the minors, before moving to the Minnesota Wild as a free agent in 2008. When he ended up a free agent again last summer, Miettinen decided to give the Continental Hockey League in Russia a try. And that’s when his problems began.

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After a couple of weeks in Kazan with the Ak Bars, or Snow Leopards, Miettinen knew he’d made a mistake. His wife, Johanna, was back in Finland with their young son and another child on the way. Miettinen missed his family and couldn’t really adjust to the larger ice surface, the constant practising or the different style of play. He wanted to get back to the NHL.

“It was the toughest time of my life, being away from [his family]for two months,” Miettinen recalled this week. “It was mentally really draining every day to think about it.”

When he tried to get out of his KHL contract, the Kazan team balked at first but finally relented. He returned to Finland and signed a two-year deal with the Tampa Bay Lightning. Under NHL rules, he had to be placed on waivers before returning from Europe and when that happened the Jets immediately claimed him. Now he was off to Winnipeg.

As Miettinen and his family made their way from Finland, they got delayed by a missed flight and spent many extra hours just trying to get to Manitoba through an assortment of countries. When Miettinen finally joined his new teammates on Dec. 16, it was just before the return of another Finn to Winnipeg: former Jets star Teemu Selanne. Miettinen’s arrival was quickly overshadowed and the only real interest anyone showed in him was on his reflections about growing up in Finland watching Selanne play. It got even worse.

Miettinen found his way on to Winnipeg’s fourth line and became even less notable. He’d scored 16 goals last season in Minnesota, but couldn’t score at all with the Jets. Game after game, Miettinen failed to score, get an assist or even a penalty. He was a nonentity.

Last February, having gone more than 20 games without a goal, the Jets put him on waivers. No team claimed him. So he remained, stuck on the fourth line and looking for a goal.

When he finally scored, after 34 games, he did it in bunches. He scored twice in a game against the Carolina Hurricanes on March 18, but received almost no attention because the Jets lost 4-3, dealing the team’s playoff hopes a blow. He scored twice once more last Monday against the Ottawa Senators. But again the performance was overshadowed by the Jets losing 6-4, putting the club all but out of the playoffs.

Miettinen said he is trying to take it all in stride, but he acknowledged it took him far too long to adjust and get going. “Probably it was a bigger deal than I thought it would be, just getting over things and stuff like that,” he said. “It was a little bit bigger hurdle than I thought.”

He joked that when the MTS Centre crowd gave him a standing ovation during the Carolina game, the fans were “just being ironic.”

“I don’t know what the deal was really,” he said about his own play, which is finally starting to click just as the season ends. “I’m unhappy that it took that long to start actually playing a little better. Not just scoring or anything like that, just playing better.”

Just about the only thing that has gone well for him is that his family has been together. “It kind of helps to forget and keep things a little in the background,” he said.

Once the season is over, Miettinen will head back to Finland with his family and see what happens next. “It has been quite a year, I’ve got to say that,” he said shaking his head. “At this point I can’t really think about the future too much and what the summer brings.”

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