There are two things you can say about Mikko Makela. One is he has a marvellous name, an unforgettable name, the kind you're hoping for when you tell Wheel of Fortune host Pat Sajak you want to buy a vowel.
The other thing about Makela is that he has a great work attic. A great work what? Let him explain.
"Sometimes when I write things on the board there's been laughs. The other day I wrote, 'work ethic' but I wrote it 'work attic.' The players laughed. Our trainer told me, 'That's closer than I could have written it in Finn.' "
Okay, so he's not the greatest speller in two languages. He is, however, a newsmaker, a trailblazer, the first European-born head coach in the history of Canadian major junior hockey. Think about that for a moment.
We've seen Russian goalies playing in the Western Hockey League, Swedish defencemen playing in the Ontario Hockey League, Czech forwards playing in Quebec, but much to Don Cherry's delight, there had never been a European head coach in the Canadian Hockey League until the Finnish-born Makela was asked to take over the Lethbridge Hurricanes just before Christmas.
Bryan Maxwell had been the Hurricanes bench boss and was one win shy of his 400th WHL victory when he was fired in mid-December. It was Maxwell who had brought Makela on board three months earlier as an assistant and it was Maxwell who told Makela, a former National Hockey League player, that he should take the head coach's job and learn from it. Makela agreed, not really knowing he was about to leave his mark in Canadian hockey. What most concerned him was coaxing a win out of his players.
He got that easily Dec. 27 with a 7-4 drubbing of the Medicine Hat Tigers, then joked when he handed the game puck to the evening's first star, Hurricanes' forward Antti Miettinen.
"He said, 'I've got no credibility now giving the puck to the Finn kid after my first game,' " recalled Lethbridge general manager Darren Stocker. "Has anyone criticized us for hiring a European head coach? Never. Just look at Mikko's résumé. How many Finns have played in the NHL? A hundred? If 100 people from your country have made it to that level and you're one of them, that speaks volumes."
There's another thing you can say about Makela, 37, who readily admits he has a lot to learn about being a head coach, and that is he loves Lethbridge. He is a major civic booster. He's been one since he first visited the southern Alberta city as a member of the Finnish team that competed in the 1987 Canada Cup. It was during the Finnish team's training camp in Lethbridge that Makela met his future wife, Janice. She followed Makela when his NHL team, either the New York Islanders or the Los Angeles Kings, played in Alberta and Makela made a point of visiting every summer. Eventually, they were married and split their time between Lethbridge and Makela's hometown of Tampere.
"I always liked Canadian hockey," he said. "Since I was a kid, I watched Canadian teams at the world championships and I liked their style, how the players were so dedicated and how they gave everything. When I came here I saw it first hand."
Not that it's all been easy. The Hurricanes have yet to find a high level of consistency. There have been injuries. A brother of one of the players was killed in a car crash. Although Makela has beaten his former Islanders teammates who also coach in the WHL (Brent Sutter in Red Deer and Richard Kromm in Calgary), the Hurricanes have the fewest points in the Central Division and could miss the playoffs.
Still, the struggles have been a learning opportunity for Makela, who watches as many NHL games on television as possible so he can study the coaches and how they manage the game. If you're wondering if Makela has set his sights on being an NHL coach some day, he has. To that end he has already spoken to Alpo Suhonen, whose head-coaching stint with the Chicago Blackhawks lasted only one season before an illness sent him home to Finland.
"I heard from many Finnish coaches who told me, 'When you design your own practices and do things your way then you've become a head coach,' " Makela said. "Long term, I'm looking at coaching in the NHL, but right now I'm trying to reach these kids and coach in a teaching way."
Makela understands he may never win over the likes of Cherry, whose pro-Canadian hockey rants have left little room for any European influence. ("He has his opinions; I have mine," Makela said with a laugh. "He's in a position where he can tell his nice and loud.") What's more important is winning results, the reward that comes from melding a group of players into a successful team. Thankfully, say the Hurricanes, they know their head coach has the willingness and the work attic to see the job through.
His work ethic is pretty good, too. firstname.lastname@example.org