Jason Williams knew how to get his linemates’ attention. In training camp at Traverse City, the Detroit Red Wings’ forward shouted out a few words that didn’t mean a thing to most of his teammates.
But he got the attention of his two Finnish linemates, Ville Leino and Valtteri Filppula.
“He knows the swear words,” said a smiling Leino.
Williams, Leino and Filppula have been the Red Wings’ third line this season. They hail from towns named London (Ont.), Savonlinna and Vantaa, respectively. Two Finns and a Canadian.
Williams, the Canadian, spent the NHL lockout season of 2004-05 playing in Finland’s top professional league as a 24-year-old trying to get more confidence in his game. His experience at Assat Pori was counter-intuitive to what most hockey fans would expect.
North Americans perfected the dump-and-chase style of hockey. Europeans blended their soccer instincts with hockey and developed a puck-possession style.
Williams, however, came from a distinct puck-possession team in the Red Wings and had to learn to dump-and-chase with his Finnish club, one that was weak and finished 10th in the 13-team SM-Liiga.
“The team that I played on wasn’t a great team, so we had to sit back and trap a lot, try to capitalize on the other team’s mistakes,” said Williams. “Here, it’s more puck possession, hold onto it, makes plays.”
Being one of just three non-Finns in a locker room that included 31 players through the season turned out to be a rewarding experience for Williams. He finished fourth in Finland in goals that winter, then used that confidence to produce his first 20-goal NHL season the following year.
“I find that Finnish hockey is a very similar style to the North American style, which was what I was looking for,” said Williams. “There’s hitting, it’s physical and the odd fight every now and then. There’s still not as much fighting as in North American. But they’re very similar in style to us. It’s the closest to a North American style as anywhere.”
Now in his second tour of duty with the Red Wings, Williams finds himself entrenched on a forward line with the only two Finns to ever play in the Detroit organization.
“They’ve been our best line for two games,” said Detroit coach Mike Babcock. “Fil (Filppula) is a good two-way center, can play both sides of the puck. Leino and Williams have the ability to score. Williams can really skate.”
Communication is a key. Planning who’s going to be where, which player has what tendencies.
Leino and Filppula speak only English on the ice or around Williams off the ice. “It’s easier for everyone,” is Filppula’s explanation.
“It takes a few games to get used to each other, knowing where each other are going to be,” said Williams. “But that’s communication. You talk to each other on the bench, in the dressing room. The more you can talk about it and familiarize yourself with where you’re going to be, then you don’t have to think about those things. You just do it. It makes things so much easier.”
Things like that can get lost in translation.
Other things don’t.
“I can swear in Finnish,” said Williams who then joked, “so when those guys mess up out there, I can yell at them in their own language.”