Haula's Unpaved Path
Wednesday, 11.23.2011 / 1:44 PM / Features
By Dan Myers - Special to Wild.com
First there was his move to the United States from his native Pori, Finland.
Then there was the strict academic guidelines placed on athletes at Shattuck-St. Mary's in Faribault, where Haula landed as a sophomore in high school.
After that, there was a year in the USHL and finally, last season, playing college hockey in the rough and tumble Western Collegiate Hockey Association with the Gophers.
Now a sophomore at the University of Minnesota, Haula appears fully comfortable and is busting onto the scene as one of the country's breakout players so far this season.
For Haula, a seventh round pick of the Wild in the 2009 Entry Draft, playing college hockey has been a goal of his and his family's since the decision was made to move to the U.S. about five years ago.
"My dad always followed a lot of college football and how the college stuff works," Haula said. "He put the idea idea out there for me to go to the States and play college hockey and get an education. It's really hard to play hockey and get an education in Europe."
After searching for places to play, Haula and his family decided Shattuck would afford him the best opportunity to get an education -- both on and off the ice.
Learning a new culture and a new home was tough, but Haula said one of the more difficult challenges was the academic workload.
"Definitely a different experience from a regular high school," Haula said. "Coming from Europe, it was definitely a change living at a boarding school. But I think I made the right choice, and I learned things that are still helpful for me today."
Under the guidance of former Gopher assistant coach Tom Ward, Haula's game took off, finishing second on the team with 84 points his final season in Faribault.
His commitment to Minnesota came in March of that year, just a few months before the Wild would take him in the draft -- assuring him that his career would be closely followed by many in The State of Hockey.
"First time I heard about him, we talked to Coach Ward and he thought he'd be a pretty good player," said Gophers head coach Don Lucia. "He was highly recruited, so we recruited him pretty hard his junior year."
Haula made the Wild scouting staff look good that fall in Omaha, leading the Lancers to a spot in the USHLWestern Division Finals and finishing fourth in the league in scoring with 72 points.
"First when I came here, I didn't have any plans. I was taking everything just a year at a time, trying to get better as a hockey player," Haula said. "Once I got to Minnesota and got to a couple of games and into all the hockey stuff, I liked it. I couldn't be happier with my decision.
"And I've made so many friends here in the Twin Cities and I'm familiar with my surroundings. It's a dream come true to be here."
His freshman season with the Gophers was highlighted by a four goal, three assist performance in the 2011 World Junior Championship tournament -- but during this past offseason, Gopher coaches implored him to shoot more. His 18 assists a year ago was tops on the team, but both Haula and Lucia felt he could score more goals.
"Definitely more confident to shoot [now]," Haula said. "I was thinking back to when I was in Omaha, and I shot the puck then a lot more than I did last year. Last year...was just a weird year. I had to learn what works for me and what doesn't.
"But I know I need to shoot more. It doesn't mean I don't pass or won't pass. I just need to do the things that have been successful."
That shoot-more mentality has paid off this far in 2011, as Haula has already surpassed his goal total from all of last season (he has seven goals in Minnesota's first 14 games) while also adding 13 assists. He's just one point behind teammate Nick Bjugstad and two others for the national lead in points.
"The big thing is, he's a sophomore," Lucia said. "He's gotten confident and continued to improve his game."
For all his improvement, Haula says he has plenty to work on before fans across town at Xcel Energy Center see him skating in a Wild uniform.
"I'm good in space," Haula said. "I need to get better working in tight areas, winning battles and getting to the net. That will get better when I get stronger."
If the first half of his sophomore season is any indication, it won't take long for him to reach that potential.