On Nov. 29, as the Wild hosted the Colorado Avalanche in their first meeting of the season, Erik Haula took the ice at Xcel Energy Center for his NHL debut.
Praised for his consistent play in American Hockey League with the Iowa Wild, Haula stepped in as the second-line center as Mikael Granlund nursed an upper-body injury. In the second period, just over 35 minutes into his first Wild game, Haula chipped the puck behind the net to Nino Niederreiter in the right corner on a backhand pass from one knee. Niederreiter found Dany Heatley waiting in the slot, who shot it home.
With that secondary assist, the young centerman registered his first NHL point and the third star of the game for his efforts. Before he was called up that morning, Haula wasn’t sure when he’d make his NHL debut, but was confident it would come sooner or later.
“I didn’t really think about when it was going to come, I just knew it was going to come and needed to be ready for it,” Haula said. “That was kind of my main thought process. It ended up working out.”
His NHL debut and first career point was particularly special due to the fact it was with the Wild. A native of Pori, Finland, Haula moved to Minnesota at 16 to play hockey at Shattuck St. Mary’s. After a year at Shattuck and another in the United States Hockey League with the Omaha Lancers, Haula became a Golden Gopher and a fan favorite.
When he first moved to Minnesota he had no expectations about what awaited him in the State of Hockey—only that he wanted to grow in his game.
“I just wanted to get comfortable with school, the language and everything,” Haula said. “There weren’t really any expectations. I knew that hockey was popular here.”
Growing up in Finland, he had a good base in English but upon moving to Shattuck he took two English classes at once. Now, as one of four Finnish players on the Wild roster, Haula has no trace of an accent and can slip back into his native tongue with ease.
Between school, hockey and living in a new country, Haula admitted he felt homesick initially, but after a few weeks things became easier.
“It was different from what I was used to,” Haula said. “All the rules and everything, it was different. But then once two months went by I was really used to everything and got some friends and hockey starting rolling well, it was good.”
In 53 games at Shattuck, the center tallied 84 points and 26 goals. That summer the Wild drafted him in the seventh round of the 2009 NHL Entry Draft. The following year with the Lancers brought similar results, with 72 points and 28 goals in 56 games.
Over the next three years with the Gophers, Haula solidified himself as a creative top-six forward with a nose for the net. After his freshman campaign he was tied for third in scoring with 24 points (6-18=24). The following two years he led the Gophers with 49 points (20-29=49) his sophomore season and 51 points (16-35=51) his junior year in 2012-13.
The speedy winger helped lead the Gophers to two straight MacNaughton Cup titles during his last two seasons at Minnesota, as well as a Frozen Four appearance in 2011-12. With some current Wild teammates, the success he and the Gophers had is sometimes a touchy topic.
“I had met him a few times during the development camps, so I knew he was a good player and a good guy,” Jason Zucker said, who played against Haula in college with then-WCHA rival Denver. “I hated the Gophers so it was kind of a sore subject when playing against them. But at the same time, he was a good player in college obviously, and it’s transferred over to pro this year.”
That it has, but in a different way than it might have been anticipated. Haula played in a top-six role with the Gophers and in the AHL. During his first call-up of the season, he slipped in comfortably at center on the second-line. The stint lasted six games, in which he tallied two assists.
On his third call-up of the season in early January, and following the Olympic break, Haula has embraced a different role, largely spending time centering either the third or fourth line.
“It’s just all about getting the opportunity and going with it, seeing it through and trying to work on everything and trying to learn as much as I can,” Haula said. “It’s my first year pro. My goal was to play this year and everything’s gone just like I’ve wanted them to go. I couldn’t be happier with where I am right now.”
Instead of serving as the go-to guy, looked upon for a score every game, the 23-year-old faces a different sort of pressure by playing in a defensive role, focused on shutting down opponents. While Haula noted that, “everyone loves to be that go-to guy,” he’s happy to serve his role to help the team win.
“I think we’ve done a pretty good job handling him,” Wild head coach Mike Yeo said. “As far as his development, I thought he’s improved. We’ve increased his role, his responsibilities and we haven’t done it too quickly. We haven’t pushed him into a position where he might not be ready.”
For Haula, finding consistency in that role is all about focusing on his job night in and night out.
“I just know what’s expected of me every night with my role right now and I knew what was expected of me in Iowa. It’s just finding that happy medium in your mind and having that right mindset for every night, going out there and executing.”
Haula has seemingly grown up through Minnesota hockey. While he may be getting comfortable in a new role with the Wild, he’s already more than comfortable with the State of Hockey — a Finnesotan in every sense of the phrase.
So it only seemed fitting that when donned a Wild sweater for the first time, the scoreboard flashed the Gophers score during a time out. They were across the river, leading long-time rival Wisconsin, eventually winning 4-1. The Xcel Energy Center crowd cheered at the score. Moments later, they cheered again as the former Gopher tallied his first NHL point.
A few months later, Haula netted his first career goal on Hockey Day Minnesota — again, a fitting coincidence. The crowd roared and gave him a big standing ovation, which he observed mid-celebration.
“I think that shows that I do have some people who are familiar with me,” Haula said. “It’s kind of nice. It’s nice being able to be comfortable in the environment, knowing what’s always expected, knowing what the fans are like — just knowing what’s going on I guess.”