by Jason Olson
Coon Rapids Finish exchange student Aleksi Mustaniemi’s impact on the team goes beyond wins and losses.
The Cardinals (0-8-1, 5-11-1) are struggling near the bottom of the Northwest Suburban Conference standings this season but one of the bright spots has been the play Mustaniemi along the blue line.
Mustaniemi sits fifth on the team in scoring with 10 points (five goals) and second among defensemen as Alex Wojciechowski leads the team with 19 points. He added three on the power play through Jan. 21.
He had a three-game point streak (two goals, one assist) going until the 6-2 loss at Centennial Jan. 17.
Mustaniemi was the lone Cardinal to score in an 8-1 loss to Andover and added another against Osseo five days later before assisting in a 10-3 loss to Anoka Jan. 14.
He also scored in a 4-2 win over Irondale Jan. 21 but also picked up a checking from behind five minute major penalty along with a 10 minute game misconduct infraction.
Scoring hasn’t been a challenge for Mustaniemi who was a forward for seven years before moving to defense.
Cardinals coach Brandon Mileski appreciates that scoring skill in addition to the intangibles a kid like Mustaniemi brings to the squad.
“[Aleksi] brings offense,” he said. “He brings a commanding presence on the power play. He also has a great work ethic and is a great example to other players on how they should be preparing both on and off the ice.”
Mileski, the Cardinals second-year coach said the Finnish exchange student generally runs the pre-game workouts. He also shares thoughts on the difference between the european-style of hockey from the north American versions.
“He doesn’t necessarily give us the X’s and O’s from his team in Finland, but he has chatted about how they play a different game,” Mileski said.
Mustaniemi said the experience has been a tremendous one so far. “Getting to know the guys, new school, new experience. It’s all been great,” he said after an intense Monday morning practice.
Going from winning the league championship for his Espo Blues junior club in Finland last season to the on-ice struggles this season have provided some perspective for him.
“It’s been frustrating on the ice, but everyone gets along,” Mustaniemi said.
The opposition hasn’t been that friendly to him.
A more physical-style of play combined with being a targeted player by other teams has Mustaniemi definitely in foreign territory.
“He’s also used to playing on a bigger sheet than what we see most of the time here,” Mileski said.
He makes up one half of what is a physically imposing defensive pairing where he and Logan Shore, each stand about 6-4 without skates and neither were part of Coon Rapids’ program last season.
Shore took advantage of the snowy 2010-11 winter season and skied for the nordic team instead of playing hockey while training for an intense baseball season.
Baseball has come up in conversations between the defensive partners.
“We talk and go through the last game together and try to build each other up,” Mustaniemi said. “I know he’s a big baseball player and I’ve been asking him questions about [baseball having never played the game.]. He’s been asking me to come out for baseball in the spring, or at least try it. I’ve never played it so we’ll see.”
Mileski said the connection with the two defensemen has helped the Cardinals at times.
“Having two tall guys on the same shift has to create some unique opportunities,” he said as both have been important additions to the club. “They’re both skilled and winners. They bring a winning attitude and are great examples to their teammates on what needs to be done to excel in athletics.”
The offfensive-minded defenseman said the second period has been the tough all season.
“The toughest part right now is that we don’t know how to win. We can’t keep a lead and it was kind of sloppy [a second period meltdown against Anoka on Jan. 14 in which they gave up six goals and a 3-2 lead before losing 10-3],” Mustaniemi said. “We have to maintain ourselves throughout the game.”
Mustaniemi came to Coon Rapids August 28, in time for school to start and is living with the family of Coon Rapids hockey parent and booster club president Eric Olson in Coon Rapids.
Mustaniemi not only is an only child, but is the first exchange student for the Olson family who have five children.
“We’ve treated him like one of the family and he’s been a great kid to have around the house,” Olson said. “It’s important for him to experience [the way an American family] operates as well.”
Olson’s oldest son David, a 2011 graduate, gave up his room for Mustaniemi and spent his three-week holiday break relegated to the family couch while home from college.
Olson’s sister and Mustaniemi’s father both work for Polaris. Mustaniemi’s father is a distributor in Finland and that was how the connection was made.
Mustanemi was looking for an opportunity to play in the states to eventually play in college and beyond.
As for beyond high school, Olson said Mustaniemi has draw some pro and junior team scouts but he doesn’t know about next season’s plans yet.
“[Scouts] know some kids through the camps they have in the summer and then all of a sudden you see kids dropping like Aleksi,” Olson said. “They don’t have scouts out there doing the scouting because of budgets.”
Mustaniemi’s had a few chances to experience life as an American teenager, away from school, practice and games.
Olson said the family spent some time at a family cabin in northern Minnesota. “When we took him up there he felt right at home,” Olson said. The rural setting reminded Mustaniemi of the northern half of Finland, where his grandmother lives. “The northern half of the country is kind of desolate with woods, hills and streams like up north here. He loved to ride the four-wheeler, helped cut wood.”
The positive experience is one Olson believes definitely recommends to others.
“He’s the first exchange student we’ve had live with us and it’s been a great experience,” Olson said. “It’s fun to learn about another culture and I know we’ll be in contact with him forever.”
Mustaniemi and his host family took in the Minnesota Wild’s season opener against Columbus in October.
It was his first chance to see fellow-Finn and Wild captain Mikko Koivu play.
“I know about him, he’s a really good player and a leader on the team.,” Mustaniemi said.
“He had never been to a professional hockey game before and it was a very different experience for him because in Finland fans don’t cheer except for a goal,” Olson said.
He hoped to return to Xcel Energy Center to play with his teammates during the Schwan Cup’s Open Division finals, but a shoulder injury kept him off the NHL ice sheet.
Mileski said it was tough to have a player who is on the ice nearly half the game watching the game in street clothes.
“[Aleksi] does so much for us. He’s out there for 50% of the game, playing in all situations, and it’s hard to replace someone has talented as him.”
Shooting situations is another area where the two cultures collide.
Mustaniemi was taught to shoot for the upper-corners when taking shots from near the blue line.
“I told him to keep the shots low as it’s more likely to get through to the net and more likely to force a rebound,” Mileski said. “So we compromised.”
If Coon Rapids players outnumber the opposition near the goal to keep it low. If not, he has the green light to shoot high.
“He’s scored probably 3-4 goals top shelf from the blue line this year, so I guess I’m glad I didn’t deter him from shooting up high completely.”