The hirsute of excellence: Jets winger Patrik Laine is the NHL's latest, and hairiest, teen sensation

WINNIPEG, Manitoba -- In late March, when Patrik Laine limped off the ice against the Los Angeles Kings after blocking a shot, the status of the Winnipeg Jets winger's left leg quickly became a minor international incident. In Laine's native Finland, newspapers published dueling doctors' prognoses. Fans tweeted at the Winnipeg Police Department, wondering if authorities might press charges against the culprit who fired the puck, Kings defenseman Alec Martinez. The verdict: No, but Laine "deserves an Atta Boy for his dedication to duty (and defence)."

As I passed through customs in Winnipeg the next day, a border agent interrogated me about the purpose of my visit. I revealed that I was in Canada for business, as a journalist -- and, finally, after some additional prodding, that I was a sportswriter covering hockey. "Ah, I bet you're here for Laine, huh?" she said. "I hope [his injury] is not too serious."

When I interviewed Laine [pronounced LIGH-NAY] later that afternoon, I explained that the world was very concerned about him. The 19-year-old, who had just finished a 30-minute workout on an exercise bike, didn't flinch.

"OK," he said. "You can tell everyone I'm going to live. Probably."

Such deadpan has become a signature for Laine, who has captivated the league -- both because of his scoring prowess and his personality. Since being drafted No. 2 overall in 2016, Laine has scored 79 goals -- the third-most by a teenager in NHL history, trailing only Dale Hawerchuk and Jimmy Carson (and, yes, even more than Wayne Gretzky). With his 6-foot-5, 200-plus-pound frame, wicked shot and dexterity around the left faceoff circle, Laine profiles as the next Alex Ovechkin. And while the league recently celebrated the 32-year-old Washington Capitals winger for becoming the fourth-fastest player in NHL history to reach 600 goals, it's worth noting that Laine could reach the feat at an even younger age than Ovechkin, who made his NHL debut in 2005 at age 20. Laine won't turn 20 until April 19.

Laine applied heat on Ovechkin for the Rocket Richard Trophy, awarded annually to the league's leading goal scorer, for most of March. And while Laine did not, in fact, miss any time after the blocked-shot scare, a seven-game goal drought following the injury hampered his campaign. Ovechkin finished the regular season with a league-best 49 goals. Laine was second, with 44.

"Maybe he's not on the same level yet, just because Ovi has done it for years and years," says St. Louis Blues winger Chris Thorburn, a 10-year NHL veteran who played alongside Laine with the Jets last season. "But Patty is in that conversation -- just because of his shot alone. You don't see too many guys with that kind of talent, the kind those two guys have. And we're still just finding out how special Patty is."

For the first time in nearly two decades, the Jets are legitimate Stanley Cup contenders. And Laine personifies the young, plucky players who have gotten them this far. But he has also become a cultural phenomenon on two continents. He rarely leaves his house in Winnipeg unless he has to. Back in his hometown of Tampere, Finland, Laine is a mainstream celebrity.

"He's all over the news," Boston Bruins goalie and fellow Tampere resident Tuukka Rask told ESPN last fall. "In the newspapers a lot. Every time you open the internet, there's something about him. People click it."

When the NHL announced that a Global Series game between the Jets and Florida Panthers would be held in Finland next October, tickets sold out in less than 20 minutes.

This all might be too much for most teenagers to handle. Laine, however, is so comfortable in his own skin and routine that nothing seems to faze him. When he's not at the rink, he's usually at home playing video games -- Fortnite has quickly replaced Call of Duty as his go-to game -- even though his usual sparring partner, Florida Panthers center and fellow Finn Aleksander Barkov, wasn't available as often as he liked during the season's stretch run.

While the Panthers were battling for a playoff sport, Barkov was "not online anymore," Laine says. "He's too busy to play with me."

On the team plane, Laine plays the same card game (Snarples) with the same five teammates, even though he hasn't been lucky at it all season.

"I've lost a few dollars," he says. "But I love it so much." On the road, he orders the same room-service meal every night: steak (medium), french fries and a Sprite. He doesn't have the itch to sight-see, or even to try new restaurants.

"If we're in L.A. and it's nice weather, we won't sit in our rooms all day," says his regular road roommate, Nikolaj Ehlers. "Or in New York, we'll go shopping. But yeah, I sometimes have to drag him with me. Otherwise we really do the same thing every day."

Laine has also, for the last two months, maintained a gnarly beard -- the result of a bet with a cousin back in Finland. Though the blond unruly hairs are inspiration for a line of synthetic beards that sell for $9.99 at a Winnipeg party store, the look has been the butt of jokes in the Jets dressing room.

"I tell him every day he needs to shave it," says Jets center Andrew Copp, who lockers next to Laine. "We called him Sasquatch for a little bit. I called him Abe Lincoln the other day. Trust me, he gets it pretty good."

"I think it shows what kind of person Patrik is," winger Brandon Tanev says. "To stick with it even if it doesn't look great."

That's the thing about Laine: He has never really conformed like his peers.

In late March, he was clipped by a high stick at the hands of Nashville Predators captain Roman Josi, which left Laine bloodied. Laine exited the ice and met with team doctors. Stitches were likely required, they told him. Laine had one plea: "Please, don't ruin the beard."

Laine has no idea how the gash was cleaned up, but when he returned to the bench the beard was intact -- just crusted with some dried blood. "I had faith in the doctors," Laine says. "They are professionals, after all."

The 2016 draft was all about Auston Matthews, an Arizona-born center considered a generational talent. The Toronto Maple Leafs held the first pick. When in doubt, teams always take the top center. But Laine was already flexing his talent in the Finnish Liiga, and knew he would thrive in the NHL. So he said it.

In several interviews, Laine declared that he should go No. 1. This sent the NHL into a tizzy. In the NFL draft last year alone, defensive end Myles Garrett said he would "punish the Browns" if they didn't pick him No. 1; quarterback Deshaun Watson said it would be "a slap in the face" if fellow quarterback Mitchell Trubisky was selected ahead of him. Arizona power forward Deandre Ayton already labeled himself as the top NBA prospect this season.

But hockey has different cultural norms. Players are deferential to a fault. In interviews, most NHL players even avoid using the pronoun "I."

"There's a lot of differences in other sports of what you can say," Laine explains. "It doesn't matter who you are talking to, hockey players don't want to talk about themselves, they want to talk about someone else who is better than they are."

So Laine understood why his words spurred a flurry of think pieces that either marveled at or condemned his confidence. But he was simply being himself.

"Maybe some people thought I was arrogant when I was saying it, but honestly I didn't think it was," he said. "There are a lot of people who don't like me. But I just say what I believe. I have a policy where I don't lie. I don't lie to the media. I don't see the point. You guys ask me something and I just say what I know."

Laine in uncannily honest. It's a remarkable personality tic that's refreshing, but also perplexing for the uninitiated. Ask him anything and he'll answer reflexively. When he reveals he wants to work on his golf game this summer -- "I don't want to suck forever," he says -- I ask who the best golfer on the Jets is.

"I don't know if I want to answer this," he says. Then he pauses and blurts out the answer because he can't help himself. "OK, maybe the best three are [Connor] Hellebuyck, [Kyle] Connor and [Mathieu] Perreault. But I haven't seen everybody golf."

When asked what it's like being mobbed for autographs, Laine says, "I've never said no to anybody, because it's an easy thing I can do. But I don't like when people ask me to sign parts of their body. No skin. I'll do it, but think that's weird."

Regarding his opinion of Winnipeg, which has a reputation among other hockey players as being cold, dreary and a tad provincial, Laine says: "Pretty much the only thing I knew about it before I came was that it was cold and that hockey is the main thing here. And that's true. I come from a small town compared to this one. I don't need much. I need a good place to stay at. I need a good locker room and a good atmosphere at the rink. That's pretty much all I need. So for me, Winnipeg is perfect."

Laine grew up in Tampere, which is situated on a narrow strip between two big lakes in southern Finland. It's the second-largest city in the country. His father, Harri, and mother, Tuija, both worked blue-collar jobs. His sister played basketball until a serious injury forced her to stop.

"It was a nice place to grow up," Laine says. "There were a lot of areas where you could swim and stuff like that. I always played sports."

Growing up, Laine played soccer and tennis -- and just about every other sport, though not competitively. Hockey was his favorite. He began as a goalie.

"I liked that way more than being on ice as a normal player," he says. "I thought it was more fun catching the pucks. Now I'm kind of too scared of pucks. Like the blocked shot [against the Kings]. You gotta do what you gotta do if the other guy wants to score, but it hurts to get in front of the puck like that."

Laine was always competitive.

"I've always been good at sports. It really didn't matter which sport, I've always been pretty much above average, and I've always taken it seriously," he says. "It didn't matter if I was playing cards or something. If I lost, I was just going to throw the cards away. I think a lot of people didn't like me because of my attitude. I was pretty much the same as I am now."

He didn't like school very much, though that came easily, too.

"I didn't have to work that hard to be good," he says. "I've always been good at speaking other languages. We'd practice speaking Swedish and English. Math was always my strength. I'm good with numbers, and counting in my head."

He's still good with numbers. Laine says that he rarely checks the NHL stat leaders -- because he doesn't need to. He knows what Ovechkin and fellow Rocket Trophy candidate Evgeni Malkin scored the night before and simply calculates the new totals in his head.

Growing up, Laine would practice his accuracy by shooting at Coca Cola cans in the backyard. He was always an NHL fan, though it was tough to follow when only a couple sports channels would play a random game here and there, usually in the middle of the night. Instead, Laine studied hours of YouTube videos of right-handed shooters -- usually Ovechkin or Steven Stamkos. He noticed how quickly Ovechkin got his shot off and knew that needed to be a hallmark of his own game. Laine played with his idol a few times at international competitions but officially met him for the first time at last year's NHL All-Star Game.

"He told me to keep it up and that I was doing a good job," Laine says. "That's all I really needed to hear."

Though Laine dazzled as a rookie, he made his biggest strides in Year 2. The season began slowly for Laine, who had just four goals in his first 11 games, which prompted him to tell the media, "It feels like hockey is really hard right now."

"It just felt like nothing was going right," Laine reflects now. "Pucks are bouncing and it feels like you are playing with a tennis ball. If you pass to somebody, they can't score."

His Jets coaches weren't deterred. Even as he struggled to score, they noticed improvements in Laine's game.

"We really judge Patty's game now by all the things he does without the puck," Jets coach Paul Maurice says. "He's got lots of room to be creative, and he is. We talk about his shot, but he's an excellent passer and he's quite creative with what he does with the puck. His play without the puck is night and day [compared to] where it was when he started."

And then Laine started getting his bounces. In March, he strung together a 15-game point streak, the longest-ever by an NHL teenager, including 18 goals and eight assists. It ended during the Kings game in which he was injured. He was forced to leave in the first period.

Laine has maintained his low profile even as everything intensifies around him. The reason he plays video games directly after practice is because it's one way to stay in touch with buddies back home. His best friend works at a grocery store in Finland. Other pals are studying at university.

"My life is different than theirs," he says. "But I try to remember who I am."

Laine still lives with his parents (ether his mother or father has shared his apartment the past two seasons). "It's necessary," he says. "I can't do some things on my own. I can't cook at all. I've tried, and I'm telling you, I'm very bad. Can't even make pasta. I'm too lazy to figure it out."

Laine has adapted to North American culture. He says he has become an NBA fan, specifically of the Houston Rockets. His favorite player is James Harden. "No, not because of the beard," he says. "I just like the way he plays."

All season, he has had visitors in Winnipeg -- friends, relatives, family friends. Usually Laine will go through the same routine. One day he will suck it up and take them to a Winnipeg mall to show them around.

"I obviously get noticed and sign like 150 autographs," Laine says. Then the rest of the trip they lounge at the apartment. During the playoffs, Laine's parents, girlfriend, sister and sister's boyfriend will all be on hand -- and they'll all stay at his apartment.

Laine may need help with daily domestic tasks, but when it comes to conducting extensive interviews entirely in his second language, he's a seasoned pro. He not only has an impressive command of English, he is even adept at incorporating humor into the conversation.

"Actually, that's one thing I had to work at," he says. "It's hard to express your feelings in a different language. It's hard to be funny in English because you have to think about what you're going to say all the time. You think about it a lot, especially coming into the league. I just want to make sure people can understand my humor. I get nervous it won't translate."

He pauses, then grins: "So you know, if I was talking in Finnish right now, I'd have way funnier stuff."