A Season on the Rink

A tumultuous year inside the crucible that is the National Hockey League

Smith considers the possibility.
"But I sure wouldn't mind being in the Stanley Cup finals," he says, almost wistfully, "with everyone in town going crazy and getting behind the Phoenix Coyotes."

The Defenseman
I remember as a kid watching World Championships and gold-medal games, that was the biggest thing. The Olympics are still great, but I would take the Stanley Cup in a heartbeat. To win the Cup is two months of hard labor, maybe 24 or 25 games. You need to be lucky, but you have to work for your luck.

--Coyotes defenseman Jyrki Lumme,
a native of Finland

Jyrki Lumme is vital to the Phoenix Coyotes' playoff chances. But how much he'll be able to contribute is debatable.

Lumme, 32, has played the past few games with a "strained" shoulder. He hurt it during a March 2 game in Boston, and it's still healing. (He says it's "about 75 percent," which means he's hurting badly.)

A veteran of 72 Stanley Cup playoff games and one Cup final--with Vancouver in 1994--Lumme is a finesse player who can dominate a game without fanfare: He'll change the tempo while controlling the puck, make the subtle pass, see opportunities that others don't.

Lumme is a genteel man whose command of English is impeccable. He's secure financially, having signed a five-year deal with the Coyotes last summer that will bring him $17 million over five years.

A middle-class kid whose parents worked for car dealerships, Lumme grew up in a Finnish city of about 170,000.

"Hockey is number one there by far," he says. "Everybody plays. I started skating before I was 3, and with a stick in my hand. We had a little rink in the backyard, and a rink with no boards or net in the town square.

"I would go home from school, drop my books and go skating. My dad would pick me up, I'd go home and eat, then go back until they shut the lights off. I did it because I loved hockey. I had no dreams of making the NHL. I dreamed of being a kid who played in our Elite League, from which they pick our Olympic team."

By the time Lumme was a teenager in 1980, only a few Finns had migrated to the NHL, most notably future Hall of Famer Jari Kurri.

Lumme wasn't a star, but he says he skated relentlessly after games, and kept honing on his puck-handling skills--"Not because I wanted to get rich, but because I wanted to get better."

He was 19 when he finally got to play in Finland's Elite League, which led to the fabled Canadiens drafting him for the first time in 1985. He didn't jump at the opportunity.

"I just wasn't ready to come over here as a player yet," he says. "I wasn't strong enough, and I knew it. I just had one year in the Elite League."

Instead, he finished high school, served eight months of mandatory time with the Finnish Army, then focused on trying to make the 1988 Olympic team.

"I was living at my parents' house and making a little money for playing hockey," he says. "Things were good."

(Lumme and Teppo Numminen played for Finland in two Olympic Games, earning silver medals in 1988 and bronzes at last year's Games in Nagano, Japan. Juha Ylonen, a third Finn on the Coyotes, also played in the 1998 Olympics.)

Lumme says he felt ready at 22 to take the next step. "It was either that or have to get a real job." He signed with Montreal for $75,000 Canadian, which then was worth almost as much as the American dollar.

Lumme completed a short minor-league stint, then played parts of two seasons with the Canadiens.

"I was a spare, waiting for a plane crash to get playing time," he says. Then the Canadiens traded him to the Vancouver Canucks during the 1989-90 campaign.

Lumme loved his new city and team. The Canucks played well in the regular season for the two years before their surprising Stanley Cup playoff run of 1993-94.

"But we flubbed in the playoffs, when it counts," he says. "Looking back, though, that experience really helped us. We knew after those two years what it was going to take to go farther--even when we didn't have near as good a regular season. I get the feeling that it's the same with the Coyotes, especially because we have Tocchet and Greg Adams, veterans."

In 1993-94, Vancouver faced the New York Rangers in the Stanley Cup finals. The Rangers hadn't won a Cup since 1940, and most fans wanted them to win out of sentimentality.

It came down to the seventh game, at Madison Square Garden.
"Biggest game in my life, no doubt, by far. We lose 3-2. We got screwed, bad calls, two power-play goals. It sucked. But we had so much fun during the playoffs, unbelievable. We clicked at the right time."

Bobby Smith calls Lumme "a courageous guy who plays his game. Not everybody can fight like Rick Tocchet. If you're a creative player, like Jyrki is, do you take a chance at doing something hard in an especially important, difficult, dirty game? Or do you just say, 'Hey, next game's not gonna be so tough. I'll just hang back'? Jyrki always does the courageous thing."

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