Dwight Helminen is once again living his dream in Carolina. Recently called up for the second time this season, Helminen made his NHL debut with Hurricanes in October when he took the ice in Montreal. Five days later the University of Michigan product scored his first NHL goal. A 25-year-old native of Hancock, Michigan, Helminen has spent most of this season with the AHL Albany River Rats, where he has netted 15 goals. Helminen discussed his game when the River Rats visited Lowell in February.
David Laurila: What is your background in hockey?
Dwight Helminen: I grew up in the Detroit area, and the story my parents tell me and my brother is that we brought home a flyer from school promoting the hockey rink that wasnít too far from where we were. They signed us up to play, and from there I guess they never knew what it would turn into. So I grew up playing in the Detroit area, and eventually went to the University of Michigan. I was originally drafted by Edmonton, but got traded before I was out of school to the Rangersí organization. I was signed with them for three years, and when that was up I went and played with my brother [Lars] in Finland. That was last year, and this year Iím here with the Hurricanes.
DL: How did you and your brother end up in Finland?
DH: I had originally hoped to sign with another team here in the U.S., but my brother had just signed with a team there after graduating from Michigan Tech. He had gotten a pretty good offer to play in Finland, and I didnít have any offers here that I really liked. The Finnish team [JYP Jyvšskylš], which is one of the smaller-market teams in the league, at first didnít have enough money to sign me, but they we re able to get some more sponsor support and make me a pretty good offer to come over. I looked at that as an opportunity to maybe change it up a bit, and when I came back here to the U.S., I might have a few more options. And, of course, it was nice to play with my brother, who I had never played with.v
DL: How did the quality of play in Finnish League compare to the AHL?
DH: Iíd say that itís very comparable to the American Hockey League. There arenít as many teams as in the AHL, but thereís plenty of talent over there. Itís probably the most physical of the European leagues; guys finish their checks and Finns have a reputation for working hard. Itís a pretty good game, and itís pretty similar except that a lot of the rinks are a little bigger than North American rinks.
DL: Did you feel like an outsider playing in a foreign country?
DH: Yeah, a little bit. Thereís a big difference between English and Finnish, and not knowing much Finnish, sometimes it was difficult. But, for the most part, everybody over there spoke English, especially my teammates, and they helped us out quite a bit. Where we were at, itís dark for most of the winter, kind of like an Alaskan winter without much daylight. Everybody is pretty reserved over there; people arenít quite as outgoing and social as they are here, so sometimes it was a little different when youíre meeting people on the street, or wherever.
DL: In an interview a few years ago, Shea Hillenbrand said that when minor league baseball players tell you that it's all about the team, they're not being honest because, first and foremost, theyíre fighting to earn a promotion to the big league club. Is the same true in hockey?
DH: Yeah, I would sayÖeverybody is working hard. Most of the guys on the team are trying to get to the next level. Some guys recognize that they might not have as much of an opportunity; they donít have as much chance as some of the others. But, in hockey you need your teammates. When you go on the ice, youíre with other guys, and most guys canít just take the puck and go end to end. You need your teammates, so you need to buy into the team concept. And, generally speaking, when your team is doing well, more people notice that and your chance s of moving up are greater.
DL: How important are statistics in the game of hockey?
DH: I think it depends on your role and what kind of player you think that you are. I mean, I know that Iím not going to make it as a fighter, so my penalty minutes arenít a big factor. But I think that numbers are important in that people notice statistics. If you want to get noticed, for the most part you have to have them. I think it definitely helps to have good numbers. Still, thereís more to the game than just numbers. There are goals and assists, and plus/minus, but a lot of people are also looking at the character of a player, what theyíre willing to do in certain situations, like blocking a shot in the last minute. A willingness to do whatever it takes to win hockey games.
DL: How would you describe your game?
DH: Itís a two-way game; I can make plays at both ends of the ice. Skating is the strongest part of my game, so I can make things happen with my speed. Thatís where Iím at my best.
DL: Who most impacted you as a young player?
DH: My dad played hockey in high school, and he watches a lot of hockey, so he was always the one; he even coached me a little bit when I was younger. But even after a game, he would tell me what he thought I could do better. I think thatís probably what I got the most out of. But playing in Detroit, I had some good coaches growing up there. I had the same minor league coach for several years, Dave Liimatta; heís coached in the Detroit area for a long time. He had guys like Doug Weight, and some of those guys who grew up there, so heís been around for awhile. Heís the one who kind of pulled me up to play at a higher level.
DL: You played for Red Berenson at the University of Michigan. How did he impact your game?
DH: When I was at Michigan, I was a penalty kill specialist, and he always matched me against the other teamís top line, so it was my defensive game. That part of my game really improved. Before that I kind of played both ends of the ice, but he just wanted to use me as a defensive player.
DL: Have any of the teams youíve played for employed a sport psychologist?
DH: A lot of teams, in training camp, give you a sport psychology test, or check your personality. But, in the past when I was at the University of Michigan, we had a team sport psychologist that would come in, and some of the other camps Iíve been in have done work with sport psychologists.
DL: How important is adrenaline in hockey?
DH: I think itís really important. I donít really know to explain it, but when the adrenaline is going you can focus better and still perform at the top level at the same time.
DL: You had a strong training camp and went on to make your NHL debut earlier this season. What got you over the top?
DH: I think it was the confidence that I could play at that level. And this past summer I put a lot of extra focus on conditioning so that I could maintain that high level throughout a full shift and through the whole game. I tried to improve my recovery time, my recovery conditioning.
DL: What was it like getting called up to the NHL for the first time?
DH: It was awesome. I found out after a game, and my parents were actually there in Albany for the weekend to see some games. They had just left, and the next day when I went in, thatís when they told me that I was getting called up. The team was in Montreal, so I called my parents, who had to drive all the way back to Brighton [Michigan] because they didnít have their passports. They turned around and drove up to Montreal to catch the game, which was two days later. I got to Montreal, practiced the next day, and then the following day was the game.
DL: What did it feel like on the ice when you made your debut?
DH: I was definitely nervous. Playing there is probably the best atmosphere in hockey, as far as the fans and how much a part of the game the fans are. Playing against guys who I had been watching on TV for a long time, I definitely had some butterflies that game.
DL: You scored your first NHL goal a few days later against the Maple Leafs. How would you describe the goal?
DH: We were swarming them, and we got the puck back to the point for a shot, and there was kind of a pileup in front of the net. The puck squirted out, and I was in the right spot; I got a stick on it, just trying to get it toward the net. I figured the goalie would be down, and [Curtis] Joseph ended up not being down, but I donít think he saw it through the pileup, and I put it past him.
DL: Youíve scored a lot of goals at the amateur and minor league levels. Just how different did that one feel?
DH: Well, itís something Iíve been thinking of since I was little Ė being able to score a goal in the NHL. So yeah, it will be one of the moments I remember most about playing hockey. One of my line mates said, ďYou should have seen your face after you scored that goal.Ē He got a pretty good laugh out of that.