By Judy Owen, The Canadian Press
WINNIPEG – Patrik Laine isn’t a fresh-faced rookie any longer. You can tell just by looking at him.
After the Winnipeg Jets selected him second overall in last year’s NHL draft, the Finnish forward sported a trendy, short hair cut and clean-shaven face on the way to becoming a finalist for top rookie.
This season, the 19-year-old has a scraggly beard and wispy moustache.
Why the new look?
“I had a bet with my cousin that we’re going to grow our beards the whole season and grow our hair also,” Laine explained after Monday’s practice. “We don’t have any money on the line. This is for fun.”
The 206-pound winger also looks like he’s added some muscle to his six-foot-five frame.
He didn’t set out to get bigger over the summer, but he wanted to become stronger and faster so he put in extra time at the gym back home in Finland.
“I think I can battle harder than last year and maybe protect the puck pretty well,” he said.
One thing Laine doesn’t have to worry about is fuelling his body. His mother, Tuija, has again moved to Winnipeg to live with him.
“It’s nice that I don’t have to worry about what’s going on at home because my mom’s going to do that for me,” he said, smiling as he called himself a “momma’s boy.”
“I don’t always have to worry what I’m going to eat or do I have to buy groceries or whatever because she’s here. It’s been a helpful thing for me.”
Laine will again be under the spotlight, a glare that ramps up with Winnipeg’s season-opener Wednesday against the visiting Toronto Maple Leafs.
Actually, make that Auston Matthews and the Maple Leafs, as the storyline of Laine versus Toronto’s second-year centre continues.
The two have been compared to each other ever since Matthews was taken first in last year’s draft. The 20-year-old centre captured the Calder Trophy after netting 40 goals and 69 points in 82 games. Laine scored 36 goals and 64 points in 73 games.
Laine shrugs off any individual rivalry with Matthews.
“I think the media and all the people around hockey has made a bigger deal out of it than it really is,” he said. “As player, I just want to focus on playing against Toronto and focus on this team.”
Laine will open his sophomore season on a line with veteran centre Bryan Little and left-winger Nikolaj Ehlers, a trio that should feature plenty of speed.
Laine and Ehlers have developed a close friendship, spending hours — including when they room together on the road — competing against each other in PlayStation video games such as favourites Call of Duty and the NHL and FIFA series.
When Laine told reporters he hoped Little and Ehlers were as excited to play together as he was, Ehlers piped up “no” from a few stalls away.
“OK, you’re not, but I’m still excited and looking forward to Wednesday,” Laine replied in his common deadpan delivery.
Later, Ehlers said it’s fun to play alongside Laine, whom he admires for his personality and hockey skills.
“He might be playing video games like I do, but he’s a man,” Ehlers, 21, said. “He knows how to handle (the attention). He’s a laid-back guy, he’s a good guy. He just takes it as it comes and deals with it.”
Laine scored five goals in four pre-season games, again displaying his blistering one-timer.
“I’m 100 per cent sure that that’s a Top 3 shot in the league, if not the best,” Ehlers said. “It’s pretty amazing to watch.”
His praise was duplicated by new Jets goaltender Steve Mason, who’s seen plenty of good shooters over nine NHL seasons.
“There’s a lot of players that’ll put their head down and shoot it as hard as they can and they don’t know where it’s going, but Patty knows where it’s going,” Mason said.
“He picks a spot and he doesn’t miss it too often…. It’s tough to compare him because he is kind of in a league of his own with that shot.”