Better Late Than Never

“It’s just too much fun to play hockey.”

Christmas trees had just been dragged out to the corner for trash pickup; credit card statements had yet to show the fallout of holiday excess; New Year’s Eve memories were still fresh.

Tommi Degerman was having fun.

The Boston University Terriers had entered January with little to celebrate. In their six games since Thanksgiving, they’d won only once and salvaged two ties. In those five non-victories, they’d scored a total of eight goals. While the Terrier ship wasn’t exactly sinking, the waves were splashing over its low-hanging bow and a tsunami in the form of the New Hampshire Wildcats was approaching portside.

UNH had won 14 games in a row. Its offense ranked number one in the nation, often exploding for four and five goals at a time.

Even so, the Wildcats’ undefeated record put them only three points ahead in the Hockey East standings, since BU’s slump had occurred against non-conference foes.

The mantra around BU as the home-and-home series loomed was, “If we can just avoid a sweep, if we can just avoid a sweep” … a chant uttered while eyes stared at the looming tsunami and fingers tightened the life jacket.

Degerman, an unknown from Finland only four days off the plane, would be fourth-line fodder while he learned the forecheck and his teammates, the difference between a Big Mac and an Egg McMuffin, and maybe a few colorful English words for when he missed an open net or got nailed by a gorilla defenseman.

Or so some thought.

BU coach Jack Parker, however, soon had other ideas. He lined Degerman up on left wing next to Hobey Baker candidate Chris Drury and Mike Sylvia, the team’s top two scorers.

“Two days of practice and he knew all our breakouts and forechecks,” said Parker. “And he was as skilled, or more skilled, than the guys that had previously been on that line.”

All Degerman did was score two goals and assist on two others while the Terriers shocked UNH 9-4.

After the game, a happy but low-key Degerman said, “Of course I was excited because it was my first game, but I’m not sure if even now I know how big a game this was.”

He complimented his linemates, Drury and Sylvia, and then commented about the upcoming rematch in front of more than 5,000 rabid, enemy fans.

“It just gives you a boost to make them shut up,” he said to appreciative chuckles. The Finn could talk a good game too.

The following night, BU “stole” the 3-2 overtime win that conventional knowledge had established as its upper limit going into the weekend. UNH outplayed the Terriers, but Larocque stood on his head. Although Degerman recorded no points, his good karma continued anyways. While he was tied up on the opposite wing, Sylvia walked out of the left corner and scored the winning goal with two minutes left in overtime.

The Hockey East season turned on that weekend.

Instead of New Hampshire running away with the title, the two teams swapped the lead back and forth for the next two months until they faced each other again in the regular season’s final game. Two months earlier, BU had hoped to avoid a sweep. That night, with Degerman sidelined with a knee injury, the Terriers completed a regular season, three-game sweep of their own.

Two weeks later, Degerman returned, and in the league tournament finals scored on a give-and-go with Drury to tie the game against — who else? — UNH. BU went on to a 4-2 win.

Four-for-four against its top challenger was a long way from January’s timid hopes. And what did Degerman think?

“I’m having fun,” he said.

He grew up playing hockey with a brother and friends who were all four years his senior. When he shifted back to his own age he dominated play. His teams traveled up to 600 miles each way to play weekend tournaments, always in search of the best competition.

Although he didn’t make Finland’s first national team when he was 15, he became a fixture the following year, playing an integral part on the Under-17, Under-18, and Under-19 Finnish teams before dropping to alternate status for last year’s Under-20 World Junior Championships held in Boston.

“I want to be a hockey player,” he says now, knowing that BU has produced a fair number of professionals. “That’s my goal.”

But he also wanted an education. Despite being a “B” student in high school, he couldn’t get past the tough Finnish admissions departments, which only accept 15-20 percent of applicants.

Unable to get into college in his homeland, he began serving his one-year army commitment, joining a special unit in the Finnish Army designed for athletes.

Although such a unit conjures images of a country club, Degerman shakes his head, laughs and says, “It was hard. It was normal army. Our schedule was just arranged so you could leave for practice and then come back. But we were always doing something.”

Recruited by BU assistant Pertti Hasanen, who in past years had put Finns like Peter Ahola and Kaj Linna into Terrier uniforms, Degerman planned to join Boston University for the 1997-98 season.

At BU, however, forwards were dropping like flies. Mike Grier and Chris O’Sullivan turned pro. With the prime recruits already signed, BU’s scholarships to replace the two stars were left all dressed up with no place to go. Then, in the first game of the season, John Hynes went down with a neck injury and eventually called it a career. Midway through the fall semester, Dan LaCouture withdrew for personal reasons.

BU’s international phone bill went through the roof.

“Pertti Hasanen called me and said there was an opportunity if I could do something with the army and postpone it,” says Degerman.

Luckily, the athletes’ unit of the Finnish Army was designed to be tough, but flexible. With three months remaining on his commitment, Degerman packed his bags, flew to the States, and helped turn around BU’s season.

Despite the big splash in his first game, life at BU wasn’t all smooth sailing. While he added another two assists in his first game after the sweep over New Hampshire, he also opened a big home-and-home series against arch-rival Boston College with a first-period game disqualification, knocking him out of both games.

Parker was not amused. Terriers had been accumulating misconducts and DQ’s like flies to cowflop, averaging over 30 penalty minutes per 60-minute game.

In Parker lingo, a player who does dumb things is a “Mook.” The coach decided that players taking bad penalties would be sentenced to “Mookville” and could crawl out of bed for the next week and run at six in the morning. Although convicts and parolees from Mookville aren’t publicized, the aftermath of Degerman’s disqualification may have had him wondering if he’d left the army after all.

He returned from the one-game suspension and soon showed that he was really more of a playmaker than a sniper. He then missed three weeks with a knee injury, not returning until the Hockey East semifinals, just barely in time to score the game-tying goal in the title game, sub-par knee and all.

Despite his success, he still sees room for improvement.

“The game here is so much faster,” he says. “It’s the same game basically, but there are some little things you have to do better and quicker here than in European hockey. It’s the little things that make the difference in becoming a better player.”

Although the injury and disqualification limited him to 14 games and 15 points heading into the NCAA tournament, Degerman has flourished off the ice.

“From day one, all of the guys have always taken me with them,” he says. “So it’s been really easy to adjust to the team even though I’m the new kid here.”

Although some have acted as though Finland were on another planet, Degerman likens the culture differences to those between the United States and Canada.

“Some of the guys have been asking, ‘Do you have this? Do you do that?'” he says. “But it’s almost the same. The food is a little different. You eat more pasta here.”

Deserving of special mention, according to Degerman, is the pasta made by his linemate’s mother.

“Mike Sylvia’s mother makes great food so I’ve been over there a few times,” he says with a knowing smile that almost evokes the food’s aroma.

“But I’d say the most special thing here,” he says, “is that people are really open. They’ll come and talk to you, and everyone’s been really great. In Finland, people stay to themselves. There’s a great bunch of guys here on the team and we just have fun.”

Degerman prefers to enjoy the moment, rather than look too far ahead. He knows he’ll have to fulfill the other three months in the army back home, but he isn’t sure when he’ll do it. He also isn’t sure yet what he’ll major in, but figures he’ll just study hard and get a good education.

The only part of his plan that he is sure about is the same thing that puts a smile on his face and a sparkle in his eye.

“I want to be a hockey player,” he says. “That’s my goal. It’s just too much fun to play hockey.”

Playing hockey. Winning big games. Eating Mrs. Sylvia’s pasta.

Tommi Degerman is having fun.