Haula a perfect fit for Gophers skaters

MINNEAPOLIS — The roster for the Golden Gophers men’s hockey team is predominantly made up of players who were born and raised in the state of Minnesota. This year’s team has just four players who hail from outside of the Land of 10,000 Lakes.

Among those four is a lone international player, Erik Haula. The junior center grew up in Pori, Finland, but has quickly adopted Minnesota as his second home.

Haula moved from Finland to the southern Minnesota town of Faribault in 2008, when he enrolled at Shattuck-St. Mary’s a boarding school specializing in hockey. He played the 2008-09 season for SSM, where Haula was second on the Sabres in points with 84.

“My dad always pushed me to think about coming here and leaving home. It became a reality real quick,” said Haula, who speaks with just a hint of a Finnish accent. “I liked the idea. I’ve always liked the States. It just fit the profile. We just decided one day to go visit Shattuck-St. Mary’s, through some advice from people. My family liked it and felt comfortable going there. That’s kind of where the journey began.”

From there, Haula spent one year with the Omaha Lancers of the USHL, scoring 28 goals and adding 44 assists in 56 games before joining Minnesota. The decision to play for the Gophers and head coach Don Lucia was an easy one, said Haula.

“I was comfortable in Minnesota,” he said. “I had a chance to visit here a couple times, unofficial and official. I kind of got to know the guys and I was just comfortable with the state. I really liked it here and like the city and just the hockey culture. I felt like it was a perfect fit.”

It’s been a great fit since Haula arrived on campus prior to the 2010-11 season. As a freshman, he played in 34 games and tied for third on the team with 24 points. He was tied for the team lead with 18 assists.

Last year, Haula took a big step forward in his production, more than doubling his point production from the previous year by pacing the Gophers with a team-high 49 points (20 goals, 29 assists) on a team-best 152 shots. But as Kyle Rau burst on to the scene as a freshman last year and Nick Bjugstad led the Gophers in goals with 25, Haula didn’t grab quite as many headlines.

That doesn’t mean his efforts didn’t go unnoticed by Haula’s teammates.

“He’s a great two-way player, brings a lot to the table on the ice,” Bjugstad said of Haula. “He’s got a great shot, great vision — just basically can do it all on the ice. It’s great having a player like that. He’s a great center, and he makes everyone better on the ice when he’s out there.”

Through two games this season, Haula has already netted two goals in Minnesota’s opening series against Michigan State. He scored a second-period goal in Friday’s opener and followed it up one night later by scoring the first goal of the game in what turned into a 7-1 Gophers rout.

This year’s Minnesota squad is deep as the Gophers are coming off a run to the NCAA Frozen Four. Haula is a key part of the depth and should factor into the mix as one of the team’s top scorers yet again.

“It’s nice to have guys back who have kind of been here and been through last year,” Haula said of the team’s depth. “They all know what to expect and all know what it takes to be that national championship-caliber team. It’s nice to have that base set. It’s also nice to add a little young talent. The new guys, they bring a lot of energy to the locker room. It’s been fun so far.”

Fifteen of the 28 players on the Gophers roster have been drafted by NHL teams, and Haula is one of them. The Minnesota Wild selected Haula in the seventh round (182nd overall) of the 2009 draft.

But Haula insists he’s not looking ahead yet at the potential for a professional career. He’s focused on helping the Gophers get back to where they were a year ago — and maybe a few steps further.

“I try not to (think about it),” Haula said of his future after college. “I just try to get better. I feel like things will work out.”

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