Finnish line: Lauri Markkanen, Henri Jokiharju excited about futures in Chicago
Bulls rookie Lauri Markkanen, left, and Blackhawks rookie Henri Jokiharju, right, are both from Finland.
A Finnish invasion is headed to the United Center.
Finland natives Lauri Markkanen of the Bulls and Blackhawks prospect Henri Jokiharju are two of Chicago’s newest imports.
The Bulls started the Suomi soiree two weeks ago during the NBA draft. They acquired Markkanen in the Jimmy Butler trade after the Timberwolves selected the 7-footer with the seventh pick. A day later, the Hawks drafted Jokiharju 29th overall. The Finnish community in Chicago — and, yes, there is a Finnish community in Chicago — suddenly was abuzz.
"I was surprised, definitely about the basketball player," said Olavi Goos, honorary consul of Finland in Chicago and Illinois. "I didn’t realize this Finnish guy was this good and the Bulls were looking at him."
Goos estimates that there are about 500-600 Finland natives living in the greater Chicago area, and he believes their interest in basketball will be piqued with the arrival of Markkanen. He was among 40 or so Finns who gathered to attended a Blackhawks-Wild game last season at the United Center — some waving Finnish flags — and he anticipates more trips to the arena for Bulls games.
"With basketball there haven’t been any Finnish players so that will be more interesting for them to go see," Goos said. "People are following all the games when Finnish players are participating."
Those Finns will be a welcome sight to Markkanen, who should land a roster spot with the Bulls, and eventually Jokiharju when or if he makes his way to the Hawks over the next few seasons. Both players recently visited Chicago and came away impressed.
"From what I’ve seen, it looks a lot like home," said Markkanen, who grew up in Jyvaskyla in central Finland. "They have a lake here and a lot of green (areas) but at the same time it has like a big-city feel. I’m really looking forward to going around the city and seeing what it’s about."
Jokiharju, who is from Tampere, about 100 miles southwest of Markkanen’s hometown, said he knows about Chicago’s "super-high buildings" from watching Hawks games on TV and also enjoyed his first look at the city.
"Chicago has everything, a great beach and the water is good," he said. "I’m excited about coming."
Making the adjustment from Finland to Chicago shouldn’t prove too big an obstacle. Both players speak English — with Markkanen’s improved during his one season of college ball at Arizona — the weather is similar ("there are four seasons here and also in Finland," Goos said) and so is the mindset.
"It’s really easy for a Finn to adapt himself here," Goos added. "It’s much easier than going to the East Coast or the West Coast — people are different in those places. The Midwest mentality is really close to the Scandinavian and Finnish mentality."
Thirty-nine Finns appeared in NHL games last season. The Hawks had none, though in recent seasons the team’s Finland natives have included Teuvo Teravainen, Antti Raanta, Kimmo Timonen, Tuomo Ruutu, Sami Lepisto and Antti Niemi.
While Finnish players are uncommon in the NHL, they have been nearly nonexistent in the NBA. When Markkanen takes the court he will be the third Finn to appear in an NBA game. Hanno Mottola played for the Hawks from 2000-02 and Erik Murphy, who was born in France to an American father and Finnish mother, appeared in 24 games with the 2013-14 Bulls.
Being young (Markkanen is 20 and Jokiharju 18), Finnish and the newest members of their organizations aren’t the only things the players have in common. They both love hockey.
"I’m a big hockey guy," Markkanen said. "Winter is super cold in Finland so we were outdoors with my friends and family, and hours and hours we played hockey. I like to score goals, but I was definitely the best when I was goaltender. That’s one thing I really loved. Once I got a little bit taller I forgot about that dream. But when I was a little kid I was dreaming of being a hockey goalie."
Though Markkanen and Jokiharju haven’t met, they know of each other and plan to get together when both are playing in Chicago. After Jokiharju was drafted by the Hawks, Markkanen tweeted "Chicago is already feeling like home! Congrats @henrijokiharju!!"
"That was awesome for him to do," Jokiharju said. "He was a superstar at Arizona and … he’s probably going to be the greatest Finnish basketball player ever."