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HIFK coach Paul Baxter not getting stressed out over upcoming season
NHL and AHL penalty king is a big softie at heart
The Finnish SM-Liiga, the country's top ice hockey league, gets going for a new season tonight at 18:30, with one match on the card, as HIFK of Helsinki entertain HPK from Hämeenlinna.
Paul Baxter , the Helsinki IFK head coach, sits in a leather easy chair. He lights up a small cigar, leans back, and blows some smoke towards the ceiling. If he is at all nervous about the upcoming regular season and the play-offs that will be expected to follow next spring, then he is extremely good at hiding it.
When asked about the season's objectives, the Canadian replies as expected: "The championship title to HIFK."
At the dawn of the new ice hockey season, it is engrossing to chat with Baxter about a lot of things somewhat unrelated to the sport. Baxter, 51, enjoys reminiscing, and he does it a lot.
On his bookshelf the Canadian has a volume with a cover photograph portraying a woman sitting on the steps holding a baby.
"That is me and my mother", Baxter says. "The photo was taken towards the end of the 1950s at the back door of our home in Winnipeg."
The book is called "You Only Live Once".
"My daughter once asked her grandmother to write a book about her life. It took her three years to complete."
Baxter was born into a small-income family with three sons and two daughters. His father and mother never had the time to learn how to ice skate.
"All my brothers and sisters are well-educated and have successful jobs in business life", Baxter says with a shrug.
Baxter's family roots originate from the Irish Sea coast of England. His forefathers set off from Lancashire in the 19th century.
In Lancashire, Baxter would hardly have been likely to pick up ice hockey. It was the outdoor ice rinks of Winnipeg that turned the lad into a player.
Baxter was 18 when he was signed up by his first professional team. The Cleveland Crusaders line-up also included a Finn called Juhani Tamminen.
"Tamminen was a quiet boy. As I recall, he hardly said a word in the locker room. Well, not many words anyway", Baxter laughs.
"The way I hear it, he has changed quite a bit since then", he grins. Tamminen had a long playing career on both sides of the Atlantic, has coached numerous Finnish and Swiss clubs, as well as the French and Swiss national sides, and is well-known as a TV pundit and very talkative commentator.
In the early 1980s Baxter first met Doug Shedden, who now coaches the Jokerit team in Helsinki. Jokerit are HIFK's fierce local rivals.
The two played in the same team, the Pittsburgh Penguins, in the NHL.
"I am five years older than Shedden. I did not really get to know him that well, as he was one of the young guys and I was already married", Baxter recalls.
Last Sunday, a major advance took place in the friendship between the two, as Shedden invited Baxter over for dinner. Both men live in the same Helsinki district of Temppelinaukio.
"Family has always been more important to me than hockey", says Baxter, who currently lives alone in a spacious rental apartment.
The connection between the family members was further tightened, when one of Baxter's four children had to undergo open heart surgery twice before the age of 14 months. Everything went well, and today the daughter is a primary school teacher.
Baxter's ice hockey career ended in 1987, after his fourth season in the NHL with the Calgary Flames. During his first year in the team, one his teammates was another Finn, Kari Jalonen.
"Oh yes, Jalonen was extremely skilful. It was 24 years ago, but if my memory serves me right, I believe Jalonen came back to Finland fairly quickly."
The memory serves him well: Jalonen, who now coaches Kärpät of Oulu, the reigning Finnish Champions, played just nine games with Baxter in Calgary, earning 0+3 points.
As a player Baxter was not really what one might call a hockey virtuoso. During his 472 NHL games, Baxter scored 48 goals and sat out an amazing 1,564 minutes in the penalty box.
"I was a bit of a young buck back then", says Baxter, refusing to elaborate on his more than a hundred documented scuffles in the rink.
Under the hard shell there resides a gentle soul. Baxter has been a gardener, sat on the board of a heart disease association, and led a Christian hockey school during the summer months.
"For about a year, I was a part-owner of a gardening firm whose tasks included the landscaping of the commercial and municipal buildings and all the play areas in Calgary", Baxter explains.
Baxter is said to be a man of faith. Then again, he would not call himself a devout Christian, even though he visits the services at the Espoo International Christian Fellowship every now and then.
"I know my weaknesses and I need the help of Christ", Baxter says. "It does not mean that I am perfect. I recognise my shortcomings."
Baxter refuses to discuss the drinking problem of the former HIFK defenseman Jere Karalahti, who was sacked and is now on the Oulu Kärpät roster. That whole discussion has been concluded.
"Every once in a while I take a drink or two myself", Baxter admits, while puffing on his cigar.
Baxter replaced Bob Francis as the HIFK coach in December of last year.
"Living alone is not easy", Baxter sighs. The local eateries, including all the ethnic ones, have become all too familiar.
Baxter is a pedestrian. He does not have a car or even a bicycle. Even the Suomenlinna fortress, one of Helsinki's most famous tourist attractions, has so far escaped his attention.
Last week Baxter received a very welcome visitor in his Töölö home, however, as his mother fulfilled her wish to visit Finland at least once in her life.
Helsingin Sanomat / First published in print 11.9.2007
MARKKU LAHTI / Helsingin Sanomat