Jamie Oleksiak brought it up. This was last week, before things had soured into a four-game losing streak and the Pittsburgh Penguins still had some of the glow of a 4-0 road trip through Canada clinging to them. Oleksiak talked about the team bonding of that trip.
For instance, he said, they learned that defenseman Juuso Riikola is “a funny guy.”
“I’m funny?” Riikola said a few minutes later when confronted with Oleksiak’s proclamation.
“Oh, that’s nice to hear.”
For further evidence, Olli Maatta, who, like Riikola, is Finnish, was consulted.
“He’s a funny guy,” Maatta confirmed.
Riikola, signed as a free agent last summer after playing professionally in his home country, does smile a lot. Maybe not Monday night, after Oleksiak got the only goal in a 5-1 home loss to New Jersey that left the Penguins 0-3-1 since that successful road trip.
But at least Riikola got to play, replacing Chad Ruhwedel among the defensemen as the coaching staff made a lineup change to perhaps try to provide a spark.
Riikola played 15:16, including some time on the second power-play unit, and led the team with seven hits in his seventh NHL game. He’s still waiting to celebrate his first point in the league, although defense, skating and a physical edge are more his forte.
“I think what I am like all the time, smiling and happy, I think that’s it,” Riikola said of the label.
Maatta explained, “It feels like there’s always a little smirk on his face when he walks around. It just feels like every time you watch him, he has that little smile on his face, like something is coming up.”
And yet Maatta couldn’t explain further. Does Riikola like to tell or hear jokes? Is he quick with a one-liner? Does he quote funny movies?
“I really don’t know,” Maatta said. “I haven’t gotten that sense yet.”
And that’s someone who shares Riikola’s native language.
Riikola agreed that the road trip through Canada, particularly a couple days of practice mixed with downtime in the scenic town of Banff, Alberta, helped forge a kinship among the players.
“We spent time together a lot there,” he said. “You get to know people a lot better when you are all the time with them. I think that was a nice trip for us.”
Maatta has been impressed with Riikola’s apparent smooth transition to the NHL, to the smaller ice surface than what is used in Europe, to life in North America and even life in an English-speaking environment even though Finns routinely learn that language growing up.
“Before you get used to it, all the time when someone says something to you, you’ve got to translate it first and then think about it,” Maatta said of functioning in English. “It takes a while.”
Maatta, 24, is several months younger than Riikola, who turns 25 on Friday, but he has been in North America much longer than Riikola, having come over as a teenager to play junior hockey in London, Ontario.
Teens, it would seem, adapt to things more readily than adults, but Maatta still struggled some.
“Even going to Canada and staying with a family, just getting used to the culture. The language a bit, too,” Maatta said. “Even off the ice, it’s a little different from life back home. Language is a big thing. Even though you knew how to talk it, you’re not used to doing it. You miss talking a little Finnish.
“I remember my first couple of months there were days when I wanted to stay in my room and watch a Finnish movie.”
Riikola seems to be fitting in quickly.
“Yeah, he is,” Maatta said. “He’s a mature guy. He knows how to take care of himself. He’s an awesome teammate. Like I said, he’s always smiling. He doesn’t seem to have a bad day. And if he does, he doesn’t show it, which is pretty impressive.”
Pressed about that sense of humor thing, Riikola was asked if he likes a good joke or a good prank. He nodded.
Asked if his teammates had targeted him with a prank, him being a newcomer and all.
“Not yet,” Riikola said quietly, his eyes darting around the locker room. “Don’t tell them.”
OK, we won’t.