Matti's tournament

TERRY JONES -- Edmonton Sun

, Last Updated: 8:36 AM ET

VANCOUVER -- Matti Vaisanen sat high in the corner where the scouts always sit, watching Tomas Sinisalo play for Finland, and remembered back.

"Tomas was four years old and I could barely talk after I had my stroke. His dad, Ilkka, was a scout and we were at Bobby Clarke's house. I sat together with a four-year-old reading childrens' books. Tomas jokes 'I read better than the old fellow.' "

Neither rain, snow, sleet nor hail -- not to mention a severe stroke -- has been able to keep Matti Vaisanen away from the World Junior Hockey Championship. His fellow scouts call this "Matti's tournament."

OK, a stomach virus picked up scouting somewhere in Russia kept him away from one. Otherwise, the one-time Edmonton scout -- the Finnish connection most responsible for Jari Kurri, Esa Tikkanen, Risto Siltanen and even Rent-A-Rexi Routsalainen helping the Oilers win five Stanley Cups -- has seen all of them.

The stroke, 15 years ago, paralyzed half his body. He still has difficulty speaking and has only limited use of his right hand. It happened at the world junior in Fussen, Germany.

"I was sitting with Bobby Clarke, watching practices. I thought I was having a problem with my jacket," he said of not being able to move his right arm. "The Canadian team doctor saw me in the stands and phoned an ambulance. He knew what was happening."

He figured his scouting days were over.

"Nobody wanted me. I couldn't walk. I couldn't talk. I was paralyzed on my right side. But Bobby gave me work. Other scouts all helped me. Ilkka would write out the line combinations for me. All the other scouts, too. Even in Russia, I always knew somebody who would do that for me."

OLD TECHNIQUE

Using the old technique employed by the late Gerry Melnyk, the Philly scout out of Edmonton, he figured out height by measuring the cinder blocks in dressing-room hallways in Russia.

"It was tough at first in Russia. Nobody knew where to go. The first year it was just Moscow. I knew how to go on the metro. Then everywhere. I have lots of friends around the world. In every rink there is, I usually know someone," said the scout .

Last year, Vaisanen scouted 287 games. "You like hockey, you want to go to every game. Every tournament. Every country. So many countries," added the old pro.

He's been married to Hannele for 35 years. He has two boys, both of whom were NHL scouts but now have normal jobs. One of them had seven knee operations as a player and lost not only all his top teeth but severely altered the bone structure where they used to be. His wife is no longer a big hockey fan. But they have a home in Malaga, Spain, where they spend most of their time.

Nobody understands where the junior tournament was when it first began -- and where it is now -- better than Vaisanen, the first of the real full-time pro scouts in Europe and the first to go into Russia to study the talent behind the Iron Curtain. He coached Finland in the first official juniors, against Wayne Gretzky and Canada in 1978 in Montreal. Sinisalo's dad played for him in that one.

'WAYNE WAS SKINNY'

"Wayne was 16 years old and the top scorer. Wayne was skinny and not so great to skate, but his hockey sense, his passes ..."

He remembers being in a watering hole somewhere in the world with Barry Fraser, then scouting in the WHA prior to taking the job as the Oilers' first head scout, and Fraser being impressed that he ordered his beer in English. Vaisanen actually spoke five languages. He lost a lot of those abilities with the stroke.

"Barry telephoned the next summer and offered me a job in Edmonton. I remember Glen Sather phoning about Jarri Kurri. Everybody in hockey believed he'd signed for four years with his Finnish club team, but I knew he hadn't. I said 'No. No. No.' Slats said 'Are you 100% sure?' I said 'Yes. Yes. Yes.' Nobody drafted him. Sather picked him in the fourth round. I knew," said Vaisanen, now working for the Minnesota Wild, his fifth NHL team.

Scouts are a lot like sportswriters. They compete against each other, travel together, sit together, eat together and drink together. The only thing Vaisanen liked as much as hockey was the lifestyle.

He remembers the time he was out until 6 a.m. on get-away day.

"I went to my room and showered and went to the lobby to join the Finland team bus to the airport at 7 a.m. I had one hand on my suitcase and one on my briefcase handle and fell asleep in the lobby. I woke up there at 3 p.m., my hands still on the handles. The bus had gone without me. I missed my plane.

"The Finland team was already home before I woke up. In those days I was crazy. It was good we had Sather. He helped guys like myself and Ace Bailey back when we were crazy," he said about the scout who lost his life on one of the planes that crashed into the World Trade Center on 9-11.

The World Junior Championship is a strange tournament. The arenas are packed in Canada.

"Next year in Sweden," he says. "Nobody."

But Matti Vaisanen will be there. He's always there. It's his tournament. It has been since the beginning.


Photos