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Finnishing School

An education that started in the small town of Naantali, Finland, brought Eemil Viro to Grand Rapids, where the young defenseman hopes to learn all that he needs to know to graduate to the Detroit Red Wings.

Story and photo by Mark Newman

Anyone in higher education can attest to the fact that you don’t just wake up one day with a diploma in your hands. It is only after hundreds and hundreds of hours – not to mention countless lessons learned – that one can attain the desired degree.

Success follows hard work and dedication.

Eemil Viro and his twin sister Eerika were taught at a young age that their athletic achievements were secondary to their schooling. Their parents made sure that both Eemil and Eerika, along with younger brother Matias, knew classwork always came before competitive sports.

Their father, Tomi, played hockey at the lower levels while their mother, Kirsi, played championship-level ringette, a non-contact sport played with a blue, rubber ring and straight sticks on ice hockey rinks with ice skates. It’s a winter sport that Eerika still plays and one that introduced Eemil to the joys of playing on ice.

“I started my career playing ringette,” Viro said. “I’m from a small town called Naantali and when I was 3 or 4, they didn’t have a skating school for hockey but they did for ringette, so I started there with my twin sister.”

Viro doesn’t remember much about learning to skate, but he remembers his parents’ admonitions to get good grades. “They told us school was important, so it became natural for me,” he said. “I stayed focused on school and learning became something I enjoyed.”

He does not suggest that he was always a perfect student.

“There was a moment when I got a bad grade in math and my father said, ‘You are not going to practice today. You have to study,’” Viro said. “I don’t remember when it happened exactly, but it was sometime in elementary school.”

In the end, Viro was still allowed to attend practice, but he had learned his lesson. “He made sure that I knew that I had to get better,” he said.

He enrolled in English classes at an early age.

“It was my parents’ idea for us to take English classes,” he said. “All my friends from the hockey team wanted to go to the sports class which was a different school, but my parents were like, ‘No. You’re going to the English school,’ because they had started English in first grade.

“When I think about it now, it was so smart on their part and I am so glad that I went there.”

They also made sure that their kids excelled at skating, a skill that remains one of Viro’s strengths to this day. "My parents ran their own skating school. They did it until we were like 7 or 8,” he said. “I liked skating right away. As far as I can remember, I really enjoyed skating.”

Viro said it helped his cause to have a twin sister who looked out for his well-being.

“It was great for me,” he said. “She took care of me. She kept track of all my stuff, including the lectures we got from school. She would remind me when we had a test. She would say, ‘We have this test tomorrow. Have you practiced?’ And I would say, ‘Oh, I didn’t know that,’ and I would be like, ‘OK, I’m going to practice now.’”

Meanwhile, he was earning accolade after accolade for his skating ability. As a skilled skater, he moved to defense as soon as his youth team started playing on the whole ice surface. It was clear that he was making great strides, but his parents made sure that he didn’t make any missteps.

“We had tough rules in our house, from how to act to how to respect your parents,” Viro said. “As a result, I think me and my sister and our little brother are kind people. We never had any big fights or anything because our parents taught us how to act, how to be nice and be good human beings.”

When Viro reached his teens it became increasingly evident that he might have a future in hockey, and he watched NHL games with great interest. While his friends were idolizing Sidney Crosby, he was busy watching players like Kris Letang, the Pittsburgh defenseman who is now in his 16th season with the Penguins.

Viro knew if he was going to graduate some day to the NHL like Crosby, Letang, and the other players his friends followed, he would have to push himself. Every year, he played a few games with older players – a move that he always saw as beneficial to his growth and development as a player.

“You see guys who are stronger and faster,” he said. “You start pushing yourself because it’s crazy to compete against those guys when you are younger than they are. You watch them and you realize that you’re not there yet.”

And so while he remained diligent in his classroom studies, he continued his hockey education by competing in the sport at the highest levels for his age. Representing Finland in international play, he journeyed all over the world, competing in places like the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Sweden as well as Canadian outposts from Saint John, New Brunswick, to Edmonton, Alberta.

“I loved playing against the top players in the world,” Viro said. “You see their faces and what they can do, especially the young guys from Canada because they are so skilled and so good at playing in the small areas of the ice.

“It was a great learning process. When you go back to Finland, you know what you have to improve. At the same time, you learn that you can play well at that level, too.”

While the hockey world was getting to see his potential, the young defenseman was getting an education of another sort. With his father being a long-time pilot for Finnair, it allowed the family to take trips to Thailand, Cyprus, Turkey, Spain, and the Dominican Republic over the years. But if there was one place that was on his radar the most, it was North America.

When the Red Wings used the 70th overall pick to take the young Finn in the third round of the 2020 NHL Entry Draft, he felt over the moon.

“It was unbelievable,” said Viro, who watched the draft with family and friends via the internet. “I can’t find any words for the feeling. Everybody was there – my grandparents and all my closest friends. My parents were super excited.”

Last season, he played one final year with TPS Turku, which was essentially his hometown team, but he was itching to come to North America the whole time.

“I wanted to come here really bad and I hope the Red Wings felt the same way. After playing one more year in Finland following my draft year, I think it was time. At that point, it had been a good choice to stay in Finland, but I thought it was finally time for me to come here.”

Like most first-year players, Viro has found playing in North America requires some adjustments. While learning to play on smaller ice surfaces is one thing, learning how to live in a foreign city is a challenge on another level.

“The whole culture is way different,” he said. “Even something like going to the grocery store can be challenging. Back home, I might go to the store and buy a certain yogurt, but when I can’t find that brand here, I have to figure it out again. All the food is different.”

Of course, things should get easier with time. The same is true regarding his play on the ice. He is learning the game happens at a much quicker pace here compared to Finland, where puck control is king and teams often rely on a trap to slow down the action defensively speaking.

Early into his first pro season in North America, Viro had played with several different defensive partners, which he views as a good thing. “Every one of them wants to help,” he said. “If I want to ask questions, they give me advice. At first, I wasn’t sure how it would be, but it’s been nice. It already feels like another home to me.

“I’m learning a lot.”

Viro scored his first AHL goal in his sixth game, which was a 4-3 victory over the Texas Stars on Oct. 30. Gaining confidence as he grows more comfortable with the style of play here, he said he was just happy to finally get his name on the scoresheet. “I feel like I’m getting better every game,” he said.

He is doing what he can to help the Griffins’ defense. In reality, he is not worried about offensive points – he is much more worried about keeping the opposition from putting the puck in his net.

“I want to be a two-way defenseman. That’s what I enjoy. But I need to take care of my defense and the points will come,” he said. “Everything starts in the defensive zone and I’ll learn how to get to the right lanes as I become more comfortable. The points will come.”

As it has been for some time, it’s all about education for Viro, who remains eager to earn his ice time by learning to play the right way.

“Life is better when you think in a positive way,” he said. “If you only find the negatives, life is going to be hard. You only live once and you have a choice.

“I want to get stronger every day – that’s who I am.”

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