SAN JOSE – One of the first things Lauri Marjamaki did when he began coaching Joonas Donskoi three years ago was take him to the grocery store. Some kids get it early, others take a little longer. You can put Donskoi firmly in the latter category. At the age of 21, he had no idea what it took to be a professional hockey player.
But Marjamaki, who could have passed for Donskoi’s older brother and not his coach, went to work. And more than anyone aside from Donskoi himself, Marjamaki is responsible for the final product we’re seeing today. The 24-year-old player who saved the San Jose Sharks season – at least until Game 4 Monday night – was the product of a progressive hockey system and a progressive coach in Marjamaki.
Marjamaki took over the coaching job at Karpat Oulu before the 2013-14 season and his rise in the coaching ranks has been a mercurial one. That has something to do with the fact that he led Oulu to the Finnish League title each of his first two seasons and was recently named the coach of the Finnish national team, replacing Kari Jalonen, who led the Finns to a silver medal at the World Championship. Marjamaki will be behind the Finnish bench for the World Cup of Hockey in the fall and at the age of 39, is recognized as the top coach in Finland. His transformation of Donskoi is another notch in his resume, one that could one day see him vie for a job in the NHL. (His English will have to get better, but that’s an easy one to fix.)
“He changed the direction of my career,” Donskoi said of Marjamaki. “I had had a couple of bad seasons and was kind of struggling with my game and then Lauri came in. He started with the basic things. We went to the grocery stores to see what I can buy and what I cannot buy. He taught what it is to be a hockey player – sleeping, practicing, eating.”
That first year in Oulu, Donskoi lost 11 pounds and became a far better conditioned athlete. But that was just the start of his transformation. One of the first things Marjamaki noticed about Donskoi was that he wasn’t upright enough when he skated. His head was often down and it not only affected his skating, but his ability to read the play. So Marjamaki convinced Donskoi to lengthen his stick, which forced him to be more upright.
Donskoi had impressed scouts enough to be chosen in the fourth round by the Florida Panthers in 2010, but then he stalled. The Panthers chose not to sign him and he floundered for a couple of seasons in Finland. Marjamaki knew the talent was there from seeing Donskoi as a younger player and felt it just needed some nudging. Marjamaki was with the Finnish national program when Donskoi was drafted by Florida and saw a player who needed to make some significant changes on and off the ice if he wanted to play in the NHL.
“Joonas had to understand what it took to be a good athlete, not just a good hockey player,” Marjamaki told thn.com in a telephone conversation from Finland. “His head was so down when he was skating. I was wondering whether he could see his linemates. Somebody said it was difficult to play with Joonas because he just keeps going and tries to score every goal by himself.”
The results were remarkable. Donskoi went from having a miserable season in 2012-13 where he was injured and not productive to becoming Oulu’s best player. He exploded in 2014-15, scoring 19 goals and 49 points, then earned playoff MVP honors with 22 points in 19 games to lead his team to its second straight championship. He was one of Finland’s best players in the 2015 World Championship, where Marjamaki was an assistant coach.
The Sharks took notice as well. Scouting director Tim Burke was instrumental in convincing GM Doug Wilson to sign Donskoi as a free agent to a two-year deal. The Sharks were the team that showed the most interest in Donskoi, even if they thought he’d have to start in the American League. But he was their best player in the Sharks development camp. Then he was the best player in main camp. Then he was their best player in the pre-season games and the Sharks had no choice but to keep him.
Donskoi’s stick skills are on display for all to see. That has never been an issue. In fact, Sharks defenseman Brent Burns nicknamed him “Dusty Crophopper,” which came to him after watching the Disney movie, Planes, with his kids. “He has such good hands that he likes to dust the puck off,” Burns said. “I had just watched Planes with my kids and it came to my head. It’s ‘Donkey’ though.”
Logan Couture calls him ‘Donks’ saying that, as his linemate most of this season, he knows Donskoi doesn’t like the ‘Donkey’ moniker. Like, at all. “And I don’t want to piss him off,” Couture said.
Whatever his nickname is, Donskoi looks as though he’s here to stay. The will appears have to have caught up to the skill, in large part because of the efforts of Lauri Marjamaki. Remember that name.