Long-time mainstays in the NHL and on their rival national teams, P.J. Axelsson and Kimmo Timonen are as similar as they are different. Each is a 33-year-old native of Scandinavia who shoots left-handed, Axelsson as a defensive-minded forward for the Boston Bruins and Timonen as a two-way defenseman for the Philadelphia Flyers. Born in Kuopio, Finland, Timonen made his NHL debut with the Nashville Predators in 1998. Axelsson, who hails from Kumgalv, Sweden, debuted with the Bruins in 1997. Axelsson and Timonen, in separate interviews, answered the same questions for the initial offering of Puck Prospectus Q&A.
David Laurila: Thinking back to when you were drafted [Axelsson in 1995, Timonen in 1993] are you at all surprised that youíre still playing in the NHL in 2009?
P.J. Axelsson: Iím really surprised. I didnít think when I first got drafted Ė it was more of a bonus, I guess. When I was in Sweden back then, my goal was to play for the national team to begin with. Then, when the Bruins called I got really excited, and here we are, all these years later. Iíve had a great time here in Boston. Itís a great sports town, and my family and I really like it here.
Kimmo Timonen: Well, when I got drafted, you know, obviously I was pretty happy. But I was a really late draft pick. I donít think that there are 10 rounds any more like there were at that time. That kind of gave me a chance to play in the NHL, maybe someday. It didnít work out with the LA Kings, who drafted me, so they traded me to Nashville who gave me a really good chance to play hockey, and I was there nine years. Now Iím in my second year here in Philadelphia. So, I canít really say that Iím surprised that Iím still here, but I am maybe surprised that I got a chance to play.
DL: How would you assess the career youíve had in the NHL?
Axelsson: Well, Iíve had a great time. I got an opportunity to play in the best league in the world and Iím still trying to make the best of it every day.
Timonen: I would say pretty good, you know, considering that I was a really late draft pick and LA didnít really give me a chance to play. The GM at Nashville Ė David Poile at that time Ė said that he was going to give me a chance to show what I could do. I have to really thank him for giving me a chance, and since then itís been fun. The coaches Iíve had have trusted me, and that kind of stuff, so Iím happy to be here.
DL: How has your game evolved over the years?
Axelsson: Itís probably pretty similar. I have the same role Iíve had for years, a defensive-minded forward, and Iím not trying to change that. I just come to work every day and do whatever it takes to win. I got this role when I came here. When I played in Sweden, my last two years, we had a coach that was really defensive-minded, and the whole league, in Sweden back then, was really defensive. So that role really fit me when I came over here.
Timonen: Well, obviously I have more games and more experience, and Iím probably not that nervous anymore, and that kind of stuff. But I think itís the same game; I havenít changed my game. I do the same kind of things I did 10 years ago.
DL: Could you have been a goal-scoring forward?
Axelsson: I would say that Ė I donít think Iíve ever been a real good scorer. I scored some goals in Sweden, but this is a different league. This league is so much better; the players are so much better. So I donít know; itís tough. I think the role I have now fits me better than being a scorer.
Timonen: Itís hard to say. Iíve never played forward, even going back to my junior times or when I first started playing hockey. Somehow I was always a defenseman, so itís really hard to tell if I would have been able to play as a forward -- but probably.
DL: Does who youíre playing with [Axelsson: line mates, Timonen: defense partner] impact your game?
Axelsson: Yes, but I try not to change too much, because if you try to overdo things it just isnít going to turn out the way you want. So I try to play the same way, no matter which line Iím on.
Timonen: It does sometimes, a little bit, but usually when you make it to the NHL there are a lot of good defensemen anyway, so it doesnít really matter who you play with. Theyíre pretty good players, and Iím happy to play with good players.
DL: You played in your homeland during the lockout in 2004-2005. What was that experience like?
Axelsson: It was pretty cool, actually. Every arena was packed, because we had a lot of NHL guys come over and play, and we had a lot of media and people in the stands. It was hockey, and it kind of got hyped up, which was a good thing. It was home, in a way, but [afterwards] I wanted to get back here to play.
Timonen: That was pretty good, because Iím a part owner there with one team, so it was nice to go over there to help my team, and all that kind of stuff. You know, play in your hometown. It was a pretty nice experience.
DL: How do the fans in your homeland compare to your teamís fans here?
Axelsson: Thatís actually a really good question. Thereís such a hockey tradition with this being an original six team. They really know their hockey, so if youíre not playing well, theyíre really going to be on you. But at the same time, theyíre always supportive. They can be tough on you, but they really like their hockey, thatís for sure. As far as comparing, thereís not a whole lot of difference because hockey is such a big sport in Sweden. They know their hockey too.
Timonen: You know, in Finland, hockey is pretty big; it is probably the biggest sport there. I would compare Finnish fans to Canadian fans. Theyíre pretty passionate about their sport. And actually, the fans in Philly are pretty good, too. So, overall I think itís almost the same. But, like I said, itís the biggest sport in Finland, so theyíre pretty passionate about it.
DL: How would you describe the Finland-Sweden rivalry?
Axelsson: Itís a huge hockey rivalry, kind of like Boston-Montreal almost. We donít like to lose to each other, but at the same time, I think both teams have a lot of respect for one another. Itís usually a big media thing that they try to hype up, but yeah, we definitely donít like to lose to each other.
Timonen: Itís pretty good. It probably goes back in time, but every time we play each other they are good games. Both countries have a good league, so itís going to be a good match-up and itís always nice to play against them.
DL: Are Finnish and Swedish players essentially the same, or do they differ in any way?
Axelsson: Theyíre pretty similar, I would say. We kind of grew up in the same hockey environment.
Timonen: I would say that all of the European players are; you can find the same type of players. We used to play on the big rinks, and that means youíve got to have a lot of skill. Usually, we have pretty good skaters and that kind of stuff, so I would say that all of the European players are almost the same.
DL: When you think about hockey history, what comes to mind first?
Axelsson: Bobby Orr would be one thing. Since Iíve been in Boston, itís kind of been the Boston traditions, like the whole Ď70s era. With history for Sweden, players-wise youíve got Borje Salming and those guys in that era Ė Hakan Loob. Those are the guys you looked at when I was young. And another guy, for me, is Wayne Gretzky. He probably changed the game.
Timonen: Well, if you go back in time, probably Jari Kurri for [Finland]. What he has done in the NHL Ė any time you talk about hockey history, he comes to mind.
DL: Do you see any similarities between hockey and soccer?
Axelsson: I like my soccer. Both are team sports, and thatís probably the main thing, I would say. You also have systems that you try to play; you try to come together as a group. Other than that, I donít see too many similarities. You just defend when you donít have the ball and you try to score when you have it.
Timonen: You know, I used to play soccer, and I actually had to stop playing soccer when I was 17 because I had to choose which sport I was going to start playing. I think that there are a lot of things the same. You have to do a lot of things with your feet, balance-wise, and that kind of stuff. So all of the kids who are thinking about playing soccer and hockey, I really recommend it.
DL: If you were a professional soccer player, what would your role likely be?
Axelsson: I would probably [play the same position], yes. When I played, I started out being a scorer in soccer, but I ended up being back on the back line.
Timonen: When I played, I was a midfielder. That was my favorite spot, because you can play defense and you can attack. I would probably like to play that position, yeah.
DL: Is hockey a simple sport, or is it complicated?
Axelsson: Itís complicated if you make it complicated. My take on it is that if you try to make it simple, it gets easier. Watching me, it doesnít always look that way, but you try to make it as simple as you can.
Timonen: Well, I would think that itís not that complicated. If I go back in time to when I was young, we didnít have any system or anything like that; we just went out there to play. Obviously, when you get bigger, and the in NHL, thereís a system, but as a kid, itís not complicated at all.