Erik Autio: From Finland to Happy Valley
College athletes can be a deceptively similar group of people. All have overcome their own obstacles, but they also all followed similar paths to play college sports.
Enter freshman Erik Autio. Most of his teammates on Penn State’s hockey team played in developmental leagues in the States before moving on to the NCAA, but his journey was very different. Born in Espoo, Finland, Autio spent his entire junior career there before moving to the States this year.
“[Living in Finland and at Penn State] are different, for sure. The classes are different with the different languages, different types of studying methods we use, bigger classes, and the schedule’s different than what I’m used to,” Autio explained. Still, being fluent in Finnish, Swedish, and English, he’s been more than able to keep up.
“It’s cold in Finland too, but we had our first frost here today, and it was freezing,” he joked.
Inspired at a young age by seeing his father and older brother playing street hockey, Autio gave the sport a shot and stuck with it. Autio played a key role for the junior affiliate of his hometown team, the SM-liiga’s Espoo Blues. He spent four years with the team, holding an alternate captain title in three of them.
“It was a great team,” Autio recalled. “We had a lot of guys who wanted to develop, and we had a lot of guys who played on the national team.”
The alternate captain helped lead his team to two league titles, in 2011 and in 2014. In 2013, his leadership and undeniable skill gave him an opportunity to play for the U-18 Finnish national team. Again wearing the alternate captain’s “A” on his chest, Autio led his team to a bronze medal while garnering a team-high +6 rating.
“It’s always great to represent your country,” said Autio, with visible pride. “It’s a great honor, especially to wear a letter for that tournament. It was awesome.”
Autio’s high level of play not only in Finland, but at an international level, is what got Penn State coach Guy Gadowsky’s attention. Despite the interest players of Autio’s caliber garner, he knew that the right next steps for his hockey career would be at Penn State.
“I wanted to combine a great education with a great hockey program,” he said.
The Nittany Lions hold a 6-2-2 record 10 games into Autio’s freshman campaign, and Autio has played in nine of them. Tallying three assists (including one on Curtis Loik’s game-winner in a 7-1 stomping of Holy Cross), he hasn’t shied away from the scoring sheet. Gadowsky brought Autio on board for his all-around abilities, and will hope to see more contributions moving forward.
“Erik Autio is a bit of an unknown commodity,” Gadowsky said before the season. “For a player to wear a letter for a national program, and to do it as a defenseman of his size… He doesn’t put up exceptional numbers, but he’s a reliable guy and we expect him to be a good puck mover. He’s just a solid, quick-thinking defenseman.”
Autio’s spot on the team is unique, and fun to watch. A smaller, offensive defenseman, he’s already drawn comparisons to fellow Finn Kimmo Timonen, who he credits as his favorite hockey player, and who he tries to emulate. Both have been captains at a national level, both have superb hockey IQs, and both are counted on during powerplays.
One of the most impressive aspects of his early play: He’s already had to play three different styles of hockey, and is only 18 years old. Everything from the size of the rink to frequency of passes varies in college, European, and international hockey, but his confident play at Penn State deters any notion that this style of game is nearly brand new.
“College hockey is a lot more straightforward. We shoot a lot, drive the net a lot, while in European play we try to make nice passing plays, since the bigger ice sheets allow for that. International play is the most skilled, and you know that if you make a mistake it’ll come back to haunt you.”
With a growing role on Penn State’s blueline and glaring similarities to five-time NHL All-Star Timonen, Autio’s a promising young player. Still, the always humble Autio doesn’t look that far ahead.
“I want to play after college hockey, obviously, but for now I’m just trying to get as much ice time as possible, helping out with the things that I do best. I’m just focusing on it one year at a time.”