Grand Rapids Griffin shares close bond with Santa Claus

A younger Vili Saarijarvi sits next to Santa Claus in his hometowm of Rovaniemi, Finland, which is also known as the home of Santa Claus.

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — For many people, Santa Claus lives in a faraway place. But for Grand Rapids Griffins defenseman Vili Saarijarvi, the jolly old elf was just a short walk away from his childhood home.

“What got me is how you walked in and he already knew your name,” said Saarijarvi with a smile. “I’d walk in and he’d go ‘Hey Vili. How are things?'”

Saarijarvi, 20, hails from Rovaniemi, Finland, which is also known as the home of Santa Claus; he lived just outside of what’s called Santa Claus Village.

Saarijarvi and his siblings would make the quick walk to see Santa numerous times leading up to Christmas.

“(There are) lots of Christmas lights and there’s a big building. On the top of it says ‘Santa Claus Village,'” said Saarijarvi. “There’s stars in the sky and sometimes you can see the Northern Lights.”

Saarijarvi never asked Santa to be a professional hockey player, but that’s exactly what forced him to move away from home at age 15.

“I think that makes me realize how important family and all of Christmastime (is), how nice it is to spend with your family,” said Saarijarvi, who also noted his favorite meal is reindeer.

“Home is always home. It’s beautiful there. Santa Claus is Santa Claus,” he said with a chuckle.

Saarijarvi didn’t make it home this year to visit Santa Claus. He didn’t write a list and mail it either. But if he could ask for something, “I would probably ask for a couple goals,” he said.

A word of warning to children: the next time you are at a Griffins game, it may be a good idea to cheer just a bit louder for Saarijarvi.

“That’s what I’ve been telling kids – that you have to be smart when I’m around. I can always make a phone call,” he said. “We have a little deal with Santa. Maybe if I’m doing a good job for him and being (his) little elf, he can maybe help me out someday.”

The Griffins return home to Van Andel Arena Friday, Dec. 29 where they will host he Cleveland Monsters. The first puck drops at 7 p.m.