Jere Karalahti's favorite movie is Oliver Stone's Natural Born Killers, and when he thinks of the film's eerie, odd-angle shots and the way its main character, the bald and wild-eyed Woody Harrelson, surrenders to maniacal and murderous impulses, Karalahti can't help but laugh. "It's just so wacky," he says. "It's just the best movie."
Karalahti, 26, plays defense for the Los Angeles Kings and his affection for Killers is in perfect accord with the image he has projected since arriving in the NHL midway through the 1999-2000 season. At 6'2", 210 pounds he plays an edgy, hard-hitting game. His skull is as bald as that of Harrelson's character, and his torso is covered with menacing, black-ink tattoos. Karalahti wears a Mephistophelian goatee, and he looks out from pale-blue eyes that fade to gray when the light is low. He has thick, expressive eyebrows, one or the other of which tends to rise when he is in thought.
Last month, over a plate of ravioli in an Italian restaurant near the Manhattan Beach, Calif., home he shares with his wife, Susanna, and his 1�-year-old daughter, Ronja, Karalahti was discussing one of his favorite subjects—movies—when he brought up Trainspotting, the Scottish film that chronicles the lives of young heroin addicts. Karalahti recalled the movie's narrator talking about the pleasures of the heroin high. "When he says, 'Take the best orgasm you've ever had, multiply it by a thousand and you're still nowhere near it'?" says Karalahti. "That's it. That's what heroin is like."
Karalahti knows. He had a good time when he was on it, and he is not shy about saying so. Though he says it has been five years since he last smoked heroin—or used any other drugs—and exactly that long since his arrest for possession of it and other illegal substances rocked the Finnish hockey world, he remembers his drug days with a dreamy fondness. Karalahti is what you might call a successful user: He led a thriving life even in the years when he was on narcotics, and he escaped the drug world before it devoured him. Karalahti's involvement with drugs ended because of circumstance—not because of waning devotion.
When he returns to Finland in the off-season, Karalahti hears of former drug buddies who are jobless or in jail, or who have been shot or stabbed. "I always had hockey in my life," says Karalahti. "The others had nothing. Two things saved me: I had my sport, and I got caught. It didn't feel like it at the time, but getting caught was the best thing that could have happened to me. After that I had to make a choice between hockey and drugs."
For several years Karalahti had chosen both, leading what he calls "a double life." The middle of three boys, he grew up in a three-bedroom apartment in Tapulikaupunki, 20 minutes from downtown Helsinki. By the time he was seven, he was playing organized hockey. His father, Arto, was about 10 years into his career with the Finnish police force.
When Jere was 14, his parents divorced, and though he moved to a nearby town with his mother, Merja, he spent much of his time in Tapulikaupunki, where he hung out with his old friends and where, by his mid-teens, he and his peers found drugs readily available. "We started to run a little wild," he says. When Karalahti wasn't playing hockey, he sought excitement elsewhere. With drugs—at first marijuana, then cocaine—came a sense of daring, and he and his friends began committing small robberies. They started with cars and food markets, breaking in after nightfall. "It wasn't that we needed the money," says Karalahti. "It was more the thrill."
They especially thrilled in not getting caught, and close calls added to the rush. Karalahti recalls the time he was pulled over for speeding, the policeman writing a ticket, oblivious to the collection of tall glass bongs in the backseat. In one drug-enhanced gambol Karalahti and his crew broke into the showroom of a luxury car dealership in Helsinki. First, they drove a Porsche through the tall French doors at the front of the store. Then, disgusted at the unsightly dents in the car, they left it on the sidewalk, went back into the showroom and drove another sports car through the gaping hole.
All the while Karalahti excelled in the Finnish hockey amateur ranks, and in June 1993 the Kings selected him in the sixth round of the draft. Karalahti, then 18, remained in Finland and signed with HIFK, one of the country's elite clubs. "He was a great team guy and an awesome player," says Kimmo Timonen of the Nashville Predators. "He was my defense partner, and the way he played, you couldn't tell he had a problem with drugs."
Timonen says he got a little worried in January 1995 when he, Karalahti and the rest of Finland's junior national team came to Red Deer, Alberta, to play in the world junior championships. They arrived several days before the games began, and Karalahti immediately went AWOL. He had met some Native Americans in a bar, and they'd invited him to their reservation to get high. Karalahti went on a mind-altering binge, spending close to 48 hours drinking and smoking various drugs with his new friends. "A lot of it was just enjoying this big pipe with those guys and looking up at the sky," he says.