TAMPA — For Lightning defenseman Sami Salo, every game begins the same, with a glance to the sky and a silent salute.
The ritual is for his father.
Toivo Salo was 52 in 1995 when he died of stomach cancer, weeks before his 20-year-old son played his first professional game for TPS Turku, his hometown team in Finland.
"I was devastated," Sami said of his father missing that seminal moment.
"He was the one who put me on skates when I was 5 or 6 years old. He was the one who always after work took me to the hockey practices and games, even though he had a long day."
It just seems natural, then, that Salo pays tribute to the steel mill worker who doubled as equipment manager for his minor hockey teams and after whom he named his 9-year-old son.
After all, Salo said, "I know he's watching."
If that is so, Toivo has much of which to be proud.
Salo, 37, who this month signed a two-year, $7.5 million contract with Tampa Bay, has played 13 seasons, nine with the Canucks and four with the Senators, who in 1996 drafted him 239th out of 241 players selected.
He has 93 goals, 305 points and is plus-114 in 761 games. He played in the 2011 Stanley Cup final with Vancouver, played for Finland in three Olympics and during the 2004-05 lockout won a Swedish Elite League title with Frolunda.
None of it, Salo said recently at the Tampa Bay Times Forum, would have been possible without his father.
"Blue collar," is how he described Toivo, whose job from 6 a.m. to 5 p.m. was coating and plating pipes and railings.
Asked what he took from his father, Salo said, "His work ethic. That's been my key playing the games … always being a good work ethic. That's from my dad. He worked really long days. It didn't matter if he was tired, he still gave his best effort to take me to the rink."
Though they had a "tight" relationship, it was strictly father/son, Salo said — "We weren't really pals" — and Toivo was his son's toughest critic.
"He was really vocal about how I played," Salo said. "I played tennis as well until I was 15. There were a few games he almost made me walk from the court back home, even though I thought I played my best game but ended up losing.
"It was the same with hockey. He always criticized me, and that's what pushed me to be a better player."
Salo is there in much the same way for his son, Oliver, whose middle name, Tobias, is a takeoff on Toivo's nickname, Topi.
Salo attends Oliver's games as much as he can and revels in the skills his son shows as a forward. Salo has even been behind the bench as an assistant coach for Oliver's teams.
"The only thing I've done differently is I haven't criticized him yet," Salo said, laughing. "I haven't put expectations on him. As long as he's having fun and he meets new friends, I'm happy."
There are plenty of expectations on Salo.
He is expected to help solidify Tampa Bay's blue line, and his booming right-hand shot should boost a power play that last season was one of the league's worst.
Salo and his wife, Johanna, recently were in town looking at houses and schools for Oliver and daughters Julia, 14, and Peppi, 6. But before the family relocates from Finland for the season, there is a necessary chore.
"In the summertime we try to go to (Toivo's) grave and put flowers on a weekly basis," Salo said. "I'm just grateful for the opportunities he gave me to play hockey and that he pushed me down the right path."
A quick look skyward before every game says the same thing.
Damian Cristodero can be reached at [email protected]