KUOPIO, Finland – Sami Kapanen spent a few midsummers – those weekends in June when the sun doesn’t go down in Finland – waiting for the NHL Entry Draft. And for many years, he was disappointed, but gritted his teeth and got back to work.
In the summer of 1995, a month after winning the World Championship gold medal that sent an entire nation to a frenzy, with and hundreds of thousands of people in different cities celebrating their heroes, Hartford Whalers GM Jim Rutherford made Sami Kapanen a happy young man by picking him in the 1995 NHL Entry Draft as the Whalers fourth pick, 87th overall.
The deadline for signing an NHL contract for that season was looming, so Kapanen had to move fast. That’s never been a problem to him, the winner of the NHL All-Star Game’s fastest skater competition in 2000 and 2002.
And yet, he’s got his feet firmly planted on the ground. So firmly, that when he left Finland for the NHL, his goal was to last a year, and prove to people he could play at that level.
Thirteen years, and over 800 NHL games later, Kapanen is back in Finland, back in Kuopio, back in the SM-liiga, and back with KalPa Kuopio. It was with this club he made his breakthrough in the 1990-91 season as a 17-year-old when then-coach (now Kärpät Oulu GM) Juha Junno gave him a chance. KalPa made it to the finals that season, but lost against TPS Turku.
Since then, KalPa has been relegated from the SM-liiga, gone bankrupt, but since 2005, played back in the top division again. Thanks to Kapanen, who first acquired the majority of the shares in 2003, then, together with co-owner Kimmo Timonen, who came back to play for the team during the lockout season in 2004-05, to clinch the SM-liiga spot.
Needles to say, much has happened in 13 years.
“The league has changed a lot,” said Kapanen to IIHF.com.
“In the early 1990s, it was almost a three-line league, and the pace of the game is so much higher these days. Also, that was still a time when hockey in Finland was just starting to be a fully professional sport. Today, it is a pro sport, and we’ve taken big steps forward on many fronts,” he says.
He says that downside of the professionalism and efficiency may be a lack of diversity and star personalities in the Finnish league. When playing a specific system is king, and defence wins championships, there’s little space for flamboyant individual players anymore.
“In some ways, the league is a little less colourful and the players are similar. Fifteen years ago, there were still more players that relied on their talent and wouldn’t stick to any cookie cutter patterns, there was more individual skill, perhaps,” he says.
“These days, the players work hard in the off-season, and continue to train hard during the regular season, and winning is a must. Defence always comes first which also restricts players. Surely, there’s still room for individual skill, but the style is different, which creates a more restrictive framework,” he adds, weighing his words carefully.
It’s almost a paradox. Hockey, and the SM-liiga with it, has gone forward in 15 years, and at the same time, many Finnish observers claim that the level of play has gone down.
“An SM-liiga team from 2008 would beat a team from 1993,” says Kapanen.
“The average player is faster and stronger now, the teams defend better as a five-man unit, everything is a little more controlled, there are fewer mistakes and, in turn, fewer scoring chances. All you have to do is watch a game from the late 1980s or early 1990s, and you can see the change in the tempo of the game,” he says.
But Kapanen enjoys being back in the SM-liiga. KalPa’s number 24 – after a boyhood idol, Sergei Makarov – is back as the team owner, captain, and star.
“It’s been a really nice fall, and my decision to come back feels right. Last season was fine, but when the minutes go down, it’s not as fun anymore, obviously. Of course, when we get to game number 37, and it’s January, and dark, it’ll be tough here as well,” he says.
Add to that that Kapanen also keeps himself busy outside the rink, at the club’s office. The chairman of the board has to take care of business, too.
“My double role has been made into a big thing, which it’s not. I’m first and foremost a player on the team, and my job is to make sure I’m on the ice when there’s a game and practice. I never do anything else on a game day, but then on an off day, I’ll check my e-mail and have meetings. Moderately,” he says.
Even 800 NHL games won’t make you a perfect GM. Not even a 1000. There are plenty of examples of that in the world, but Kapanen is willing to learn.
“It’s been interesting to see how much work goes into, for example, putting together a Thursday night home game in Kuopio. There’s a lot to do, and somebody has to do it. On a few occasions, I’ve had an epiphany and realized why some things are done the way they are. I think I have a good picture and understanding of the overall operations. It’s hard work,” he says.
And the player Kapanen has been is every bit as good as the fans were hoping for. This week, he led his team to a 3-1 win over Ässät Pori by tying the game with a shorthanded goal in the second period. In the third, KalPa scored the winning goal and held its lead to the end. Kapanen has nine points (4+5) in as many games.
“We’ve had a great beginning of the season, and we’ve managed to win those close games, which is important. But we have a lot to do and improve. Our powerplay doesn’t work at all,” he notes.
That’s just another little thing for him to fix. Notebook:
- The SM-liiga Alumni organized a charity game between Finnish hockey legends and the 1995 world champions. The legends, such as Veli-Pekka Ketola, Jari Kurri, Lasse Oksanen, and Esa Tikkanen won against the champion team, led by Raimo Helminen, Sami Kapanen, Janne Niinimaa, and Janne Ojanen. The score was 7-6, after penalty shootout.
- Kärpät vs. HIFK was postponed until January, after a stomach flu sent 15 Kärpät players to injured reserve. Kärpät recovered to play their first CHL game on Wednesday.
- Juha-Pekka Haataja (Lukko Rauma) and Toni Koivisto (Kärpät) are tied for scoring lead with 13 points. Haataja has six goals and tops the list. He was also named Player of the Month.
- Former Finland head coach Hannu Aravirta reached a major milestone last week, coaching his 600th game in the SM-liiga. He’s second on the all-time list, behind Hannu Jortikka (632). Aravirta will claim the top spot in late January.