OULU, Finland – Mikael Granlund is to Finland what John Tavares is to Canada and Victor Hedman for Sweden. He’s the promise of a better tomorrow, in the midst of all the financial worries and a doom and gloom prophecies all around. He’s the future of Finnish hockey, he’s the outlier, a scoring phenomena in a country of goalies.
In short: he’s The Next One.
Last December, Granlund made Finland’s roster in the World U20 Championship in Canada, and finished it with three points in six games as Finland struggled to make the medal round and was sent to fight for its spot in the top division. Granlund was the second youngest player to represent Finland in the World Juniors, following in the footsteps of another Kärpät Oulu player, two-time Stanley Cup winner Reijo Ruotsalainen.
“Getting the chance to play at the World Juniors was a great experience. I learned a lot just by seeing how things work in Canada which is just crazy about hockey,” Granlund told IIHF.com.
“I got to see how I measure up against the best in the world, which was also a good lesson,” he adds.
In the Finnish junior league, Granlund was a force. He collected 21+36=57 points in 35 games, leading his team and finishing fourth in league scoring, seven points behind Juuso Rajala, who collected his 64 points in 42 games.
In the relegation series, the Kärpät number 11 has collected so far three assists. In one game.
“Mikael is a highly skilled player, his stick-handling and hands are world class. His skating straight ahead, and how he’ll be able to adapt that to the men’s league is still a question mark,” says Jari Laukkanen, the head coach of Kärpät’s major junior team.
That’s something Granlund is fully aware of.
“I have a lot of work to do, I need more strength in my legs, and even work on my skating technique,” he says.
On the other hand, the mental side, which is harder to teach, is in good shape, says Laukkanen.
“He’s got a true player’s character, meaning that the tougher the game, the better he plays,” he adds.
He only played in one game because he’s also played two games with the Kärpät junior B team that was fighting for a spot in the Finnish championship final. Granlund played the last two games of the best-of-three series, collecting 1+1=2 points in the Kärpät home game.
He missed games in the major juniors’ regular season and only played one game in the relegation series also because he made his SM-liiga debut in on February 26, on his 17th birthday, no less.
But mostly, he missed games and wound up in the centre of the attention because of what was supposed to be his third career SM-liiga game. On the eve of the game against HPK Hämeenlinna, Granlund’s representatives stopped him from playing referring to “contractual reasons”.
So much is clear. What happened before that, and why, is a lot hazier. This much we know:
Kärpät signed Granlund in 2007, then 15, to a four-year contract to the club, with a so called junior contract that basically covers all the costs of playing hockey, and gives him equipment, sticks as he needs them. When he was about to make his debut in the SM-liiga, he had to sign a special SM-liiga contract, as agreed with the league and the players association.
We also know that something went awry. Kärpät refers to the four-year contract, which the league CEO Jukka-Pekka Vuorinen also considered valid. Granlund’s agent says Kärpät was trying to pull a fast one over the youngster by making him sign in a haste, without an adult, and that the club had changed details of the contract afterwards between the signing, and their filing the contract with the league.
Instead of playing in the SM-liiga, Mikael Granlund didn’t play anywhere while his agent and the club waged a media war, instead skating on his own.
Then, about a week after the contract episode, HIFK Helsinki announced their signing with Granlund to a two-year contract, starting next season. Kärpät, outraged, vowed to fight the signing.
And in another turn of events, reminiscent of Granlund’s weaving on the ice, Kärpät announced that he would play the remainder of the season with the club’s junior teams, after all – to be able to prepare himself for the upcoming World U18 Championship in the United States.
All in all, Granlund has played a lot this season, and a week’s absence from practices didn’t show, said coach Laukkanen.
“There’s been a lot of games especially with all the national team tournaments but that’s just great, I love to play,” says Granlund who’s looking forward to the tournament in Fargo and Moorhead.
“Compared to the under-20 team, the under-18 national team is a little closer, a little tighter. We’ve basically been together since the under-16 national team, and we’re all the same age, which is not the case with the under-20,” he says.
Now that the junior B lost the semifinal, Granlund will play two games with Kärpät Junior A this weekend, then report to the Finland camp.
And if Laukkanen is right, he’ll play even better because of what happened in March. Notebook:
- TPS Turku has brought hockey fever back to Turku. The Finnish hockey giant of the 1990s has had several meager years, which has kept the fans – used to celebrating championships – home. But now they’re back. The first quarterfinal game played in Turku in three years attracted over 11,000 people to the arena, the second over 10,000, too. TPS had an average attendance of 5,139 in the regular season, 5th in the league.
- The playouts haven’t been a similar success. The four teams in the playouts have averaged just 2,008 spectators, way under the teams’ regular season average of 4,100. Ässät Pori, one loss from ending up in the qualification series against the winner of Mestis, went from over 4,000 to just 1,500 spectators in the playouts.
- Jokerit goaltender Juuso Riksman was voted MVP of the SM-liiga regular season, by Finnish hockey media. Riksman’s save percentage of 94.37 was the best in the league, and his goals against average, 1.76, second, behind JYP Jyväskylä’s Sinuhe Wallinheimo (1.68).