There are currently 43 players in the National Hockey League who hail from the country of Finland. It the most Finnish players ever to play in a single NHL season and several of them, including Colorado’s Mikko Rantanen, are flourishing. It wasn’t long ago that players from Finland were overlooked in favor of other Europeans from Russia and Sweden. Times have changed.
A Team Game Going back just a decade, the majority of Finnish-born NHL players were third- or fourth-line guys that weren’t really as talented as most of their teammates. Those older Fins were grinders, guys that milked every ounce of their talent and then overachieved. It was exactly the type of player that Finland produced at the time.
In a country of just 5.5 million, the gene pool is not vast. While there were surely some extremely talented hockey players in Finland, players learned a team game. One teammate was good at passing while another was the superior shooter. Finland taught a team game. They didn’t teach players how to be superstars and it was evident…until the 2010s.
The Change In 2009, the Finnish Ice Hockey Association held a summit to overhaul hockey in the country. A large group of former players, coaches, scouts, and more met to advance Finnish hockey. The Russians and Swedes were attractive to NHL teams because they were known for something. Swedish players were known as great skaters and the Russians were known for their skills. Following their lead, Finland decided to focus on improving individual skills especially among those players who showed the most promise.
The results, of course, have transformed hockey in Finland. More players are playing in the NHL, in Russia’s KHL, and in professional leagues around Europe. The International Hockey Federation reports that 76,000 players were registered to play hockey in 2017-18. That is 10,000 more than just six years ago.
The Best of the Best The Finnish invasion has given the NHL its current points leader in Colorado’s Rantanen. Through 17 games, the 22-year-old has 26 points (6 goals, 20 assists) and he is a big reason why the Avalanche should challenge for a playoff spot later this season.
Rantanen is not the only Fin in the top 10 in scoring. Carolina’s Sebastian Aho is just 21 and is in his second NHL season. Aho is tied for seventh in the league in scoring with 22 points (5 goals, 17 assists) and he is a big part of the resurgence of the Hurricanes this season. Winnipeg’s Patrik Laine is off to a slow start (8 goals, 2 assists, 10 points) but challenged Alex Ovechkin for the Richard Trophy as the league’s leading goal scorer last season when he finished with 44 goals.
Kasperi Kapanen has fit in well in Toronto and Henri Jokiharju and Miro Heiskanen, a pair of 19-year-old defensemen, prove that Finland hockey isn’t all about forwards and goaltenders. Jokiharju and Heiskanen will both likely be nominated for the league’s Calder Memorial Trophy given annually to the NHL rookie of the year.
As the success of Finnish players in the NHL continues, participation in the country will rise as it has over the past five to six years. The 43 Finnish NHL players in 2018-19 is likely just the beginning of an even bigger invasion.