It’s how you Finnish: A historical look at the Florida Panthers connection to players from Finland

From Esa Tikkanen to Aleksander Barkov, the Cats love their Finns

While over 70% of players in the NHL call North America home (43% Canada, 28% USA), the 2020-21 season saw at least one player from 18 different countries set foot on the ice. However, this hasn’t always been the case. Though formed in 1917, the league didn’t see its first overseas skaters until the mid to late 1960s. Ulf Sterner would be the NHL’s first European-trained import.

His hockey career in Sweden started in 1956 at age 15, and he would play until 1978, but in 1964, he made a stop over in North America to attend a second training camp (he declined a try-out offer the prior season) with the New York Rangers, who signed him to a contract and started him off in the minors. Sterner found early success, scoring 12 goals and 9 assists In 16 games for the St. Paul Rangers of Central Professional Hockey League, earning a promotion to the AHL’s Baltimore Clippers.  He made his NHL debut on January 27, 1965 against the Boston Bruins and would end up appearing in a total of four statistically-unremarkable games at left wing for the New York Rangers, putting up no points. He finished off the season with the Clippers, totaling 18 goals and 26 assists in 44 games played,

While praised for his stickhandling skills, his demotion to the minors and subsequent return home to join Rögle BK was partly because he was both reluctant to and incapable of playing the physical style of hockey that existed in the North American game.

At the time, the existing rules in the IIHF limited physical play. Defensemen were allowed to body check attackers while behind their own blue line, but forwards were not allowed to hit defensemen in their own zone, and the neutral zone was completely off limits to hitting. As such, international players weren’t mentally or physically accustomed to a full 60 minutes of physical play over all three zones.

In 1969, to align the leagues, the IIHF implemented the same body-checking rules that existed in North American hockey. This helped open the door to international players being better trained and prepared for the type of physical play that existed in the NHL.

While Sterner had been the first to come over, the man who helped put Europeans on the NHL map, was defenseman Borje Salming. Salming played 17 seasons in the league, from 1973 to 1990 - the first 16 of those with Toronto before finishing off his NHL carrer in Detroit. He would rack up 787 points over 1148 games, which still stands as the record for most points by an undrafted defenseman in NHL history.

Those two influential players came out of Sweden, who currently sits 3rd on the list of active representation in the NHL at 10%, and right behind Sweden in 4th place is Finland at 6%.

Home to 5.5 million people, Finland is said to be a happy and safe place to live, has more water and forests than anywhere else in Europe, is a good place to see the Northern Lights, boasts nearly as many saunas as it has citizens (3+ million), and is home to heavy metal, the Angry Birds, Santa Claus, and the easily-pronounced word epäjärjestelmällistyttämättömyydelläänsäkäänköhän.

Finland is a country of many sports, such as wife carrying, mobile phone throwing, and air guitar, but with five men’s and three women’s higher-end leagues, as well as multiple junior leagues, overall viewership and game attendance makes hockey the number one sport in the country.

Finland has produced some highly-talented players over the years, but paving the way for the likes of Teemu Selanne and Saku Koivu, was the first Finnish-born player to play in the NHL, Matti Hagman. Hagman entered the league in 1976 and played 237 games over seven seasons for two different teams - Boston (under coach Don Cherry) and Edmonton, where he played left wing on a line with Mark Messier and Glenn Anderson. He also played 53 games in the WHA with the Quebec Nordiques, who purchased his contract from the Bruins for the remainder of the 1977-78 season.

Bringing this historical context closer to home, on December 5th, 1979 Matti’s son Niklas was born, and twenty years later was selected by the Florida Panthers in the third round (70th overall) of the 1999 NHL Entry Draft. Niklas would play 263 games over four seasons for the Cats, amassing 30 goals and 50 assists for a tidy total of 80 points.

Hagman was the first Finnish-born player drafted by the Florida Panthers to actually play games for the franchise, but he was not the first in other respects. Hagman was the second Finnish player selected in Florida’s draft history, and the third Finnish roster player in team history.

The first Finnish player drafted by the Cats was Tero Lehtera, taken in the tenth round (235th overall) of the 1994 draft. Tero (uncle of the better known Jori Lehtera) never suited up for the Panthers, or any team in the NHL. Aside from one season (1988-89) playing for the IHL’s Fort Wayne Komets, he spent his entire career overseas, mainly in his home country of Finland, with some time spent in Swedish and Russian leagues.

The first Finnish-born player to actually suit up for the Panthers was Esa Tikkanen, who had been drafted by the Edmonton Oilers in 1983. Tikkanen moved seven times, playing for six different teams in his final four seasons of his NHL career (St. Louis, New Jersey, Vancouver, New York Rangers, Florida, Washington, and the Rangers again). A then 32-year-old Tikkanen was signed as a free agent for the 1997-98 season but only skated in 28 games (1G/8A) before being traded to the Washington Capitals for a return not worth mentioning. Tikkanen scored 630 points in 877 games over 14 NHL seasons, finished top three in Selke Trophy voting on three separate occasions, and won five Stanley Cups, but is not in the Hockey Hall of Fame.

The second player from Finland to play for the Panthers had a much longer and much more productive run with the team. Olli Jokinen was drafted third overall by the Los Angeles Kings in the 1997 NHL Entry Draft. He had a slow start to his career, playing eight games that year with no points. In the 1998-99 season he played 66 games for the Kings, scoring nine goals and 12 assists. In the offseason, Jokinen plus a first round pick was Los Angeles’ centerpiece in a combined six-player, two-draft pick trade with the New York Islanders that brought Zigmund Palffy and Bryan Smolinski to the Kings.

After a single season playing for the Islanders, where Jokinen once again tallied 21 points (11G/10A), this time in 80 games, Mike Milbury decided he’d rather have Mark Parrish and Oleg Kvasha instead of Jokinen and Roberto Luongo. Parrish, who was coming off a 26-goal campaign, put up a respectable 214 points in 345 games for the Isles, while Kvasha was mostly a flop. Recently, Parrish was asked what he remembered about the trade twenty years after the fact, and he said even as a 22-year-old kid in his second NHL season, he knew it was a terrible trade by the Islanders. Butch Goring who was the Islanders coach at the time of the trade, tweeted a response to Parrish saying he knew it was bad, too!

Jokinen’s play didn’t take off immediately in Florida. He posted 16 points (6G/10A) in his first season and 29 (9G/20A) in the second. Facing criticism over being a bust, he considered leaving the NHL to return home to Finland. The following season Jokinen broke out and started a run of five years of the best hockey he’d play in his career. Over the seven seasons he played in Florida, he wore the “C” for four of them, survived slicing Richard Zednik’s neck open, and missed only seven games, putting up 188 goals and 241 assists, highlighted by a 39-goal, 91-point season in 2006-07 which sits as the fifth-highest point total in franchise history, and the most goals scored in a single season by a Panther not named Pavel Bure.

Overlapping Jokinen’s time in Florida and looking beyond it, there have been a mixture of notable fan favorites with successful runs, forgettable short stints by some, and yet others whose names might not even ring a distant bell. A pair of Ville’s played consecutively, with Peltonen putting up 88 points over 207 games from 2006-2009, and then Koistinen notched four points in 17 games during the 2009-10 season. Sean Bergenheim and Jussi Jokinen enjoyed personal success here as Bergenheim played 163 games between 2011-2015, scoring 70 points, while Jokinen played 231 games between 2014-17, putting up 132 points. Erik Haula had a rather forgettable seven-game stop for the Panthers in 2019-20, adding only two assists.

Honorable mentions go to Ivan Majesky who was born in Slovakia but was drafted out of SM-Liiga by the Panthers, playing a full 82-game slate in 2002-03 before suiting up in a Atlanta Thrashers uniform for 63 games the following season (shout out to Zim-ajesky!), Henrik Haapala who’s name simply holds Recency bias, and Henrik Borgstrom, who we wish well in Chicago, but not too well.

On the goalie side of things, only three Finnish players have suited up in net for the team in its history. The not so exciting story of a near-the-end-of-a-career Antti Niemi, who played all of two games, giving up five goals on 39 shots in 2017-18, and the happier side of things with Harri Sateri who put together a feel-good, four-game winning streak while both James Reimer and Roberto Luongo were out injured in that same 2017-18 season. Those two recent Finnish keepers followed the first, Jani Hurme, who played 28 games way back in 2002-03 and posted a 4-11-6 record and one shutout.

In 2020-21, the Cats were tied for second in the league in Finnish representation, employing five of the 59 active roster players (8.5%). The two other teams with five players from Finland hitting the ice for at least one game were the Montreal Canadiens and Dallas Stars, while the Nashville Predators led the way with six.

Looking back, in the twenty entry drafts between 1993 and 2012, the Panthers selected five Finnish players, with a seven-consecutive-draft-year-drought starting in 2003 broken by the selection of Joonas Donskoi in 2010. That selection didn’t pan out so well for the team, but the more recent crop of Finnish players drafted looks more promising, led by the well-established star Aleksander Barkov and the exciting potential from his protégé-to-be, Anton Lundell.