The New York Islanders and Finnish hockey players are hardly a match made in heaven.
Highlights have been few and far between, although different Isles editions have featured players like the 1,000-game NHL veteran Olli Jokinen, world champion Marko Kiprusoff and Stanley Cup winner Valtteri Filppula.
Players from around the world have played for the Islanders — 16 skaters and 2 goalies have been Finns. Let’s have a look at the five most interesting stories.
The Goalie: Christopher Gibson
Islanders teams have never featured a Finnish starting goalie. Christopher Gibson, although he has spent most of his Islanders days with the Bridgeport Sound Tigers of the AHL, comes closest. In 2008, at age 15, Gibson moved from Finland to play junior hockey in Canada. The Los Angeles Kings drafted him three years later, but the goalie never played a game for that team.
After Gibson’s stint in the Toronto Maple Leafs organization, the Islanders acquired him in exchange for Michael Grabner in 2015. Gibson got his first NHL start on April 5, 2016 and earned a win in a road game against the Washington Capitals. In the NHL, he has played 14 games for the Isles, collecting three wins.
Things are going swimmingly for Gibson in Bridgeport, though. In 2020, he received the club’s AHL Man of the Year award for his outstanding contributions to the Bridgeport community. “Gibson exemplifies what it means to be active and devoted to the community. Gibson has become one of the most popular players in Sound Tigers history,” the team announced on their website.
The influx of Finnish goalies to the NHL started very late — with Pasi Nurminen as the first real starter for the Atlanta Thrashers in the early 2000s — and the trend hasn’t really reached Long Island. The other Finn between the pipes? Mikko Koskinen, who played in four games for the Isles in 2011.
The Defenseman: Janne Niinimaa
Back home in Finland in the early 1990s, Janne Niinimaa was considered a true prodigy. At the tender age of 16, he played for Kärpät Oulu in the Finnish second-tier alongside seasoned veterans, enjoying responsibilities in the top defensive pairing.
The Philadelphia Flyers picked Niinimaa in the second round, 36th overall in the 1993 draft, but the youngster decided to remain in Finland. He played for Jokerit Helsinki for three seasons before making his NHL debut in a Flyers jersey on Oct. 5, 1996.
The Flyers traded Niinimaa to the Edmonton Oilers in 1998. After parts of six seasons with the Oilers, the Islanders acquired him on March 11, 2003. A good passer and a trusted power-play specialist, the defenseman played 13 games in his first Islanders season and added five appearances in the Stanley Cup playoffs.
The 2003-04 season was Niinimaa’s only full term with the Isles. In 82 games, he collected 9 goals, 28 points, and a plus-12 rating. Fun fact: he scored only three playoff goals in his career, but all of them were game-winning goals. The last one came with the Islanders in 2004; the Isles, however, were eliminated by the Tampa Bay Lightning in the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals, 4-1.
Things never started to roll for Niinimaa in 2005-06. He scored just one goal and had nine assists in 41 games when the Islanders traded him to the Dallas Stars in exchange for a tougher defenseman, John Erskine. Niinimaa totaled 136 games and 44 points with the Islanders, adding 10 games and four points in the playoffs.
Related: 5 Forgotten New York Islanders
Niinimaa’s career wasn’t without controversy. When the Flyers GM Bobby Clarke traded him in 1998, the Finn was “surprised”, to put it mildly. In 2004, when Niinimaa was an Islander, he stormed out of Finland’s World Cup team mid-tournament after a row with the coach (and one-time NHLer) Raimo Summanen.
Niinimaa spent time with the Stars (22 games) and the Montreal Canadiens (41 games) and left the NHL in 2007. A heavy metal fan, he now co-owns a concert venue in Oulu, Finland.
Untapped Potential: Raimo Helminen
For a player who became a superstar at the World Junior Championships and was a second-round choice in the NHL Entry Draft, Raimo Helminen was a major disappointment in the NHL. He never made his mark in the world’s best hockey league.
A highly skilled center and a relatively big body, Helminen rose to stardom at the 1984 WJC. He scored 11 goals and 24 points in just seven games — crushing Wayne Gretzky’s and Vladimir Ruzicka’s WJC records along the way. Team Finland finished second, and Helminen was voted tournament MVP.
The New York Rangers drafted Helminen in the second round and 35th overall in the 1984 draft. He played 87 games for the Blueshirts and tallied 46 points before a trade and a six-game stint with the Minnesota North Stars.
Due to an injury, Helminen decided to play the 1987-88 season in Finland. That was a blessing in disguise — he was able to represent Team Finland in the Olympics in Calgary. In those games, Finland pulled off their own “Miracle on Ice”, beating the mighty Soviet Union in the final game and achieving an Olympic silver medal. That medal was the Finnish senior team’s first-ever in a major international tournament.
Later in 1988, Helminen finally became an Islander. He appeared in 24 games and scored 12 points (including just one goal) before serious back problems ended his NHL career. His North American journey was bookended by 16 games (and a decent tally of 17 points) with the Isles’ AHL affiliate at the time, the Springfield Indians.
Helminen got rid of his back problems and enjoyed later stardom in the Finnish and Swedish leagues. Since retiring, Helminen has come full circle. He was appointed head coach of the Finnish U20 team in 2019.
Untapped Potential, Part II: Sean Bergenheim
A first-rounder, whose Islanders career produced just eight days of glory? That’s the story of Sean Bergenheim.
The Islanders believed in Bergenheim and used their first-round pick (22nd overall) on him in 2002, but the hard-working two-way forward didn’t make his NHL debut until Oct. 9, 2003. After that, he spent time in the AHL, Finland, Sweden, and Russia and only became a regular Islander in 2007-08.
Bergenheim enjoyed his brightest Islander days in early 2009. On Feb. 28, he scored twice in a game against the Buffalo Sabres. To top that, he soon scored a hat trick (his only in the NHL) against the New Jersey Devils. No NHL player scored more than five goals during that eight-day period. Sadly for him and the Islanders, the super form wasn’t to last.
Over five seasons, Bergenheim earned 246 NHL games, scored 40 goals, and collected 40 assists with the Islanders. He became a free agent in 2010 and signed with the Tampa Bay Lightning. He never played a playoff game with the Isles, but his NHL career highlight came during a postseason run – he scored nine goals and 11 points as Tampa Bay made their way to the Eastern Conference Final in 2011.
Bergenheim played for the Florida Panthers and Minnesota Wild before quitting the NHL in 2015. The smart guy that he is, he has excelled as a TV analyst in Finland after his playing years.
The Top Scorer: Mikko Mäkelä
Mikko Mäkelä is arguably the only Finn that’s ever been a difference-maker with the Isles. He leads all Finnish Islanders in games played, goals, assists, and points — in the regular season and the playoffs alike.
The Islanders’ fourth-round pick in 1983, the winger debuted in 1985-86 and put up pretty decent numbers in his first two seasons. But 1987-88 was the doozy — superstar Mike Bossy missed the season due to back problems, so coach Terry Simpson decided to insert the Finn on Bryan Trottier’s line.
That did the trick. Mäkelä scored 36 goals and only trailed Pat LaFontaine, who had 47 tallies. LaFontaine finished team-best with 92 points. Trottier was second (82) and Mäkelä third (76). The Isles made the playoffs and faced the New Jersey Devils. Mäkelä added a goal and five points, but the Devils took the series, 4-2.
His fall from grace was total. After his best NHL season, Mäkelä lost his scoring touch, only managing 19 goals in his next 96 games. The toughest critics called him a “cancer” and “sulkmeister” — no wonder he was eventually traded to the Los Angeles Kings in November 1989.
Things never worked out again for Mäkelä in the NHL. He moved to the Buffalo Sabres for the 1990-91 season and briefly returned with the Boston Bruins in the mid-90s, but he mainly thrived on European teams and in international play.
Mäkelä has later worked for the Banff Hockey Academy in Canada and as a part-time scout for the NHL’s Columbus Blue Jackets.
The Future: Otto Koivula, Robin Salo
Forward Leo Komarov has been the only Finnish regular on the Islanders in 2019-20. Otto Koivula, another forward, made his NHL debut but achieved little else. Gibson has been mainly playing in the AHL.
Defenseman Robin Salo, the Isles’ second-round pick from 2017, is a U18 world champion and basically the only prospect with some real potential. He is set to start his first full season in the Swedish league in 2020-21.
Despite some intriguing stories described above, Long Island has not been a hotbed for Finnish players. And as things stand, it probably won’t become one anytime soon.
Pasi Tuominen is a sportswriter based in New York City. He has covered the NHL in the USA since 2008. Originally from Finland, he is a graduate of the University of Westminster and University of Jyvaskyla. A professional writer since 1999 and the founder of East Side Media.