With three days until preseason puck drop, the 2019-20 edition of the Finnish Liiga is just around the corner. This season should be exciting, as fans will get to enjoy all of the Liiga’s biggest stars right from the get-go. Last season, veterans Jussi Jokinen and Lauri Korpikoski only showed a glimpse of their skillset, due to a limited number of games played.
Other familiar NHL faces in 2019-20 include Ryan Wilson, Lasse Kukkonen and Lennart Petrell. In recent years, Finland has done a fantastic job of producing young talent but has also lost a lot of it elsewhere in Europe. This has given Liiga somewhat of a development league image. These five veterans play an important part in retaining the league’s quality and attracting more established players in the future.
Jussi Jokinen, 36, Kärpät Oulu
Jokinen played 951 NHL games with nine different organizations, scoring 563 points. He was traded three times in his last season, which meant it was time to return to Europe for 2018-19. He played only seven games for EHC Kloten in Switzerland, as he was still waiting for an offer from the NHL. It never came, so he headed back to Finland to finish the season.
Jokinen initiated the move by calling Kärpät Oulu’s chairman and asking for a spot on their roster. He played for Kärpät in his junior years and even won two championships with the men’s team before joining the Dallas Stars in 2005. He is well-liked in Oulu, so an opportunity to bring him back was a no-brainer for the club.
Jokinen was on fire the moment he stepped on the ice, scoring 20 points in Kärpät’s 14 remaining regular-season games. Unfortunately, he slowed down quite a bit in the playoffs and the team was unable to bring home the title many were expecting. In June, Jokinen signed a two-year extension with Kärpät. His journeyman days are now over and he is ready to settle down in Oulu.
Lauri Korpikoski, 33, TPS Turku
Korpikoski’s NHL career lasted 609 games. He scored 201 points with five different organizations, before heading to Switzerland in 2017. Although his team, the Zürich Lions, was crowned champions at the end of the season, for Korpikoski the campaign was difficult. His regular season was cut short because of injuries, and it didn’t get easier for him in the playoffs.
He went through early stages of IBD (Inflammatory Bowel Disease) during the postseason but didn’t suspect anything serious at the time. In May, he was diagnosed and decided to move back to Finland with his family. Korpikoski joined his hometown club TPS Turku on a massive six-year contract and was also named the captain.
The 2018-19 preseason came and Korpikoski was ready to play again despite his illness. Unfortunately, his bad luck continued, as he suffered Myocarditis (an inflammation of the heart muscle) after coming back from a Champions Hockey League road trip in September. Recovering from both setbacks was tough on his body but he returned to training slowly after Christmas.
He played seven games at the end of the season and is currently healthy and training with TPS.
Ryan Wilson, 32, KalPa Kuopio
Wilson played 230 games with the Colorado Avalanche between 2009-2015. His NHL career was slowed down by injuries, which was frustrating knowing the kind of impact he could have. After leaving the NHL, Wilson visited the KHL and Swiss league before signing with KalPa Kuopio in the Liiga.
Wilson has been good for KalPa. He is starting his third season with the club, after signing a two-year extension in July of 2018. So far, Wilson’s 99 games have produced only two goals, but defensively he has played a large role. Some fans are also expecting him to be named one of the captains, as he’s already worn the ‘A’ on his jersey as a stand-in.
Lasse Kukkonen, 37, Kärpät Oulu
It’s been a while since Kukkonen played in the NHL, but Philadelphia Flyers and Chicago Blackhawks fans will remember him as the prototypical defensive defenseman. His 159 games were not flashy, but he got the job done on the third pairing. After being sent to the minors in 2009, the 27-year-old Finn returned to Europe. He spent three seasons in the KHL and one in the SHL, proving himself to be one of Europe’s best in his role.
Kärpät re-acquired Kukkonen in 2013. He was born in Oulu and played his junior years for the same organization, so a move home was a logical choice. He was the Kärpät captain before he left for the NHL, and received the honor again on his return. Year after year, he’s honed the stay-at-home defenseman’s craft, which has made him a household name in Finland.
Now 37, Kukkonen is still the coach’s first choice for a last-minute penalty kill. His style is so rock-solid that not a single national team coach passed on him for ten years straight. Last season, the streak finally came to an end.
Lennart Petrell, 35, HIFK Helsinki
Petrell played 95 games in the NHL with the Edmonton Oilers. He is a large winger (6-foot-3, 209 pounds), and thus worked perfectly in a fourth-line grinder role. His strengths have always been his physicality and penalty killing ability, although he does have a scoring touch. He sits at 115 goals in 538 Finnish league games.
In Europe, Petrell has won both the Finnish championship as well as the Champions Hockey League title. The following season will also be his third as the HIFK Helsinki captain. HIFK is the team he’s always played for in Finland, even before the NHL. After visiting North America, Switzerland and Sweden from 2011-2016, Petrell’s role in HIFK has diminished, however. He is expected to start on the team’s fourth line, mentoring young talents such as Niklas Nordgren, Anton Lundell and Brad Lambert.
With all five players, their leadership stands out as a common denominator. NHL experience is hard to come by, and it’s something every coach wishes they had in the locker room. Not only for the skill but for instilling professionalism, attitude and attention to detail on younger members of the squad.