Finland has always punched above its weight in hockey. The nation of 5.5 million people – roughly the same number as the state of Minnesota and about a million fewer than the Greater Toronto Area – has won six medals at the Olympics, 13 at the World Championships, and 14 at the World Juniors, including four golds, most recently on home ice in 2016.
The first NHL player from Finland was Matti Hagman, who made his debut for the Boston Bruins in 1976, and the godfathers are Teemu Selanne and Jari Kurri, both Hall of Fame players and the second- and third-leading European scorers in NHL history, respectively, behind Jaromir Jagr.
At the start of the 2018-19 season, Finland had 48 players in the NHL, ranked fourth in the NHL, wedged between neighbours and rivals Sweden (third) and Russia (fifth). Jyrki Lumme, the Montreal Canadiens’ third-round pick in 1986 who made his debut in 1988, was the first Finnish Canadien, and the most beloved was Saku Koivu, an emotional leader in Montreal for 13 seasons and captain for 10. Koivu is tenth on the Canadiens’ all-time scoring list, the only player not from Canada in the team’s top ten.
In 2018-19, there’s a Finnish invasion in Montreal. There have been 12 Finns in Canadiens history (representing 1.4 percent of players who’ve ever worn the sweater) and a third of them are on the roster now, enough for the team chef to be stocking grillimakkara and karjalanpiirakka. The oldest is goalie Antti Niemi and the youngest is future number one centre Jesperi Kotkaniemi.
Not to be confused with Antti Niemi, the Finnish soccer goalie who played professionally in England and Scotland, hockey’s Antti Niemi is a native of Vantaa, just north of Helsinki. He went undrafted but left the Lahti Pelicans of the Finnish Elite League in 2008 to sign with the Chicago Blackhawks, who he backstopped to a championship in 2010, becoming the first Finnish goalie to win the Stanley Cup. He decamped to the San Jose Sharks that offseason and after stints with the Dallas Stars, Pittsburgh Penguins and Florida Panthers, he was picked up on waivers by the Canadiens in November 2017.
In 2017-18, Carey Price’s backup and the winner of an Olympic bronze medal from the 2014 Sochi Olympics had a 7-5-0 record with a 2.46 goals-against average (GAA) and .929 save percentage (SV%). Niemi was also named the Canadiens’ nominee for the Bill Masterton Trophy, awarded to the player who best exemplifies the qualities of perseverance, sportsmanship, and dedication to hockey.
This season the 35-year-old has a solid 4-2-0 record, despite a goals-against average of 3.74 and a save percentage of .887, both well behind his career averages. Niemi, who has 238 career wins and 36 shutouts, is more than earning his modest salary as a reliable presence in the crease and a mentor to his young countrymen.
Currently out for an extended period with a knee injury suffered on Nov. 6 against the New York Rangers, Joel Armia was acquired from the Winnipeg Jets with goalie Steve Mason, a seventh-round draft pick in 2019, and a fourth-round pick in 2020, for defenseman Simon Bourque.
The 6-foot-4, 210-pound right-winger averaged 12:36 in ice time, with 12 goals, 29 points and a plus-3 in 79 games last season with the Jets. Playoff pressure didn’t faze Armia; he led the Jets forwards with a Corsi percentage of 60.7 as they reached the Western Conference Final. Only two players had a better percentage in the 2018 playoffs.
In 2013, two years after the Buffalo Sabres made him their first-round draft pick, Armia played in his third World Junior tournament and helped Assat win the Finnish Elite League championship. He played one game for the Sabres in December 2014 before being traded to Winnipeg in the Evander Kane deal in 2015.
This season, Armia, 25, had three goals and four assists in 15 games before the injury. While Mason was put on waivers and bought out, Armia has established himself as legitimate NHL forward who can keep the puck, kill penalties, and push the strong forecheck that the Canadiens have focused on this season.
Artturi Lekhonen was the Canadiens’ second-round pick in 2013 and was the only Finn in town when he made his Canadiens debut in 2016. The transition wasn’t too difficult for him after two years with Frolunda in the Swedish Elite League. As a rookie, he had 18 goals and impressive playoffs, but he suffered the sophomore slump in 2017-18, in part because of a back injury.
The native of Piikkio, who played in two games in Finland’s U20 SM-Liiga as a 15-year-old and starred in Turku and Kuopio before joining Frolunda, was an alternate captain on Team Suomi’s gold medal-winning World Junior team in 2014.
Lekhonen scored the game-winner and was the third star against the Calgary Flames on Nov. 15. He now has 60 points in 160 games over three seasons and the 23-year-old left-winger has proven himself to be a responsible two-way player with a heavy shot and the occasional Finnish flash of brilliance.
The third-overall pick in 2018, Jesperi Kotkaniemi became the third-youngest Canadien in history when he made his NHL debut on opening night, and he is the first NHL player born in the 2000s. He has now passed the magical ten-game mark and appears set to play a full season in Montreal.
Kotkaniemi hails from the same town as Armia and had a poster of him on his wall as a youngster. Kotkaniemi’s father was the assistant coach for Assat when they won the Finnish title with Armia and was the head coach when his son played for the team as a 17-year-old in 2017-18, scoring 10 goals and 29 points against grown men.
After a promising but fallow October, Kotkaniemi scored his first NHL goal and had his first multi-goal game on Nov. 1 against the Washington Capitals. He’s made inroads with teammates too; Kotkaniemi recently lost a bet against Niemi that he could score on him twice in a shootout before the veteran goalie could stop him twice. Experience beat youth and Kotkaniemi bought lunch, which may or may not have been grillimakkara and karjalanpiirakka – that’s sausages and savoury pastries for those uninitiated to Finnish cuisine.
Forward Finns Are In
With their natural positions lining up across a forward line, it’s conceivable that the three young Finns could be unit at some point this season.
“It would be weird to speak Finnish on the ice,” said Lehkonen when the possibility was suggested. “I hadn’t spoken Finnish on my team in four-and-a-half years and then last year when Nemo (Niemi) came in it was different. And now, all of a sudden we’ve got four Finns. It’s weird.” (from “Stu Cowan: Finnish Connection could be key for Canadiens this season,” Montreal Gazette, 09/28/2018)
Mike Ryan has written seven sports books, including Hockey Now! and Hockey Hall of Fame: Unstoppable, and one about weather phenomenon. He is covering the Montreal Canadiens from behind enemy lines in Toronto.