Finnish players have been part of the NHL for years, but things were different in 1982-83 when just 13 Finns played in the league — and a forward named Jukka Porvari became the first Finn to wear the colors of the New Jersey Devils.
The New Jersey Devils have featured 17 Finns — 15 skaters and two goalies. Those numbers are relatively low, even if you bear in mind that most Finnish hockey players were part-timers until the 1990s when the player flow to North America really began.
Nevertheless, fans have been able to enjoy some interesting characters from Finland and there’s more to come. Let’s have a look at the Finnish involvement in New Jersey:
Most Games: Sami Vatanen
A mobile and smart defenseman, Vatanen never really met the expectations of his first NHL club, the Anaheim Ducks. The Devils acquired him in exchange for Adam Henrique in Nov. 2017. He earned a regular spot in the Devils lineup and clocked decent minutes when Taylor Hall led the way and the Devils excelled in 2017-18.
“There were some nerves, but it was surprisingly easy to come here,” Vatanen told me shortly after the trade. “I immediately got to play on the power play and penalty kill, so it felt good. Defensive play is always my top priority. And since I get a lot of offensive-zone time, I’m supposed to score some points, too.”
In 2018-19, there wasn’t much to write home about. Vatanen’s play was underwhelming on too many nights and then he got injured. He played his best in 2019-20, his contract year, adding urgency and poise to his play. The new approach resulted in five goals and 23 points in 47 games. The right-hand shot was soon in high demand and was acquired by the Carolina Hurricanes on deadline day, Feb. 24, 2020.
Vatanen played 154 games with the Devils, recording 12 goals and 68 points. In the spring of 2018, he played four games and scored a goal in the Stanley Cup playoffs before suffering an injury after being hit by Nikita Kucherov.
Most Points: Tapio Levo
In 1981, when the club was still known as the Colorado Rockies, three Finns joined the team: forwards Veli-Pekka Ketola and Jukka Porvari, and defenseman Tapio Levo. Ketola never wore a Devils uniform, whereas Porvari and Levo played for the team after the 1982 relocation, too.
Levo took the NHL by storm. Although the Rockies finished at bottom of the league, he recorded nine goals and 22 points in 34 games in his first season. The next season, now in the brand-new Devils colors, he started with a four-assist performance against the Pittsburgh Penguins, the team that drafted him in 1975. He earned seven goals and 47 points in 73 outings. Over a two-season span, he led Devils defensemen in scoring with 16 goals and 69 points in 107 games.
Levo, nicknamed “Pratu”, decided to return to Finland after his second NHL season. General manager Billy MacMillan wasn’t happy: “We were counting on him very heavily,” MacMillan told the New York Times (from “Devils’ Levo Stays in Finland”, The New York Times – 9/24/1982). “Everybody is a loser in this. He loses, and we lose.” Levo continued playing for several years, retired in 1993 and later worked in law.
Most Games by a Forward: Tuomo Ruutu
Ruutu played 129 NHL games for the Devils, the most by a Finnish forward. He was in the latter stages of his career, after his offensive fire had gone out. He tallied just 10 goals and 22 points over three seasons.
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A first-round pick of the Chicago Blackhawks in 2001, Ruutu came to the NHL two years later brimming with confidence and he delivered. He scored 23 goals for the Blackhawks in his rookie season, setting a mark he topped only once in his NHL career. He was moved to Carolina in 2008. Six years later, the Devils acquired him in exchange for Andrei Loktionov.
Ruutu’s New Jersey years were lean ones for the Devils, who didn’t make the playoffs once. He quit the NHL in 2016 and played one more season in Switzerland. In 2019, the New York Rangers appointed him as an assistant director of player development.
The Goalie: Hannu Kamppuri
Kamppuri could have been one of the greatest NHL success stories. A goalie of great promise, he quickly became a club icon with Jokerit Helsinki in the late 1970s. After short stints in the WHA, CHL, and Eastern Hockey League, he returned to Finland. Two national championships (with Tappara Tampere) and a call-up to Team Finland followed.
He played for Finland at the World Championships three times in the early 1980s — mind you, Finland’s part-timers stood no chance against the professionals of the Soviet Union and Czechoslovakia during that era — and arrived in New Jersey for the 1984-85 season. He was done after one win and terrible stats in 13 NHL games. He briefly played in the AHL and IHL then flew back to Finland for good.
After his North American journey, Kamppuri played five more seasons in the Finnish league and twice represented his country at the Worlds. He retired in 1990 and started working in the finance industry.
The Future: Janne Kuokkanen and Aarne Talvitie
Many thought Kuokkanen was a deal-sweetener when he was acquired from the Hurricanes in exchange for Vatanen on Feb. 24. Devils interim general manager Tom Fitzgerald was quick to downplay that notion.
”We wouldn’t have done it if he wasn’t included,” Fitzgerald said on the Devils website. “We thought he was their (Carolina’s) top prospect in the American League. He’s got skill, he’s smart, he’s got a good size, he’s won a Calder Cup, so he’s got some pedigree there.”
Kuokkanen, a winger born in 1998, made his Devils debut on March 10, 2020 after 11 games in Carolina. With the Charlotte Checkers, he recorded 38 goals 126 points in 164 AHL games.
Talvitie (born 1999) is also worth noting. Team Finland won the World Junior Championship in 2019 when Talvitie was their captain. In the last two seasons, the two-way forward has been honing his skills with the NCAA’s Penn State. Another offensive prospect, Eetu Päkkilä, spent the 2019-20 season in Finland, scoring his first six Liiga goals. Born in 1999 like Talvitie, he was the Devils’ seventh-round draft choice in 2018.
New Jersey has hardly been a hotbed for Finnish hockey players, but thanks to prospects like Kuokkanen and Talvitie, that might change. The Devils will rely on Jack Hughes’ and Nico Hischier’s offensive prowess for years to come, but the Finnish up-and-comers have the ability to become members of the all-important supporting cast.
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.