From a 1949 Calder Trophy winner to a 2019 second-overall pick, the history of the New York Rangers features 16 Finnish players — 14 skaters and two goalies. Now that rookie Kaapo Kakko’s NHL career seems to be a work in progress, let’s have a look at the top Finnish-born players to wear the famous Ranger colors.
The Goalie: Antti Raanta
Raanta is the only Finnish goalie to make any kind of mark with the Rangers. He served as Henrik Lundqvist’s backup for two seasons, playing 55 games for the team and recording 27 wins.
It was cool to live in New York for a couple of years. I have many good memories, the best of which must be my debut. In my first game as a Ranger, I shut out the San Jose Sharks. I’ll never forget that day”Antti Raanta in 2017
Raanta, along with Derek Stepan, was traded to the Arizona Coyotes for Tony DeAngelo in June 2017. Raanta has suffered from injuries and been unable to take the starter’s role. The other Finnish goalie on Broadway? Jussi Markkanen, who played 26 games in 2003-04.
The Record Holder: Mikko Leinonen
Not many will remember the mustachioed center of the 1980s, but Leinonen still has a remarkable record to his name. In April 1982, he became the first NHL player ever to record six assists in a playoff game. A guy called Wayne Gretzky matched the record in 1987.
Over three seasons, Leinonen played 159 games for the Rangers and collected 108 points. He added 19 games and 13 points in the Stanley Cup playoffs. He was dealt to the Washington Capitals in 1984.
Leinonen retired as a player in 1987 and later became a successful club executive with Tappara Tampere. He served as the managing director until the end of 2019.
The Calder Trophy Winner: Pentti Lund
Pentti Lund’s family moved to Canada in the early 1930s. He made his NHL debut in 1947 as a Boston Bruin. Thanks to a low number of games, the forward was still considered a rookie in his first season with Rangers, 1948-49. And what a season it was — he became the first Finnish-born player to score a goal in the NHL and won the Calder Trophy as the season’s top rookie. A year later, he became the leading scorer in the Stanley Cup playoffs with 11 points.
Related: Best Rookie Seasons in NHL History
Lund played for the Rangers in 182 NHL games and 12 playoff contests. He recorded 77 and 11 points, respectively. After his playing career, he became a sportswriter. He passed away in 2013.
The All-Star: Reijo Ruotsalainen
If skating wasn’t an art form before, it certainly became one as soon as Ruotsalainen put a pair of blades on. This guy skated like a god. Listed at only 5-foot-8, he could hold his own in a league that was much tougher than it is now. Amazingly, he could play as a defenseman and a forward.
No other Finn has played as many games or recorded as many points while playing for the Rangers. Ruotsalainen played 389 NHL games (316 points) and had 43 playoff outings (27 points) as a Ranger. He represented the team in the All-Star Game of 1986.
Despite the achievements, Phil Esposito wasn’t a fan of Ruotsalainen. Soon after Esposito started work as the general manager, Ruotsalainen was gone. Later, he won two Stanley Cups with the Edmonton Oilers. He played for several clubs in the NHL, Switzerland, Sweden, and Finland before retiring in 1998.
Today, Ruotsalainen coaches a team called Kiekko-Vantaa in the Finnish second league. He is a controversial figure in his native Finland, mainly because of his club-hopping and religious views. But did I mention he was a great skater?
The Stanley Cup Winner: Esa Tikkanen
Tikkanen played for the Rangers not once, not twice but three times. In 1994, he became the first (and still the only) Finnish player to win the Stanley Cup with the Rangers. He really knew what it took to win — by then, he already had four cup rings. A relentless forechecker and scorer of many clutch goals, he could also drive opponents mad — and sometimes teammates, too — with his gibberish known as Tiki Talk.
Winning the Stanley Cup at Madison Square Garden was a unique experience, like the birth of my first child. New York City went nuts. Everybody was shouting ‘nineteen forty’, referring to the previous victory. Although I traveled a lot during my career, I felt at home in New York.Esa Tikkanen in 2019
Tikkanen played 144 NHL games as a Ranger and scored 67 points. In the Stanley Cup playoffs, he recorded 20 points in 38 contests.
On the Horizon: Lauri Pajuniemi, Tarmo Reunanen, Leevi Aaltonen
Forward Lauri Pajuniemi has really found the scoring touch in the Liiga this year, leading his team TPS Turku with 25 goals. A TPS Turku product just like Kakko and Pajuniemi, defenseman Tarmo Reunanen now calls the NHL a realistic goal. Last fall, he took part in the Rangers training camp but didn’t make the cut. Forward Leevi Aaltonen, for his part, plays for KalPa in the Finnish Liiga. The fifth-round selection from 2019 is still years away from the NHL.
The Rangers have a rich history of Finnish players ranging from the 1940s to the present day. Although big-time hits have been few and far between, there may be great things in the offing. Kakko, the second-overall pick from 2019, is the spearhead in what could become a Finnish invasion on Broadway.
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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.