The CHL Import Draft has become a global success by connecting Canadian junior hockey to the world. For one Nordic country, though, an influx of players over the last five seasons is benefitting both that country and Canadian hockey, specifically the Ontario Hockey League.
From 2012 to 2016, Finland has had 23 players selected by the OHL during the Canadian Hockey League Import Draft, including 14 alone between 2015 and 2016. It’s more than the OHL saw from the first draft in 1992 until 2011, total (that was 22). It’s become a Finn-vasion, but the question becomes, how did we get here?
CHL Import Draft Creates Opportunity
In 1992, the CHL introduced the Import Draft. It allowed teams across Canada to select one or two players born outside of Canada or the United States for their rosters. This gave an opportunity for teams to network with countries worldwide, finding the best players available and getting them ready for both the North American game, and more specifically, the NHL.
While Finland had players drafted to the CHL in the early draft years, it wasn’t until 1998 that Finland had its first player come to the OHL in forward Samu Isosalo. He played 107 games for the North Bay Centennials from 1998-99 through 1999-00, scoring 30 goals and 37 assists. He then returned to Finland for the rest of his hockey career. From 1998 until 2009, more Finnish players made the trek to the OHL and the CHL, but the numbers should have been higher. Finnish hockey knew something was wrong and changes were necessary.
Finnish Hockey Re-Developed
In 2009, the Finnish Ice Hockey Association held a summit and started changing the way they developed players, by developing individual player skills and not just the team game. Emphasis was put on how to be a professional both on and off the ice. The result has been an explosion of talent coming out of the Nordic nation with many coming to the OHL. One of the biggest names to come out since the changes was London Knights defenceman Olli Maatta, who now plays for the Pittsburgh Penguins. He was chosen first overall in the 2011 CHL Import Draft and since that point, it’s become even busier.
During the 2015 CHL Import Draft, six Finnish-born players were selected by OHL teams, including…
- Detroit Red Wings defensive prospect Vili Saarijarvi, (59 games, 12 goals, 31 assists and 43 points with Flint, traded to the Mississauga Steelheads for 2016-17)
- Defenceman Olli Juolevi (59 games, 10 goals, 34 assists and 44 points for the London Knights (OHL) – first-round pick by the Vancouver Canucks in the 2016 NHL Draft)
- Forward Julius Nattinen (52 games, 22 goals, 49 assists and 71 points for the Barrie Colts (OHL) – drafted by the Anaheim Ducks in the second round in the 2015 NHL Draft, dealt to Windsor Spitfires (OHL) for 2016-17 season)
- Defenceman Markus Niemelainen (69 games, one goal, 26 assists and 27 points for the Saginaw Spirit to date (OHL) – Edmonton Oiler third-round pick in the 2016 NHL Draft)
- Forward Jonne Tammela (37 games, five goals, eight assists and 13 points for KalPa Kuopio Finland; expected to play for the Peterborough Petes (OHL) in 2016-17, drafted by the Tampa Bay Lightning in the fourth round of the 2015 NHL Entry Draft. He wanted to play in OHL in 2015-16, but had contract obligations in Finland).
- Second overall pick in the 2016 NHL Draft, forward Patrik Laine, selected by the Sarnia Sting but chose to stay in Finland to play for Tappara Tampere in 2015-16.
Here is an interview with Niemelainen after being drafted by Edmonton:
The OHL saw an even bigger boom in Finnish players during the 2016 CHL Import Draft with eight players chosen, four of whom are currently on rosters:
- Forward Otto Makinen (Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds)
- Forward Linus Nyman (Kingston Frontenacs)
- Forward Janne Kuokkanen (London Knights)
- Defenceman Eemeli Rasanen (Kingston Frontenacs).
The remaining four players who are not in the OHL this season Eelie Tolvanen (USHL), Urho Vaakanainen (JYP – Liiga – Finland), Kristian Vesalainen (Frolunda – Sweden) and Robin Salo (Sport – Liiga – Finland).
Making an impact on a new league is tough for anyone, let alone a young hockey player. However, the four that have come to the OHL for 2016-17 have already shown a knack for the net. Nyman and Rasanen each have nearly a point-per-game average with Kingston while Kuokkanen has done the same in London and Makinen has three points in seven games for Sault Ste. Marie.
OHL and Finland Creating Exciting Relationship
The CHL Import Draft was designed to give players from around the world a chance to develop their skills on North American ice in hopes of preparing them for the NHL. While it has been a long time coming, Finland and the OHL have developed a great relationship, bringing players to Ontario and allowing them to live their dream.
While some players, such as Laine, stayed in Finland and found great success, the trend is more Finns coming over and playing in the OHL. This can only be beneficial for everyone involved. Finnish hockey has become something the country can be proud of, OHL players get even more elite talent to play against and the fans get a taste of Finnish hockey.
In the 80s and 90s, Finnish hockey greats such as Teemu Selanne and Jari Kurri showed the world what Finnish hockey was all about. Now, players like Juolevi, Nattinen and Saarijarvi are getting ready to become the next generation of Finnish hockey stars and they’re coming to the OHL to show what they can do.