During his playing career, Petteri Nokelainen was the epitomy of a heart-and-soul player. He was a reliable fourth-line asset for any team, and always played his best when the stakes got higher. Doing the dirty work was Nokelainen’s finest quality. Unfortunately, a warrior’s body could only take so much abuse before needing repairs. In Nokelainen’s case, this all happened way too soon.
Now 33, Nokelainen has been sidelined for almost four years. He never announced his retirement in any spectacular way, but rather dropped a few hints here and there, letting the most devoted fans know of his situation. For the longest time, he thought a return was coming. It was only after a year of rehabilitation that his back problems finally got the better of him.
Nokelainen Battling in the NHL
Born in Imatra, Finland, Nokelainen played for SaiPa in his junior years and broke into the club’s first team in 2003. From there, his stock grew rapidly and he was drafted 16th overall by the New York Islanders. At this point, Nokelainen had played for all of Finland’s national youth teams with success, lining him up perfectly for a prosperous NHL career on Long Island.
In the end, fans at Nassau Coliseum only got to see their first-round pick play in 15 games due to a knee injury. After an uninspiring season two in the AHL, Nokelainen was quickly traded to the Boston Bruins, where he stayed for a season and a half. Midway through the 2008–09 campaign, he was again on the move, as he joined Teemu Selänne and later Saku Koivu in a Finn-flavored Anaheim Ducks lineup.
He returned to Europe in 2010, but instead of SaiPa, he opted for the big-money move and signed for Jokerit Helsinki. The team continued their miserable championship drought with a quarterfinal loss, but Nokelainen did enough to earn a spot on Finland’s roster for the World Championships. To this day, the tournament marks his only appearance with the national team and the only goal he scored, though it was the game-winning goal in the final.
The successful season was enough to catapult Nokelainen back into the NHL – this time with the Phoenix Coyotes, where he had appeared briefly leading up to the Jokerit deal. Nokelainen finished off his 245-game journeyman career with the Montreal Canadiens and their AHL affiliate in Hamilton.
Europe Giving Nokelainen a Last Chance
Nokelainen’s upper body injuries began to cause some serious problems in his last two seasons in North America. In March 2012, he injured one of his ribs and shortly after recovering from the incident, he hurt his back during offseason training. This led to a full calendar year without playing. Still only 27, Nokelainen was again willing to give Europe a shot at a bounce-back season.
It was Brynäs IF in the SHL that became his next destination. Entering the team with big expectations, the Finnish centerman was supposed to be a replacement for NHL-bound Elias Lindholm. Injuries slowed Nokelainen down considerably, but he did manage ten points in 24 games.
Following the difficult season in Sweden, Nokelainen headed to Russia and Torpedo Nizhny Novgorod. The aim was clear: to stay healthy for the first time in close to three years. Unfortunately, his back had other ideas, and he was again limited to only 26 games. Despite another frustrating season, the seven goals Nokelainen scored motivated him enough to keep pushing.
It was now the summer of 2015. Nokelainen’s boyhood club SaiPa came knocking and wanted to bring their beloved journeyman back home for one more attempt at recovery. In September, his first ten matches were incredible. He was playing his best hockey in years, racking up eight points and a plus-ten rating on SaiPa’s dominant first line. Then the fans’ worst nightmare came true. Nokelainen’s back was aggrevated once more and deep down everyone knew, this could be it.
The back pain radiating into my leg was so unbearable, that I had to sleep with my feet up against a wall. No painkiller in the world can ease that kind of nerve pain. I can’t lie, it made me cry sometimes, (from Ilta-Sanomat – 10/16/2015).Nokelainen shared his experience dealing with injuries.
As expected, these ten games turned out to be Nokelainen’s last. His words tell an unfortunate truth about the world of sports. The human body ultimately has the last say, no matter how much heart you have for the game.
Viljami is a Finnish journalist who began his career writing for Jatkoaika, the biggest hockey-specific website in his home country. From there he moved on to THW to cover European hockey more extensively. Both past and future NHLers are given the spotlight in Viljami’s articles.