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Eye on Europe: Kap’tain Sammy to the rescue

Sami Kapanen played 831 NHL games totaling 189 goals and 458 points with the Flyers and Carolina/Hartford. (Getty Images)

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Sami Kapanen played 831 NHL games totaling 189 goals and 458 points with the Flyers and Carolina/Hartford. (Getty Images)

Twenty years ago, KalPa, in Kuopio, was an up-and-coming team in the Finnish SM-liiga. It was promoted to the highest division in 1986 and in 1991 finished second in the league.  It was in that season a 17-year-old Sami Kapanen made his debut and picked up three points in eight post-season games.

Three years later, Kapanen led the team in scoring and three years after that he was in the NHL.

In 1999, KalPa went bankrupt. In 2003, Kapanen acquired a majority share of the club to have something to fall back on after his NHL career was over. In 2004-05, with no NHL to distract him, Kapanen played with KalPa and again earned the team a promotion to the SM-liiga. Then he returned to the NHL again.

While Kapanen would be the last person to want the spotlight, it’s safe to say he has saved hockey in Kuopio and injected a healthy dose of optimism into the hockey of Finland.

Consider KalPa’s record in the past four seasons:

2004-05: Promoted to the SM-liiga, wins second-tier Mestis.

2005-06: Finished 14th (last place) 27 points away from, not the playoffs, but 13th place.

2006-07: Again finished in 14th with 51 points – 21 points out of the playoffs.

2007-08: Finished in 13th with 52 points –15 points from the playoffs and 38 points from eighth place.

Right now, KalPa is second in the SM-liiga, three points behind JYP, with three games left.

Kapanen, the team captain, leads KalPa in scoring with 43 points in 52 games, good for 14th in the league, even though he’s played through a few minor injuries.

“In the early 1990s, it was almost a three-line league, and the pace of the game is so much higher these days,” says Kapanen. “Also, that was still a time when hockey in Finland was just starting to be a fully professional sport. Today, it is a pro sport, and we’ve taken big steps forward on many fronts.”

“In some ways, the league is a little less colorful than before,” he added. “Fifteen years ago, there were still more players who relied on their talent and there was more individual skill, perhaps.”

Kapanen, as the chairman of the club, has turned it into a family affair: his wife is in charge of the fan merchandise, his brother is a goalie coach, and his father Hannu, a Finnish Hall of Fame player and coach, is a host in the VIP lounge on game nights.

Sami also designed a best-selling sweater and was elected athlete of the year in Kuopio.

Apparently, this guy can do anything.

“My role outside the rink has been made into a big thing, which it’s not,” explained Kapanen. “I’m a player on the team, first and foremost, and my job is to make sure I’m on the ice when there’s a game and practice. I never do anything else on a game day, but then on an off day, I’ll check my email and have meetings.”

At 35, Kapanen is still one of the speediest players in the league. His new-found energy and enthusiasm earned him an invitation to Team Finland in November, as the team captain, and his sight is set on the World Championship in Switzerland in April.

But first, the playoffs. And maybe selling season tickets for next year. 

YO, YO, SÖDERTÄLJE!
The city of Södertälje is known for Scania, the truck manufacturer headquartered there. The hockey team has been a symbol of the same rugged and hard-working attitude. But looking at the hockey club’s performance in recent years, a truck is not what comes to mind - an elevator is.

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Södertälje has gone up and down between the Elitserien and the Allsvenskan all through the 1990s and 2000s. It has played in the qualification series nine times since 1996 when they got promoted after four years in the Allsvenskan.

This season was supposed to be different. After all, the team had made progress. Kind of.

Sure, they were relegated in 2006 after two coaching changes. Head coach Leif Strömberg led the team back to Elitserien in 2007, and in 2008 the team finished ninth. This season, with the signing of Hannes Hyvönen, the leading goal-scorer in Finland last season, and Andre Benoit, who led scoring among defensemen in Finland last season, Södertälje was supposed to take the next step.

When Strömberg was fired in December, Hyvönen had already been sent elsewhere. Oh, and Södertälje had won three of their past four games and seemed to be back on track. New coach, Jim Brithen, collected just three wins in 22 games and was duly fired this week. And the new coach was? Old coach Strömberg, who’s back behind the Södertälje bench and in the relegation series for the third time in four years. 

O’ SWITZERLAND
It’s playoff time in Switzerland. The last games of the National League A were played last weekend and SC Bern finished on top of the standings after 50 games. The playoffs began Thursday with Bern and ZSC Lions - the reigning Swiss and European champions as Champions Hockey League winners - as the biggest favorites to go all the way.

Of the eight playoff-team coaches, five were born in Canada and only Davos’ Arno Del Curto is Swiss-born. SC Bern is coached by John van Boxmeer, Zurich by Sean Simpson, EV Zug by Doug Shedden, Geneva by Chris McSorley, Fribourg by Serge Pelletier, Kloten by Anders Eldebrink, a Swede, and Lugano by Hannu Virta, a Finn.

GOING APE
Former NHL coach Alpo Suhonen keeps stirring the pot in Finland. This week, the Finnish league’s disciplinary committee ruled that Ässät Pori will be handed a penalty of 10,000 Euros if “Ape,” as he’s known in Finland, continues to “behave in a manner that is detrimental to the public image of hockey and against the procedures the clubs have agreed on.”

Suhonen didn’t comment on the ruling. Except for calling the matter childish.

Eye on Europe will be featured on THN.com every Friday. Risto Pakarinen is a Finnish freelance writer, based in Stockholm, Sweden who also writes for NHL.com and IIHF.com. When not writing about European hockey on THN, he's probably writing about hockey at ristopakarinen.com/hockey as Puckarinen. 

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