Admit it. You were a little misty-eyed watching Teemu Selanne at the 2014 Olympics. At 43, he had us choked up, winning the tournament MVP award and leading injury-depleted Finland to a bronze medal. It was just one more feat heaped upon a mountain of them and it was what we’ve come to expect from one of the game’s classiest veterans since he exploded onto the scene in 1992-93.
Selanne the rookie was a true revelation. He embarrassed the NHL’s freshman records, potting 76 goals, many of them spectacular, some punctuated by his trademark celebration of throwing his glove in the air and miming a rifle to blow it away. With all due respect to Jari Kurri, who had some awfully good running mates in Edmonton, Selanne was special because he was the first Finn to truly dominate the NHL as the featured star on a team.
He had broken a barrier for Finnish superstars, yet no one else followed. We’ve seen a bevy of fantastic Suomi players over the years, and the goaltending factory there needs no introduction, but no Finn has ever won the league’s scoring crown. No Finn has won the Norris as the NHL’s top defenseman nor the Conn Smythe as playoff MVP. Finland hasn’t produced a superstar skater since Selanne.
But the events of the past year suggest that is about to change. Seth Jones, THN’s Draft Preview cover boy, sat idle as Finland’s Aleksander Barkov went No. 2 overall in 2013. The Buffalo Sabres chose big blueliner Rasmus Ristolainen six slots later. At the 2014 world juniors, a shifty Finn named Teuvo Teravainen left the field in the dust to win the scoring race. Ristolainen sealed the gold medal for Finland with an overtime goal:
On top of that, Minnesota prospect Mikael Granlund rode shotgun as Selanne’s 2014 Olympic linemate and made the Games’ all-star team.
The new class of Finns is on the way and its members project not just as the admirable, head-down, team-first types, but also as superstars and award winners. Just ask our Future Watch scouts and NHL executives. Teravainen and Ristolainen rank third and seventh in the 2014 overall rankings, with No. 24 Sami Vatanen giving Finland three players in the top 25. Last year, Granlund was the lone Finn in the top 30. While goalies like Tuukka Rask ranked highly in recent years, Finland had no skaters in the top 50 from 2007 to 2010. It had one in 2011, two in 2012, four in 2013.
So we know Finland has begun producing prospects with higher ceilings, but why?
According to Goran Stubb, the NHL’s director of European scouting, it started with a summit. Sweden famously had one in 2003 to improve its hockey development and Finland had one just a few years ago in Helsinki, with far less publicity. Coaches, scouts, management and all sorts of hockey minds were on hand.
“They changed the way of training, so now the Finnish players, the coaches, are trying to teach the young Finnish players more individual skills than before,” Stubb says. “And of course, that was exactly what Sweden did 10 years ago. They are delivering the most players from European countries nowadays, so it’s kind of a Swedish model that the Finns have taken.”