|(Bill Smith / Chicago Blackhawks)
CHICAGO -- If Kimmo Timonen's career had ended last summer because of blood clots discovered in his legs and lung, he would have accepted it.
The 39-year old Finnish defenseman could have found solace in his impressive career even without having his name on the Stanley Cup or with an Olympic gold medal stashed in a safe somewhere. He wouldn't have had a choice.
Doctors in Finland, however, kept the door slightly ajar. That's all he needed.
"There was always a small chance," said Timonen, who was traded Feb. 27 by the Philadelphia Flyers to the Chicago Blackhawks to pursue a dream ending to his career. "[The doctors] said, 'Well, you have to eat this medicine for six months and then you have a small chance to get back on the ice.'"
He latched onto that small chance, because to him it meant a lot.
Timonen already had played 15 seasons in the NHL, split between the Flyers and Nashville Predators. All he wanted was one more chance to chase the Stanley Cup and then retire on his terms. Stuck in a hospital bed, fighting off a potentially fatal health condition, he added a new slogan.
"Retire with your skates on," Timonen said he told himself. "Not your shoes."
That was the beginning of a path that has led to Chicago. Timonen now plays for the Blackhawks, who defeated his Flyers in the 2010 Stanley Cup Final. He was on the ice for the Flyers in overtime of Game 6 when Blackhawks right wing Patrick Kane sent a low shot through goalie Michael Leighton's pads.
Timonen might never get to celebrate wildly, the way Kane and the Blackhawks did that night, but he's certainly going to try one last time. It's the ultimate, "If you can't beat 'em, join 'em," mission, and it started with a glimmer of hope that he might play again.
"In that moment I decided that if the small chance happens, the only thing I'm missing from my hockey career is a Stanley Cup," said Timonen, who will turn 40 on March 18. "That was the only goal which I would return to hockey [for]. It wasn't money. It wasn't anything else that was missing."
So here he is in the Windy City.
This was supposed to happen in Philadelphia. Timonen's original plan was to chase his dream with the Flyers and end his career where he'd spent the previous seven seasons. The Flyers' fading Stanley Cup Playoff hopes changed that plan.
That's how Timonen wound up with the Blackhawks, who are third in the Central Division and hoping to catch the St. Louis Blues or Nashville Predators. Chicago has won the Stanley Cup twice in the past five seasons and hopes to make it three out of six in 2014-15.
It's easy to see the logic in Timonen's desire to play for the Blackhawks. It's not as easy to see him in a different uniform. It's OK if you think the Blackhawks jersey with "Timonen" on the back looks a little odd because he's still getting used it himself.
Timonen has played one game at United Center, where the first notes of the Blackhawks' goal song, "Chelsea Dagger," were a welcome sound. He's heard the anthem belted out once as a member of the home team and has a handful of practices with his new teammates.
It's all new, but things are going as planned.
Timonen, who has been paired with Brent Seabrook, is adapting to coach Joel Quenneville's system, and Timonen's puck-moving style should be a great fit once he's up to speed. His ability to quarterback the power play could prove essential in the stretch run and the playoffs.
"He's very astute, be it positioning or anticipation," said Quenneville, who was impressed by what he saw from Timonen in his debut March 2. Timonen played 17:29 in his first game in nearly 11 months. "His first game, he hadn't played in a whole year, had no training camp. No games at all, no feel for it, and hadn't practiced a ton either. I thought it was a very good beginning for him and I expect him to just keep improving as he goes along here."
Markus Lehto, who is Timonen's Chicago-based agent, feels the same. A former Finnish defenseman himself, Lehto was surprised when Timonen started talking hockey strategy with him recently.
"With Kimmo Timonen it's been different," Lehto said. "He's been a complete player for years and years. But actually the other day we were discussing the details of how he was playing defense. I haven't done that for 15 years with Kimmo, so it was kind of funny."
Lehto, the president of Acme World Sports, has enjoyed the recent developments. Not only is Timonen in town, but another Finnish client, 20-year old rookie Teuvo Teravainen, is on the Blackhawks.
Lehto said he sees similarities in them, even though they play different positions. Neither is gifted with size but they have high-end skill and the drive to succeed. Watching them play in the same game for the same team was special for Lehto, who has accompanied them at several dinners.
Timonen already has started mentoring Teravainen, who's returning the favor by chauffeuring Timonen around town.
"That is something [Blackhawks general manager] Stan Bowman and I discussed when the trade was completed," Lehto said. "He said, 'Hey, is Kimmo the kind of a guy that can even help Teuvo?' I said, 'You cannot find a better Finnish hockey player for a person who would be kind of a mentor and buddy to deal with Teravainen.' Teuvo can learn just being close to him. It's not about telling Teuvo, 'You have to do this and that.'"
Timonen hasn't forgotten his mantra. He hasn't forgotten his "small chance" of returning or the salute of stick taps the Flyers gave him before his first practice in Philadelphia. It's been a long journey from that hospital bed in Finland; ahead is the opportunity he's dreamed about for seven months.
"Since I was in the hospital in Finland I wanted to retire with my skates on, not my shoes," Timonen said. "It would've been really easy [to retire] and I'm sure there's a lot of people saying, 'Is that guy crazy?' or 'What is he doing?' But let's put it this way … if I'd won the Stanley Cup before I probably wouldn't be here. Then it would be easy to say, 'OK, I won it. I've done it.' But I haven't. So that is the driving factor here. That's why I'm here."