Oskar Osala opted to play junior hockey in Ontario rather than in his native Finland. He came to Mississauga in the fall of 2005 and spent that season skating for the Mississauga Ice Dogs of the Ontario Hockey League. Totaling 17 goals, 43 points and 86 penalty minutes in 68 games was enough to garner the attention of NHL scouts. Washington selected the 6-foot-4, 222-pound left wing with its fourth-round choice (97th overall) in the 2006 NHL Entry Draft.
That’s exactly as Osala had planned it.
“If I had played in Finland,” he begins, “I would have played pro but maybe fourth line. I felt that wouldn’t develop me as good as playing here in the world’s best junior league and playing first or second line. That was the main thing. I thought I had a better chance to get drafted if I played here.”
He was right about that.
“I was at my summer house with my dad,” he says, when asked to recount draft day of 2006. “It was the best day of my life so far. I was so happy. I really hoped that Washington would take me because they are a great organization. I followed it on the internet and when I saw I was drafted, it was the happiest day of my life. I hoped they would take me and it worked out good.”
Now he is hoping his performance for the Ice Dogs over the past two campaigns will be enough to earn him his first North American pro contract this summer. Osala turns 20 in December, and has a year of OHL eligibility remaining. He will not be playing in the OHL this season, however.
“Actually, turning pro is the biggest goal for me,” he admits. “That’s what I want to do. I would be [over-aged] in Mississauga next year, so that wouldn’t really work out that well. I would take up a European [roster] spot and an [over-aged] spot so that wouldn’t be that good. Turning pro is what I want to do, for sure.”
To that end, Osala signed a pro contract with the Espoo Blues in his native Finland. But that pact contains an out clause that can be exercised if he signs a deal in North America for 2007-08. Hershey Bears head coach Bruce Boudreau was in attendance and helping out on the ice during the Capitals’ recent summer development camp. Bears GM Doug Yingst also came down to have a look, and of course Washington’s own scouts, coaches and brass were casting a watchful eye toward the ice all week. They’ve also seen Osala in OHL competition over the last two seasons. The Caps have until June 1, 2008 to sign Osala, but a contract will be offered soon if they intend to have him play professionally in North America this season.
The two seasons in Mississauga did Osala good, making him pro ready. The only real question now is where he plays in 2007-08.
“Those two years were really good for me,” says Osala. “I felt like I improved a lot. Greg Gilbert was my coach the first year there and he taught me so much. That was the best year I ever had and I learned so much from him. I’m really thankful that I had a coach like him.”
Osala’s English is very good, but he did not begin learning the language until he came to Mississauga.
“Actually, I learned it in Mississauga,” he says. “But I’m bilingual from the start. My mom speaks Swedish and my dad speaks Finnish. I think that helps me. Swedish is pretty close to English, so that helped me pick up the language pretty quickly.
“My mom is Finnish but she speaks Swedish. My town is a bilingual town. Thirty percent speak Swedish and 70 Finnish. So I am lucky to get both.”
Osala had a relatively smooth transition to North America off the ice, but took some time getting adjusted to the smaller ice surface on this side of the Atlantic. His game began taking off in the second half of his rookie season in the OHL. He was named the Ice Dogs’ rookie of the year. As a sophomore, he totaled 22 goals and 44 points along with 81 penalty minutes in 55 games.
Midway through the season, Osala represented his country at the 2007 IIHF World Junior Championship. He tied for the tournament lead with five goals and finished with eight points in six games. Osala was named one of Finland’s top three players of the tournament.
Playing in Mississauga – a suburb of Toronto – the last two seasons afforded Osala the opportunity to catch some live NHL hockey at Air Canada Centre and elsewhere. He even got to see the Caps play on one of their visits to Toronto.
“I went last season when Washington played the Toronto Maple Leafs,” Osala says. “It was great to see that game. And I went to Buffalo to see a lot of games, too. It’s easier to get tickets there. I really like to watch NHL hockey. It’s unbelievable hockey.”
Osala did not watch a lot of NHL hockey as a youngster in Finland. Instead, he grew up idolizing local pro players.
“When I was young I followed the pro team in my hometown,” he remembers. “I idolized more those guys than the NHL guys. I was 15 when I played my first pro game and it was an amazing experience for me to play with the guys I grew up watching and idolizing. That was a big thing for me back then.”
Osala did not attend Washington’s summer camp in 2006, but he was invited to the Capitals’ training camp prior to the 2006-07 season. During his recent trip to the District for development camp, Osala was impressed with the facility and the pace of camp.
“It’s great happening in the new facility,” he says. “It’s an honor to be in the first camp here [at Kettler]. There is more energy here probably than in training camp. These are younger guys and everybody wants to show what they can. There is a lot of energy on the ice and it is very fun to play when everybody is really giving 110% every shift.”
Like all players his age, Osala has areas of his game that need work. Work ethic is not one of those.
“Well, skating,” he says, when asked where he is looking to make improvements. “It’s all about speed now. So always skating and endurance. My overall game, there are always things to improve on. But I think it’s my agility and my skating that are the biggest things.
“I try to work hard and finish my checks. I don’t know if I’m nasty. But I try to leave it all on the ice, shoot the puck a lot and create some scoring chances.”
During his week here at Kettler, Osala made the evident. He battled hard in the corners where his size was an asset. He went to the net, and he got shots off. Osala did not score during the four scrimmages that week, but he did ring one sharp wrist shot off the post.
If it’s up to Osala, he’ll be back here at Kettler in September pursuing the next goal on his list.