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Flyers Heroes of the Past: Ilkka Sinisalo

by Staff Writer / Philadelphia Flyers


Can you name the Flyers' all-time leading goal scorer among European players? Here's a hint: He also ranks fourth all-time in goal scoring among his countrymen who have played in the NHL. He is also a member of his country's hockey Hall of Fame.


The answer: Ilkka Sinisalo. The smooth-skating Finn was one of the Flyers' unsung heroes of the 1980s; a steady, reliable performer who could be used in all game situations. While most of the accolades went to players like Brian Propp, Tim Kerr, Rick Tocchet, Peter Zezel and playmaking center Pelle Eklund, Sinisalo was quietly one of the club's most consistent performers for nine solid seasons. Opponents overlooked Sinisalo's talents at their own peril. It was for good reason the Spectrum's famous Sign Man dubbed the player "Ilkka Score-a-goal-a."

"Ilkka was the first European forward with the Flyers that really fit in well. He had fantastic scoring ability, especially on breakaways," says ex-teammate Propp. "He played great two-way hockey and had a great sense of humor which he shared in the locker room. Ilkka's greatest assets were his speed and his shooting percentage. If he had an open shot, he rarely missed."

Sinisalo, who now scouts for the Flyers in Europe, ranks second to Eklund on the Flyers' all-time points list among European players. The right winger stands eighth in points among all Finns who've ever suited up in the NHL. Current Flyers forward Sami Kapanen is currently tied with Sinisalo for eighth on the list, but Sinisalo played over a hundred fewer NHL games.

Part of a Winning Tradition

Ilkka Antero Jouko Sinisalo was born in Valkeakoski, Finland on July 10, 1958. The small paper mill town is located in western Finland between in the capital city of Helsinki and Tampere, a traditional hockey hotbed.

Valkeakoski is better known for soccer than hockey. Its professional team, FC Haka, has won 12 Finnish soccer championships, including four during Sinisalo's youth. A fine natural athlete, Ilkka enjoyed playing soccer, but discovered his true passion was on the ice. As a 17-year-old, Sinisalo scored 22 goals in 35 games playing for PiTa Helsinki against adult competition in the Finnish first division. He caught the eye of HIFK Helsinki, one of Finland's most prestigious hockey teams in SM-Liiga (the Finnish Elite League).

"I was very excited to join IFK," recalls Sinisalo. "They are a team with a great history and a strong winning tradition. There were a lot of great players on the club in that era."

Like most young players in SM-Liiga, Sinisalo served an apprenticeship in HIFK's fourth line before gradually earning ice time on scoring lines. Always a strong goal-scorer, the defensive discipline he learned with IFK served him well his entire career.

Sinisalo suited up for six games for Team Finland at the 1978 World Junior Championships in Montreal. He scored eight points and played well at both ends of the ice. In those days, however, NHL teams did not yet scout Finnish players extensively. As a result, few Finns were drafted into the NHL. In 1976-77, Matti Hagman – a star HIFK forward – became the first Finnish-trained player to play in the NHL when he suited up for the Boston Bruins. Despite his considerable promise, Sinisalo went unselected in the NHL Entry Draft.

"In those days, most European players focused mainly on playing for the national team as their biggest goal. I was interested in the opportunity to play in the NHL, of course, but it wasn't something we really focused on the way kids do now," says Sinisalo.

By the time the 1979-80 and 1980-81 seasons rolled around, Sinisalo's talents were impossible to ignore. First, he scored 16 goals in 35 games to help HIFK win the SM-Liiga championship. The next year, he scored 27.

NHL teams were now interested in signing Sinisalo as a free agent. At first, he thought he would end up with the Hartford Whalers, but the Flyers, at the urging of scout Eric Coville, persisted.

"Bill Dineen was scouting for Hartford at the time, and the Whalers showed a lot of interest. But there were several other NHL teams who contacted me, and after awhile, it became clear that the Flyers were serious about signing me. It was a prestigious organization and was a great opportunity, so I decided to sign with the Flyers. I played for the Finnish national team at the World Championships and the Canada Cup in '81 and then came to camp with the Flyers. It was pretty exciting," recalls Sinisalo.

On February 14, 1981, Sinisalo signed his first Flyers contract. Over the next decade, Sinisalo made Flyers fans glad he chose Philly. Along with countrymen such as NHL Hall of Famer Jari Kurri, Esa Tikkanen, Christian Ruutu and defenseman Reijo Ruotsalainen, Sinisalo would help conclusively prove that Finland's best players could compete and succeed at the NHL level.

Earning the Flyers Trust

In 1981-82, the Flyers were coming off a somewhat disappointing season. The team had finished behind the repeat Stanley Cup champion New York Islanders in the Patrick Division standings and then lost a heartbreaking seven-game quarterfinal series to the Calgary Flames. With an increased emphasis on youth, Sinisalo had a strong training camp and earned a spot on coach Pat Quinn's opening night lineup.

Sinisalo was held pointless in his debut, a 2-2 tie at the Spectrum against the Detroit Red Wings. Two nights later, Sinisalo made Flyers history. As a warmup, he recorded his first NHL point, assisting on a Bill Barber power play goal midway through the third period. Then, with the Flyers leading 5-2 at the 16:39 mark of the third period, all eyes were on the kid from Valkeakoski as he skated to center ice to take a penalty shot.

Without showing an ounce of nervousness, the unflappable Finn froze Pittsburgh goaltender Paul Harrison and beat him cleanly for his first NHL goal. Sinisalo became the first Flyer and the third of only five NHL players to score his first NHL goal on a penalty shot (Ralph Bowman of the St. Louis Eagles was the first, accomplishing the feat in 1934-35). For his efforts, Sinisalo was named the game's third star.

"If we had the shootout back in those days, Ilkka would have been one of our best players at it," says Propp. "He was great on breakaways."

The Flyers got off to a 7-0-1 start and Sinisalo had nine points (3g, 6a)) in the first eight contests. But the club, and the Finnish rookie, soon hit the wall, starting with an 11-2 pasting at the hands of the Montreal Canadiens. The Flyers dropped nine of their next 11 games, getting outscored 71-36 in the process. Meanwhile, Sinisalo had a mere two points in his next 15 games.

"The physical game in the NHL was an adjustment for me, hitting and getting hit," says Sinisalo. "It took some time to get used to."

The Flyers remained inconsistent through much of the season, and Sinisalo was scratched from the lineup in 12 of 13 games from late December to mid-January. In March of 1982, the Flyers fired Quinn and replaced him with Bob McCammon. The Flyers lost in four games to the New York Rangers in the best-of-five first round of the playoffs.

"Quinn and McCammon were both good coaches, but I have to say I enjoyed playing for McCammon the least of all my Flyers coaches," says Sinisalo. "I never got to play much for Quinn, but he was more of a player's coach."

In retrospect, Sinisalo's rookie NHL season was as solid as anyone could have hoped for. In just 66 games of action, he scored 15 goals and totaled 37 points. His +18 defensive rating was fourth best on the club.

But Sinisalo started out his second NHL season deep in McCammon's doghouse. He was scratched in each of the first 19 games and struggled for ice time until late December. Finally, Sinisalo got into the regular rotation after a breakout five-point game against the Hartford Whalers.

For the season, Sinisalo dressed in fewer games (61) than his rookie year, but increased his output (21g, 29a) as a second and third line winger. He later received time on the Flyers' second power play unit, scoring three times.

"It took awhile for me to believe in myself and get the coaches to trust me," says Sinisalo. "It took time to get the self-confidence I needed to succeed in the NHL."

A Hidden Gem

Sinisalo started to blossom in his third season, although the Flyers finished third in the Patrick Division in what proved to be McCammon's final season in Philadelphia. On the ice, he scored 29 goals as a member of the Flyers' second line, including four game-winners. He also received extensive penalty killing duties and shined in that role, scoring three shorthanded goals.

Off the ice, Sinisalo was now fully comfortable participating in locker room and plane-trip banter with the other guys on the team. Well-liked by all of his teammates, Sinisalo was especially close with center Dave Poulin and goaltender Pelle Lindbergh.

"I could understand the culture change (Ilkka) endured," said Poulin in the book The Greatest Players and Moments of the Philadelphia Flyers. "I had lived and played in Europe for a year before I came to the NHL. I knew what it was like in a different culture. It took a couple of years to get fully comfortable. After a while, Ilkka was right at home in Philadelphia."

Sinisalo recorded his first of three career hat tricks on March 22, 1984, as the Flyers shellacked the Penguins 13-4. In the playoffs, Sinisalo was hampered by a back injury, and the Flyers lost their opening round series in three straight games to the Washington Capitals, hastening McCammon's departure as both head coach and general manager.

The Flyers hired University of Toronto's Mike Keenan to be their head coach, while Bobby Clarke retired as a player to become general manager. Like most of the Flyers, Sinisalo wasn't totally prepared for Keenan's relentlessly abrasive style of coaching.

"Playing for Keenan was, well, different than playing for any other coach. He was very smart, hard working and very, very demanding. You had to be mentally tough to play for him. But we came together as a team in those years. We had a very good team and great goaltending first with Pelle Lindbergh and then with Ron Hextall," says Sinisalo.

Behind the Vezina Trophy-winning goaltending of Lindbergh, the youthful Flyers' won the President's Trophy for the most regular-season points in the NHL (113, including a staggering 32-4-4 record on Spectrum ice) and earned a trip to the Stanley Cup Finals. Sinisalo became one of Keenan's most trusted players, totaling 73 points in 70 games, to go along with an outstanding +32 rating. The player's speed and smarts made him effective in all game situations.

"With Ilkka, all I had to do was get him a lead pass or lay it out to him. I knew he would then beat his man and the puck would be in the back of the net," linemate Peter Zezel told author Stan Fischler in Greatest Players and Moments.

In the 1985 playoffs, Sinisalo added six goals in 19 games as the Flyers earned a trip to the Stanley Cup Finals before the injury-ravaged team lost to Wayne Gretzky's legendary Edmonton Oilers squad in five games.

The next season was statistically excellent but emotionally brutal for Sinisalo and the Flyers. The team was devastated by Lindbergh's sudden death in November. The Flyers soldiered on to easily win the Patrick Division, while Sinisalo posted a career-best 39 goals (19 on the power play) and 76 points, but there was a pall over the rest of the season which ended with the Flyers being stunned in the first round as goaltender John Vanbiesbrouck and the Rangers fashioned a huge upset.

Now 28 years old, Sinisalo entered the 1986-87 campaign gunning for his first 40-goal season. Instead, he spent much of the season on the shelf, nursing a knee injury sustained in November, following by a cracked metatarsal suffered after blocking a shot in a late-March tilt. The injuries limited the Finn to just 42 regular season games, in which he put up 30 points (10 goals) and a +14 rating.

Just as Lindbergh had two years earlier, fiery rookie goaltender Ron Hextall took the Flyers to another level in 1986-87. He won both the Vezina Trophy and the Conn Smythe Trophy as Philly gamely took Edmonton the full seven games in the Stanley Cup Finals. Sinisalo did his part in the playoffs, tallying five goals in 18 games while continuing to battle injuries.

Most of Sinisalo's damage came during the deciding seventh quarterfinal game against the New York Islanders and the first game of the semifinals against the Montreal Canadiens. Sinisalo scored a pair of goals in both games. In the clincher against the Habs, Sinisalo scored a crucial goal. With the Flyers trailing the game 3-1 midway through the second period, the Finnish right wing lit the lamp to start a rally that soon saw the club tie the game and go on to win.

"We had a hard-working team that never quit. There were a lot of good players on our team, but Edmonton had some of the best players ever, like Gretzky, (Mark) Messier, (Jari) Kurri, Paul Coffey, and (Grant) Fuhr. It was disappointing to lose in the Finals, but Hexy was the biggest reason we were able to go seven with Edmonton," says Sinisalo.

Moving On

Sinisalo's last three seasons in Philadelphia were largely spent rehabbing a series of injuries, while the Flyers tumbled in the standings – and eventually out of the playoffs.

In 1987-88, the right wing was weakened by a viral infection and later suffered back spasms, limiting him to 68 games. He scored 25 goals and 42 points and was one of the Flyers' most effective offensive players in a seven-game first round loss to the Capitals, tallying points in six of the seven matches, including four goals. The Flyers squandered a three-games-to-one series lead and lost in seven. Paul Holmgren replaced Keenan after the season.

As frustrating as 1987-88 was for Sinisalo, the next season was even worse. He turned 30 years old in the summer and went on to watch the vast majority of the 1988-89 season from the press box after suffering a severely sprained ankle followed by broken wrist. Sinisalo only played in 13 regular season games – scoring just once – and missed the first 11 postseason games.

The Flyers slipped to .500 on the season, but came alive in the playoffs, reaching the Stanley Cup semifinals against Montreal. Sinisalo's lone highlight that year, was scoring the game-winning goal shorthanded in the third period as the Flyers downed the Canadiens 3-2 in the first game of the series.

Sinisalo showed he could still be an effective NHL player in 1989-90: his final Flyers campaign. Although he continued to deal with injuries, losing 24 games to a knee injury, Sinisalo posted 23 goals, 46 points and a +6 rating for a 30-39-11 squad that missed the playoffs. His contract expired after the season.

"I was interested in coming back, but Jay Snider wanted to go in another direction. After Bob Clarke took over as GM in Minnesota, he contacted me to see if I'd be interested in playing for the Stars. So I signed with Minnesota. I looked at it as a new opportunity, but I had a lot of good years in Philadelphia," says Sinisalo.

Things didn't work out for Sinisalo in Minnesota. He didn't score and was demoted to a checking line. Clarke then dealt him for a draft pick to the playoff-bound Los Angeles Kings. Sinisalo failed to register a point in seven regular season games for LA and only played in two playoff games. It would prove to be his last full year in the NHL.

In 1991-92, after three games with the Kings, Sinisalo landed with the Phoenix Road Runners of the now-defunct IHL. He scored 19 goals and 41 points in 49 games. After the season, Sinsalo went home to Finland. He spent the final four seasons of his career in SM-Liiga suiting up for HPK Hämeenlinna, Ilves Tampere and the Espoo Blues. He was inducted into the Finnish hockey Hall of Fame in 1997.

After the 1995-96 season, Sinisalo hung up his skates and accepted the job as Espoo's general manager. He served at the post until the 1998-99 season.

"I learned a lot as general manager. We weren't a big budget team in Finland. It was a learning experience," says Sinisalo.

On September 12, 1998, then San Jose Sharks General Manager Dean Lombardi hired the 40-year-old Sinisalo as a European-based NHL scout. Six years later, Lombardi (now GM of the Los Angeles Kings) was an assistant GM with the Flyers under Bob Clarke. Both Clarke and Lombardi were interested in bringing Sinisalo back into the Flyers' fold. In July 2004, Sinisalo rejoined the Flyers as an amateur scout.

"I was so happy to come back to the Flyers organization," says Sinisalo. "If I was offered a GM job in another organization, I wouldn't want to take it. This is where I want to be, and I'm doing what I love to do."
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