is no stranger to international competition, and his success with Finland’s national team is staggeringly impressive.
Ruutu has medaled in each of the 10 major international tournaments in which he’s participated, including a bronze medal at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver and a gold medal at the 2011 IIHF World Championship.
Whether it has been the World Junior Championship, the World Championship or even the World Cup of Hockey, Ruutu says Team Finland has consistently assembled a tight-knit, familiar bunch.
“It’s one of the strengths of Team Finland that most of the guys know each other well, and they’ve played with each other before. We’re really good friends and really tight,” Ruutu said. “A lot of times it feels like, even though you haven’t seen guys for a couple of years, when you see them on the first day, you feel like you saw them yesterday and nothing has changed.”
The 2014 Sochi games mark Ruutu’s second appearance in the Olympics. Though he was named to Team Finland in 2006, an ankle injury and the subsequent surgery sidelined him just prior to the Olympics; playing then for the Chicago Blackhawks, Ruutu was replaced by Dallas Stars rookie forward and future Hurricanes teammate Jussi Jokinen.
In the 2010 Winter Olympics, Ruutu scored a goal in six tournament games en route to earning a bronze medal with Hurricanes teammate Joni Pitkanen, as Team Finland topped Slovakia 5-3.
That experience, he feels, will be beneficial for his second sojourn to the world’s biggest international contest.
“Nothing is new,” he said. “There are obviously little differences between Sochi and Vancouver, but you know what’s happening and you can concentrate on playing.”
A student of sports in general, Ruutu also relishes the time spent away from the rink during the Olympics.
“The fun thing about the Olympics is not only playing but the whole atmosphere. One thing I really loved in Vancouver was hanging out with other athletes from different countries and Team Finland, talking to them to see what they do, what they eat, what they read, how they exercise and stuff like that,” he said. “It’s fun. I’ve always been so passionate about any sports, not just hockey. I’m really interested in what they do and how they train.”
With Ruutu’s wealth of international experience also comes a knowledgeable awareness of the advantages and disadvantages of the wider sheet of ice.
“Hockey is a little different [on the big ice]. It’s tough to play [an NHL] system on the bigger ice surface,” he said. “There are some adjustments you definitely have to make, but at the same time, the best players and best team will win the gold medal. I don’t think it will make that much of a difference. It’s still hockey.”
Hockey has been in Ruutu’s life essentially since he was born. Both of his older brothers – Jarkko and Mikko – played hockey, and Ruutu followed in their footsteps.
“Mostly, hockey was played outside,” Ruutu said of his youth. “In the summer, it’d be on the streets. In the winter, I think I spent most of my youth playing on outside rinks.”
Ruutu joined his first organized hockey team at age five, two years shy of when he said kids usually began playing in Finland.
“I remember a little bit,” Ruutu said. “I guess I was so excited that my parents had to put me with guys a couple years older.”
Growing up, Ruutu also played soccer – forward and midfielder – and ran long-distance events in track and field.
“I was pretty talented in track, especially long-distance running, but it was all about soccer and hockey for me. For a long time, soccer was my No. 1 sport. That’s what I wanted to be – a professional soccer player,” he said. “To be honest, I don’t even know why I ended up choosing hockey. One reason could have been my brother making it to the big leagues and then realizing I wanted to do that too.”
Because the NHL was a half a world away, and Ruutu never saw or heard much of it as a young boy. But he eventually eyed playing professional hockey.
“As a kid, I never dreamed about the NHL. We saw a half-hour show ‘NHL Power Week’ every Saturday, but we didn’t have YouTube or anything like that. That wasn’t my goal, and even the Finnish League wasn’t my goal. I was just playing hockey. But then I realized when my brother actually made it to the Finnish League that it was possible from our family,” he said. “It opens up your eyes, and maybe you get a little more motivated.”
As a 16-year-old in 1999-2000, Ruutu spent the majority of the season with HIFK Helsinki’s Under-20 team in the Finnish Junior League, posting 27 points (11g, 16a) in 35 games. He also skated in one game with HIFK Helsinki of SM-Liiga (Finish Elite League). The following season, Ruutu was the youngest player in SM-Liiga, recording 11 goals and 11 assists (22 points) in 47 games for Jokerit. That summer, Ruutu was drafted ninth overall by the Chicago Blackhawks, and he remained in Finland for another two seasons.
“I think the biggest reason for [staying] was that I started playing in the Finnish League when I was 16 years old, so I was already at the time at a pretty high level,” Ruutu said. “Both of my brothers came here (United States) to go to college, and I had it in mind that I wanted to do it. But I couldn’t do it because I was already getting paid playing hockey, and I was already playing with men.”
At age 18, Ruutu served as an assistant captain for Jokerit and totaled 23 points (7g, 16a) in 51 games. He added six assists in 10 postseason games, helping Jokerit capture the SM-Liiga championship. In 2002-03, Ruutu was nearly a point-per-game player with HIFK Helsinki, notching 27 points (12g, 15a) in 30 games, his season shortened by a knee injury.
2003-04 marked Ruutu’s first season in North America, as he scored a team-leading 23 goals for the Chicago Blackhawks.
“I think the biggest adjustment was the time on the ice. In the Finnish League, I remember when you got the puck, you were able to get your head up and look to make a play,” he said. “But I realized in the NHL you had to know what to do before you got the puck. Guys are faster and guys are bigger in the NHL, but also the rink is smaller. That was a big factor, as well.”
Ruutu would skate in 146 games for the Blackhawks between 2005-08 before being traded to the Hurricanes in exchange for forward Andrew Ladd.
“We traded a great player in Andrew Ladd for him. At the time we made the trade, we were really short on centers. We were trying to get a center iceman,” said Canes President and General Manager Jim Rutherford. “The fact that Ruutu can play all three forward positions, that’s ultimately why we made the decision to make the deal.”
The versatility in Ruutu’s ability to play center ice or either wing was and continues to be a factor in what makes him a valuable asset.
“He’s been a left winger and a right winger and in different roles with different linemates. He’s versatile, and that’s what he needs to be,” head coach Kirk Muller said. “You start the season and pencil in guys in different areas, but there’s been chemistry we weren’t expecting with certain players, and so Ruuts has been asked to do different roles. That’s sort have been the nature of his season so far.”
“Unfortunately, he’s been hurt on and off, but he had the big year for us when he had 26 goals,” Rutherford said. “But he can make a difference in the game without getting points. He’s very versatile, and he’s a guy that can help most teams.”
Now competing in his 11th major international competition, Ruutu has the opportunity to strengthen his already impressive resume that includes six bronze medals (2000 World U-18, 2002 World Jrs., 2003 World Jrs., 2006 Worlds, 2008 Worlds and 2010 Olympics), three silver medals (2001 World Jrs., 2004 World Cup and 2007 Worlds) and a gold medal (2011 Worlds).
Ruutu’s most memorable goal came against Canada in the second period of the 2004 World Cup of Hockey final, which Finland dropped by a score of 3-2. His most memorable hockey moment was when he won gold with Team Finland in the 2011 World Championship.
A second Olympic medal would certainly be memorable, as well.
“Those five rings have always meant something special to me. Growing up, those were the games you were watching. We didn’t know or see the NHL,” Ruutu said. “It doesn’t matter if it’s the Summer Olympics or the Winter Olympics. There’s something special about the Olympics.”