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Across the Pond: KalPa surges into Sm-liiga lead

by Bill Meltzer
One of the international hockey world's most compelling comeback stories has unfolded over the last five years in Kuopio, Finland. The venerable KalPa team, which was founded in 1929 and was on the brink of financial death in the early 2000s, now has become a model of success in the small markets that comprise the majority of European hockey teams.

A cellar dweller that was relegated from SM-liiga to minor league Mestis in 1999, the team not only rose from the ashes in 2005 to return to the top league, it also has become a contender in recent seasons while maintaining a modest budget. KalPa long has been known for having one of the top junior programs in Finland, and graduates of the junior team have been supplemented by astute (but generally inexpensive) veteran additions brought in from elsewhere.

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From an NHL standpoint, all eyes will be on Minnesota Wild top prospect Mikael Granlund. The second-leading scorer in the SM-liiga will be joined by his HIFK linemate, national team legend and former NHL forward Ville Peltonen. The roster also includes the Finnish league's leading scorer, Matti Kuparinen of KalPa Kuopio.

There is a distinct Philadelphia Flyers feel to the Team Finland roster, as four players either are Flyers alumni or prospects. Goaltender Niko Hovinen (Pelicans Lahti), who was signed by Philadelphia to an entry-level contract earlier this year, has emerged as one of the top netminders in SM-liiga and is a major reason why his team is in second place after missing the postseason in 2010-11.  In addition, veteran defensemen Lasse Kukkonen (Metallurg Magnitogorsk of the KHL), Ossi Vaananen (Jokerit Helsinki) and forward Mika Pyorala (Frolunda in Sweden) all passed through Philadelphia during their North American careers.

-- Bill Meltzer
KalPa recently took over first place in SM-liiga from the even more surprising Lahti Pelicans. With 44 points in 19 games (14-3-2), the Kuopio club holds just a one-point lead on the Pelicans in the same number of games played. Ässät Pori and Jokerit Helsinki are the next closest pursuers with 38 points apiece. KalPa plays at Pori on Wednesday.

KalPa has grabbed the top spot largely on the strength of being the best road team in the league to date -- they're 7-2-1 away from home while allowing just 1.90 goals per game and scoring 2.50 per game. At home, KalPa also has been excellent, going 7-1-1 while outscoring its opponents 36-18.

Much of the credit for KalPa's turnaround over the last seven seasons has gone to its majority owner, long-time NHL forward Sami Kapanen. It was Kapanen who bought the team out of bankruptcy in 2003, led it on the ice to an SM-liiga promotion during the NHL work stoppage of 2004-05, managed the club's business affairs from overseas while continuing his NHL career, and then retired from the NHL in 2008 (with one season remaining on his seven-figure contract with the Philadelphia Flyers) to devote himself full-time to the club as both owner and an active player.

"My double role has been made into a big thing, which it's not," Kapanen told correspondent Risto Pakarinen. "I'm first and foremost a player on the team, and my job is to make sure I'm on the ice when there's a game and practice. I never do anything else on a game day, but then on an off-day, I'll check my e-mail and have meetings, moderately. … On a few occasions, I've had an epiphany and realized why some things are done the way they are. I think I have a good picture and understanding of the overall operations. It's hard work."

Back problems forced Kapanen to retire as an active player after the 2009-10 season, after totaling 15 goals and 46 points in 49 regular-season games, and 6 goals and 13 points in 13 postseason games. After sitting out last season, he returned to the ice this season. Kapanen got off to a strong start, posting 4 goals and 6 points in the first seven regular-season games. Unfortunately, his injury woes soon returned and he has not played since Oct. 4.

"It gets a little frustrating to feel like I'm not contributing on the ice," Kapanen said. "Fortunately, the team has been winning. We have a lot of good people here, in management and on the ice. KalPa is not just one person, just like any hockey organization."

Operating KalPa has become a family affair of sorts for the Kapanens. Sami's younger brother, Kimmo Kapanen, now serves as KalPa's general manager after a 17-season European playing career that saw him play three stints totaling seven seasons with KalPa among various stops in Finland and Sweden.  In addition, two of Sami Kapanen's closest friends, former Philadelphia teammates Kimmo Timonen and Scott Hartnell, own eight percent and five percent shares of the team, respectively.

Even in the absence of Sami Kapanen on the ice, KalPa has not skipped a beat. In particular, veteran forward Matti Kuparinen has proven to the type of astute signing upon which KalPa has risen rapidly in the standings since returning to SM-liiga. A veteran of eight seasons with Ässät in his native Pori, the 26-year-old Kuparinen has been a late bloomer.

Ari Ahonen has been one of KalPa's standout players this season. (Getty Images)
After posting a career-high 11 goals and 37 points in 60 games last season, Kuparinen signed with KalPa in the offseason. All he's done so far is lead the league in scoring with 22 points through the first 19 games. He also has played solid two-way hockey, posting a plus-10 rating. At 5-foot-11 and 201 pounds, Kuparinen is not the biggest or fastest player around, but he is sturdy on his skates and has gained offensive confidence.

KalPa's other main standouts this season are veteran goaltender Ari Ahonen, homegrown forward Tuomas Kiiskinen, shifty Sakari Salminen (recruited away from Ässät last season) and veteran defensemen Marko Kauppinen and Henri Laurila. Additional leadership comes from former Calgary Flames right wing Jukka Hentunen. Former Philadelphia Flyers defenseman Jussi Timonen, the younger brother of Kimmo, has a plus-4 rating in 10 games.

Former Pittsburgh Penguins farmhand Ryan Lannon is the club's lone import player. Apart from Lannon and Adam Masuhr (a Swede who previously played for four teams in Elitserien), coach Tuomas Tuokkola's squad features an all-Finnish roster this season.

Ahonen's strong play in net and the defense corps has been crucial to the team's success to date. Now in his second season with KalPa, the 30-year-old Ahonen has been one of the league's best goalies each of the last two season. To date this season, he has posted a sparkling 1.43 goals-against average, .942 save percentage and a pair of shutouts. The team enjoys a 13-1-2 record in the 16 games that Ahonen has started.
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