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Happy homecomings for Kapanen

by Bill Meltzer

For the last 12 seasons, Sami Kapanen plied his trade in the NHL. The forward's speed, hustle, fearlessness in traffic and ability to come through in clutch situations endeared him to fans in Hartford, Carolina and Philadelphia. His versatility and leadership earned him respect from teammates and coaches.

The 35-year-old Kapanen had one year remaining on his contract with the Philadelphia Flyers, but he was dissatisfied with his performance last season and uncertain about his role and ice time with the team heading into 2008-09. In June, he made the difficult decision to retire from the NHL and leave the Flyers after five seasons with the club.

But he hasn't retired from hockey altogether. Kapanen is the majority owner of KalPa Kuopio of Finland's SM-Liiga (elite league); he has returned to KalPa as a player to captain the team.

"It was a hard decision," Kapanen said. "I'm going to miss Philadelphia -- the area, the home my family had there and, of course, my teammates and everyone around the organization. But it was time to go back to Finland. At this point in my career this is the right decision. Hockey-wise, I felt it was time to focus on KalPa."

In returning to KalPa, Kapanen has brought his career full circle. He got his start with the team, saved it from bankruptcy years later by buying it and leading it back to the top league after the club was relegated to the minor-league Mestis level, and is now back to try to help the team improve its fortunes in the SM-Liiga standings.

"I've never been someone who is too concerned about (individual) statistics," said Kapanen. "At the end of the day, I just want us to win and feel like I contributed to the success."

In his official return to a KalPa uniform, Kapanen received a hearty ovation but did not record a point in a 3-1 home loss to JyP Jyväskylä. He was, however, on the ice for the lone KalPa goal.
"It was great to see so many people in the audience," he said after the game. "Therefore, the comeback was quite emotional. I just wish we had won the game. I expected more from myself and the team. It just got out of hand and we started over-playing the game. It is totally unnecessary to draw any hasty conclusions from the first game. There are still 57 games left, and in any case we lost to a very good team."

"I'm going to miss Philadelphia -- the area, the home my family had there and, of course, my teammates and everyone around the organization. But it was time to go back to Finland."

-- Sami Kapanen

Things went much better in the second match. Kuopio shut out the league's preeminent team, Kärpät Oulu. Playing on a line with veteran center Kalle Sahlstedt and former Florida Panthers draftee Vince Bellissimo, Kapanen had a goal and two assists in a 4-0 win against the defending champions.

Juggling act

Being both a player and an owner is a tough task. There's a delicate juggling act involved in trying to do a good job in one area without neglecting the other. During his time with the Flyers, Kapanen made a point of setting aside specific days -- inevitably open dates during the NHL schedule -- to deal with matters related to KalPa.

"We communicated on a weekly basis, if necessary, by phone and e-mail during the season," said KalPa General Manager Jukka Pennanen.

Kapanen would then relay any pertinent information to his Flyers teammate, Kimmo Timonen, who owns a minority interest in the club. Even Philadelphia forward Scott Hartnell got into the mix last year by purchasing a small share of the team. But with the exception of the time Kapanen blocked out to tend to business with KalPa, he focused his energy solely on preparing for NHL games.

"I owe that to myself and my (NHL) team," Kapanen said last year. "I never want one thing to interfere with the other."

In some ways, playing for KalPa simplifies matters because Kapanen's presence on the ice has a direct bearing on the business side of the team. In other ways, it has the potential of complicating issues. The other KalPa players know they're performing in front of their boss, and he knows full well who is and isn't playing to their capabilities.

While Kapanen never has been afraid to speak up when he has something to say, he's generally the type of leader that focuses on ways to build off positives. That, along with his renowned work ethic, should help the team overcome any awkwardness. It's hard for other players not to care or devote themselves to the team when they see how much Kapanen puts into it.

"Sami can handle both roles," Timonen said in June. "There's a lot of respect for his accomplishments and the type of player and person that he is."

"He brought so much to our team, both on and off the ice. We're going to miss him, but I know he's going to be successful in whatever he does. He's all about character and integrity, and we were proud to have him on our team." -- Flyers GM Paul Holmgren

KalPa is not one of SM-Liiga's higher-budget teams, and it took a while for the club to regain financial stability and sponsorships after it was relegated. Kapanen's involvement and the restructuring of the organization helped attain that goal.

Now with the Finnish league reinstituting the potential for relegation and with talk of the wealthiest teams potentially leaving SM-Liiga for a proposed Nordic League (in conjunction with the highest profile teams from Sweden and possible single entries from Norway and Denmark), it's vital KalPa take the next steps. Kapanen understands that he needs to be an active leader on and off the ice to meet the difficult challenges that could await his team.

He's used to dealing with tough challenges, though, ranging from being one of the smallest players on the ice (he stands just 5-foot-9) to navigating the bumpy road KalPa had to travel to come back from the brink of extinction. He knows how hard it is for teams like KalPa to stay competitive. As a young player, he had to leave for greener pastures elsewhere in Finland and the NHL.

Steering the team back on course

Kapanen has lived in Kuopio since he was 12. He starred in KalPa's junior development program and graduated from the J20 team to the SM-Liiga in 1990-91. But one year prior to his NHL arrival with the Hartford Whalers, he was lured away by the higher profile and wealthier HIFK Helsinki club. Likewise, fellow KalPa products Timonen and Olli Jokinen also left for other SM-Liiga clubs before coming to the NHL.

Nine years ago, KalPa Kuopio was in financial crisis. The team had just been relegated from SM-Liiga and filed for bankruptcy July 13, 1999. Teams in Finland, like most of Europe, rely heavily on sponsorship money for survival. Relegation is a revenue killer.

Even before being relegated, KalPa's ownership had significant financial problems. The fall from the top level and bankruptcy put the franchise's health in critical condition. As a result, the Finnish Hockey Federation assigned KalPa to Division I hockey -- one step below Mestis and two notches below SM-Liiga.

KalPa's descent was a sad sight for Kapanen to witness from afar. The team has been synonymous with hockey in Kuopio for more than 50 years, and the team's excellent junior program was his ticket to the pros. After KalPa was relegated to the depths of the minor leagues, it was promoted to Mestis in 2001. But a return to the SM-Liiga still seemed a long way off.

Determined not to let the team that gave him his start die a slow death in the minors -- and wanting to make sure the next generation of KalPa juniors have a place to play -- he bought a minority interest in the team. By 2003, he became the majority owner of the franchise.

"We want to give other young players the same opportunities I had," Kapanen said. "That's the biggest reason why I got involved."

During the 2004-05 NHL lockout season, Kapanen played for KalPa and helped the team earn a promotion back to the SM-Liiga.

"That meant a lot to Sami," said Timonen, who also suited up for KalPa during the lockout. "He's a guy who really cares. It's never been about money for him, although obviously you don't want to lose money when you own a team."

There also were family reasons for moving home. Kapanen and his wife, Petra, have four children; 11-year-old Kasperi, 8-year-old Cassandra, 6-year-old Camilla and 4-year-old Konsta. Returning to Kuopio enables him to be closer to his family -- the traveling schedule in SM-Liiga is much lighter than in the NHL -- while his children have access to Finnish schools.

True grit

The defining moments of Kapanen's NHL career occurred during the 2004 Stanley Cup Playoffs. By this time, the two-time All-Star and five-time 20-goal scorer no was longer a regular offensive contributor, but he was a heart-and-soul player for the Philadelphia Flyers, who acquired him from the Carolina Hurricanes in a 2003 trade for underachieving forward Pavel Brendl and defenseman Bruno St. Jacques.

With the Flyers' blue line minus several starters due to injury, Kapanen volunteered to switch from forward to defense. Under the most pressure-packed and difficult circumstances imaginable, he thrived at the unfamiliar position and Philadelphia made it to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals.

In the sixth game of the conference semifinals, Kapanen was on the receiving end of a thundering hit from the Toronto Maple Leafs' Darcy Tucker that temporarily knocked him woozy. Videos of a rubber-legged Kapanen repeatedly falling to the ice have become a staple of hockey highlight videos. More important, however, was what happened next.

On sheer instinct and determination, Kapanen made it back to the bench, enabling teammate Jeremy Roenick to hop on the ice and score the series-winning overtime goal to send the Flyers to the conference finals.

After the 2004 playoff run, Kapanen seriously considered retirement from the NHL. Instead, he returned after the lockout to play three more seasons. Although he mostly was a checking forward by this point, Kapanen remained a favorite among a large segment of the notoriously hard-to-please Flyers fandom.

When he decided this summer to leave, it was with no hard feelings on either side.

"We wanted him to come back, but we respect Sami's decision, and wish him and his family nothing but the best in Finland," Flyers General Manager Paul Holmgren said the day after Kapanen's NHL retirement press conference. "He brought so much to our team, both on and off the ice. We're going to miss him, but I know he's going to be successful in whatever he does. He's all about character and integrity, and we were proud to have him on our team."

Kapanen now will try to bring those same traits back to KalPa during a critical season in the team's history. As the dynamics of hockey in Finland -- and around Europe -- change, he wants KalPa to become a viable player in its future, not just its past. To be successful for the long haul, the future has to start now.

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