A national hero at age 22, an NHL bust at 26, a dominant European league star who earned another shot at the NHL in his early 30s and a highly respected elder statesman at 37 -- Ville Peltonen
has experienced just about every high and low possible over the course of his 20-season professional career.
Now back in the SM-Liiga (Finnish Elite League) with HIFK Helsinki, his original club, Peltonen's return to Helsinki has been much more than a nostalgia trip.
In 30 games, Peltonen is tied for second in the league scoring charts with 32 points, and he's fourth with 14 goals. Just as important, HIFK is in second place in the league, seven points behind JYP Jyväskylä. The club could narrow the gap further this week when it takes on foundering Tappara Tampere while JYP faces a tougher opponent in the fourth-place Espoo Blues.
But if there's one thing Peltonen has learned over the course of his career, it's that nothing can be taken for granted, on or off the ice.
To many North American fans, Peltonen was the third wheel among three highly touted Finns who came to North America in the fall 1995. The "Hughie, Dewey and Louie" line of Peltonen and Jere Lehtinen
flanking Saku Koivu
was an international hockey sensation at the 1995 IIHF World Championships, which saw Finland win its first and only gold medal and its players achieve national-hero status. Peltonen, who scored a hat trick in the gold-medal game in Stockholm, did not go on to enjoy the same degree of NHL success as Koivu and Lehtinen. But that is not the be-all and end-all of judging a player's career.
Along with Koivu and Lehtinen, Peltonen is one of just five hockey players (Vladislav Tretiak
and Jiri Holik are the others) to capture four Olympic medals. He won the SM-Liiga Rookie of the Year award in 1992-93. He's won scoring championships in Switzerland's National League and Sweden's Elitserien, won a team crown with HC Lugano, captained his KHL team last season and now is captain of the HIFK club he followed as a youngster and with which he enjoyed his first wave of success professionally.
The son of Esa Peltonen, a star forward for HIFK among other club teams and a prolific Finnish national team player (277 games) who gained election to the IIHF Hall of Fame in 2007, Ville has managed to equal or surpass his father's accomplishments. But one thing he never has liked to do is talk about the past -- not about his early days or three stints in the NHL, not about his various team and personal accomplishments and not even about the pandemonium that ensued in his homeland after his heroics at the 1995 Worlds, which remains Team Finland's most important international hockey achievement in the eyes of many Finns.
"I believe you can't focus too much on the past, whether it's good or bad. I don't think I'm unique in this way among hockey players. The focus is always on the next game," Peltonen told the Finnish press earlier this year.
However, Peltonen recently admitted to NHL.com correspondent Risto Pakarinen that he finally sat down last year to watch a Finnish documentary on the 1995 Worlds and even conceded that it was "fun" to watch clips he had consciously avoided viewing for over a decade. But Peltonen is steadfast that sentiment played no part in his return to HIFK after a 15-year absence, nor does he see his role as one of mentoring younger players, including top Minnesota Wild
prospect Mikael Granlund
, who finds his burgeoning career in a similar place to where Peltonen, Koivu and Lehtinen were in 1995.
Rather, Peltonen's job is to produce offense and to help HIFK win games.
"Staying healthy is a big thing for me at this point of my career. The body doesn't recover as it fast as it once did," said Peltonen, who declined an invitation to play at the 2010 Worlds in order to rehabilitate knee and groin problems.
Peltonen has logged a lot of hard miles on his body over the course of his career, including 382 NHL games and 249 games for Team Finland (with whom he has scored 78 goals and 178 points). Along the way, he has had three tours of duty in SM-Liiga (HIFK and Jokerit), three runs in the NHL and AHL, a partial season in the defunct IHL, one season in Elitserien, three seasons in Switzerland with HC Lugano and a season in the KHL.
While he reinvented himself as a checking-line player during his three seasons with the Florida Panthers
(2006-09), he has first and foremost been an offensive talent when playing in Europe or with Team Finland. Peltonen has overcome his lack of size through superior anticipation and a soft touch around the net.
In assessing HIFK's chances of making a strong run in the playoffs this season, Peltonen cautioned that it's never wise to look too far ahead, but he has said that he joined the club because there is a quality team in place.
"I think there's a good mix of veterans and young players, and a lot of talent. Tom (Nybondas, HIFK general manager) has put a good team together," Peltonen said.
Along with Peltonen, there is plenty of experience on the HIFK roster. The club's second-leading scorer, 35-year-old Kimmo Kuhta (10 goals, 31 points) has been a fixture with the club for 14 years, minus brief stints in Switzerland and Germany. Defenseman Martti Jarventie
has had a similarly prolific Finnish career. Former NHL player Jeff Hamilton
has 9 goals and 15 points in 10 games. Meanwhile, the club's veterans are balanced by several promising youngsters, led by Granlund, the ninth pick of the 2010 Entry Draft by the Wild, and 23-year-old Teemu Ramstedt (7 goals, 22 points).
HIFK may not be the current title favorites, but the club should be right in the hunt. Capturing a Finnish championship would be another feather in Peltonen's already much-adorned cap.