By Dave Joseph for floridapanthers.com
|Ville Koistinen (Getty Images)
There’s a hockey rink in Tampere, Finland – a rink that holds 7,800 fans and 15 championship banners - that Ville Koistinen knows well.
In the shadows of that ‘ice hall’ called Hakametsa – in the shadows of the home arena for Finnish hockey teams Tappara and Ilves – is the place where Koistinen grew up.
“I played on that rink almost every day since I was 8,” said the Panthers defenseman from Finland earlier in the week. “I used to live 100 yards from that rink. Right next door. I know the place real well.”
So it seems somewhat poetic that the 27-year-old arrives in South Florida for his first season with the Panthers as the team prepares for its historic regular-season opener in Helsinki, Finland, and a preseason game Sept. 28 at that rink in Tampere where Koistinen learned the game.
“It would be exciting to play there,” said Koistinen, who played eight seasons for Ilves before signing with Nashville as a free agent in 2006. “I know a lot of people there and all my friends and family are still in the area.”
For Koistinen, his return home later this year will be part of his journey forward. Born in the northern Finnish city of Oulu, Koistinen and his family moved to Tampere when he was two and he started skating when he was six. His numbers steadily improved while playing for Ilves but he admits he didn’t know if he would play in the NHL.
“I really wasn’t thinking about the NHL,” Koistinen recalled. “But my last year in Finland (2005-06) I had a good season (34 points in 56 games). That’s when Nashville called and asked if I would be interested. I said, ‘Oh, my, gosh. Of course!’ I signed the contract. It didn’t matter to me if I played (in the American Hockey League).”
In fact, Koistinen was assigned to the Predators AHL affiliate in Milwaukee in 2006-07. “It took me a while to get used to the game here because it’s a little different than Europe,” he admitted. “But I learned the style of play. They had good players and good coaches and it was great until toward the end of the season.”
Koistinen had become one of the AHL’s top defensemen his rookie season, scoring 41 points (nine goals) in 59 games before missing nearly seven weeks due to a concussion. Despite the setback, Koistinen was prepared to make his mark last season with the Predators in the NHL. But with defensemen Shea Weber, Ryan Suter, Dan Hamhuis, Greg Zanon and Greg de Vries in front of him, Koistinen played only 38 games and was a healthy scratch more nights than he liked.
|(AP Photo/Frederick Breedon) |
“It was tough,” Koistinen admitted. “Watching games upstairs, eating popcorn. You go after the game to the dressing room, down where the players have just come off the ice and fought and given their all, and you’re standing there in a suit waiting to get on the bus. You kind of feel like you’re not part of the team. But they had good defensemen there and, you know, that’s part of the business.”
One of the bright spots for Koistinen last year was when head coach Barry Trotz moved him to forward during the last 10 games of the season. “It was fun and a different game,” Koistinen said. “You see all the guys in front of you on defense. As a forward, you feel the game differently.”
Panthers assistant GM Randy Sexton made it clear when he signed Koistinen in July that he was “right at the top of our list” when it came to signing unrestricted free agents.
“He’s a guy we think has some upside offensively,” he said. “We don’t think his numbers in Nashville depicted what he’s capable of doing.”
For Koistinen, who describes himself as an offensive defenseman – “I try to support the forwards all the time and skate and move the puck a lot” – a new team returning to an old haunt might be just what he needed.
“I’m excited about everything,” he said. “(Nashville) was tough last year, but they gave me a chance. Now I’m going to Florida, though, and I’m excited about getting a new chance playing for a new team.”