With the recent signing of Jussi Jokinen, the Panthers are now projected to have more than 10% of their opening night roster from Finland. Although this Nordic country has a population of only approximately 5.5 million people, it is not surprising that Finland continues to produce some of the world's best hockey players. With a men's national team ranked second in the most recent IIHF rankings and a women's national team ranked fourth in the most recent IIHF rankings, Finland is an international hockey powerhouse.
In addition to being a leading country in the technology and gaming industry (home of Rovio, the company that invented Angry Birds), Finland has produced world-class athletes for decades, including Lasse Viren who won four Olympic gold medals in long-distance running, Mika Hakkinen who won two Formula One championships and Juha Kankkunen and Tommi Makinen who each won four World Rally Championships.
With two gold medals in the IIHF World Championships, a second place finish in the 2004 Canada Cup and six Olympic hockey medals in 14 Olympic competitions, Finland has consistently achieved notable success on the world hockey stage despite having a population considerably smaller than the top opponents against which it plays.
Finnish roots in the NHL date back to 1926 when Finnish-born Al Pudas suited up for the Toronto St. Pats. It would be more than 20 years until a Finnish-born player scored a goal in an NHL game when Pentti Lund scored for the New York Rangers in 1948. An additional 20 years would pass until Tommi Salmelainen would become the first Finnish (and European) player drafted by an NHL team when the St. Louis Blues drafted him in 1969. Only eight years after that, Matti Hagman became the first Finnish-born and Finnish-trained player in the NHL. Since then, Finnish stars such as Jari Kurri and Teemu Selanne have consistently been among the top players in the NHL.
The Finnish influence in the NHL continues to this day, especially in South Florida where there is a growing contingent of Finnish players. With forwards Aleksander Barkov, Sean Bergenheim and new free agent signing Jussi Jokinen, the Panthers have three Finns ready to make an immediate impact this coming season. In addition, the Panthers have high hopes for Juho Lammikko, whom the Panthers recently selected in the third round (65th overall) of the recent NHL draft. Lammikko, one of nine Finns selected in the 2014 NHL draft, joined Barkov at last week's development camp in South Florida.
Sean Bergenheim was the first of the current Finns to join the Panthers organization, signing a four-year contract before the 2011-12 season and playing an important role on the Panthers Southeast Division winning team.
The Finnish ranks doubled at the 2013 NHL Entry Draft when the Panthers selected Aleksander Barkov with the second overall pick. Barkov put together a strong rookie season that was rewarded with a trip to the 2014 Winter Olympics where he became the youngest Finn to ever win an Olympic medal.
During the Olympics, Barkov got a chance to play with Jokinen. The two forwards quickly developed an on-ice rapport, and that relationship would pay huge dividends when the Panthers began their pursuit of Jokinen in free agency. After signing Jokinen, Panthers General Manager Dale Tallon told the media that wanting to team up with Barkov was a big factor in Jokinen’s decision to come to Florida.
“He wanted to play here because of Barkov and all of the young, good players that we have in our system,” Tallon said. “He was excited to get an opportunity to play with Barkov. Getting to know him at the Olympics this year was a big plus.”
Barkov echoed that sentiment at last week’s development camp when he was asked about the acquisition of Jokinen.
“That’s good for me. It’s like a dream come true to play with him,” Barkov said. “I met him at the Olympics and I really like him. He is a nice guy and a really good player.”
Finland may be a small country, but it has a sterling history of producing excellent hockey players, and excellent athletes in general. There were 23 Finns who played at least one NHL game last season. For the Panthers, tapping into Finland’s steady stream of skilled hockey players is a no-brainer. With Barkov, Bergenheim and Jokinen set for next season, and with 2014 draftee, Lammikko, added to the system, the Finnish influence will be felt in South Florida this coming season and for many seasons to come.