“Sami would bring Kasperi to the rink and on family day, he’d take him out on the ice and get him started with skating,” Rutherford said before adding with a smile, “So, I guess you could say this is a player that I’ve scouted for a long time.”
Rutherford wasn’t the only Pens staff member getting an early read on Kasperi’s abilities.
In 1998, Rutherford drafted a young Swedish forward named Tommy Westlund in the fourth round (93rd overall), and he made the team in the 1999-00 season. Westlund bonded with Sami Kapanen right away because of their shared European background, and when they were assigned to be road roommates the two became even closer.
“When I came there, there weren’t that many Europeans there,” Tommy said. “I think it’s just easier to bond with a European than with a North American guy, especially when you’re a new guy. There were no Swedes, so I had to stick to the Finn (laughs). Then we became roommates, so it was just a natural thing. Sami is still a good friend of mine. It worked out well.”
As they lived just 10 minutes apart from each other in Carolina, their families would get together often and Tommy and Sami would organize games of street hockey with the kids.
“Kasperi was very competitive,” Westlund recalled with a laugh. “Very, very competitive. If he lost he just got so mad. So we had to let Kasperi win a few times (laughs).”
After Carolina advanced to the Stanley Cup Final in 2002 and lost in five games to the Detroit Red Wings, Westlund and Kapanen each spent one more year in the Hurricanes organization before moving on. Westlund went to the American Hockey League and then back to Sweden, while Rutherford traded Kapanen to the Flyers mainly for cap reasons.
“I actually felt bad when it came time to trade him,” Rutherford said of Sami. “At that time it was more of a money thing, it had nothing to do with his play. Those are always more difficult. But he was a special guy. He was a good team guy, A good player.”
The Kapanen family remained in Philadelphia until 2008, which is when Sami decided to return home and join KalPa Kuopio of the Finnish Elite League – where Kasperi later joined his dad for part of the 2012-13 season and all of the 2013-14 campaign.
Coincidentally, Westlund was working there as one of two European scouts on the Pens amateur staff after being hired by the organization in 2011. So as Kasperi was playing in his region during his draft year, Westlund was responsible for helping compile a “book” on him that would later help the Pens hockey ops staff rank the eligible prospects on their board.
During that process, Westlund reconnected with the Kapanens. And while Kasperi’s last name certainly meant something, Westlund said it was the teenager’s raw ability that made him such an exciting prospect.
“We usually don’t look at kids younger than the ones that are getting drafted the next summer, but Kasperi was with the national team as an underage and really stood out, so his talent was well-known,” Westlund said.
Kapanen’s actual draft year had its ups and downs, as he dealt with injuries – which forced him to miss the 2014 World Junior Championship, an important tournament for draft-eligible prospects – and the challenge of being a 17-year-old kid playing against grown men.
“In his draft year, he battled through some injuries but as an underage, I just really liked his compete and I think he already has an NHL shot and speed,” Westlund said. “So he just needs to learn the American way to play hockey. But the talent that he has, it’s hard to teach.”
The Pens liked Kapanen so much they ranked him seventh on their board heading into the 2014 NHL Draft in Philadelphia, where newly-hired general manager Rutherford selected Kasperi with the 22nd overall selection – almost 20 years after taking his dad.
“I guess you realize where you’re at in your life,” laughed Rutherford, who caught up with Sami, in town to support his son, after the pick was announced. “Not many guys get to do that, so I’m fortunate I’ve been in the game that long. But to still have the same ties to a player that I really respected and liked, and to be able to carry that on with his son is special.”
It was a special night for Westlund too, seeing the man that drafted him – who had just become his boss a few weeks earlier – select a player from his region, one he’d watched grow up as he just so happened to be the son of a close friend.
“It’s such a small world,” Westlund said. “Who would’ve known when I left the U.S. that I would end up spending a draft day with Jimmy, (Pens vice president of hockey operations) Jason Karmanos and Sami Kapanen? It’s amazing. But it’s fun at the same time. I really had a great time in Carolina and they treated me really well there, so it’s good to see those guys again.”
Both Rutherford and Westlund see a lot of similarities between the father and son. The biggest one that stands out to Rutherford is their skating ability.
“Phenomenal speed,” Rutherford said. “You know, Sami won the fastest skater at the All-Star Game one year and I wouldn’t be surprised if his son does the same thing at some point.”
For Westlund, it was more about the intangibles.
“Sami was very competitive when he played, and he was very fast, had a good shot,” he said. “So they are a lot alike. I think the desire to win and the compete is what made Sami the good player that he was, and Kasperi has that too.”
Both men have also noticed the influence that Sami has had on his son.
“Kasperi is very mature,” Rutherford said. “You can tell he’s been around hockey forever. He’s just a hockey guy; it’s in his blood.”
“I think having Sami as his dad and growing up being in the locker room in Philly and Carolina has helped Kasperi act like a pro,” Westlund said. “He knows what it takes to make it because he’s seen his dad play and he’s been around pros, so I think that’s a very good experience for him. So I think he will do really, really well for us for a long time. But at the same time, he’s only 18 and he needs to learn the American way of playing hockey and that will take some time, but when he does, he will do great.”
Westlund just has one request of Kasperi moving forward.
“I gave him a lot of sticks growing up, so I hope he returns the favor now and passes them on to me,” Westlund laughed.