ZURICH-KLOTEN – When the 36-year-old Petteri Nummelin finally retires – and that still might be many years from now – he’ll be able to look back on one of the most truly international careers of all time. He has played in Finland, Sweden, Switzerland, and North America, and is currently in Kloten representing Finland for the 14th time at the World Championship (to go along with an appearance at the Olympics in 2006).
“It’s always exciting to play for the Finnish national team no matter how many times I’ve played, to go up against the best players in the world,” he said of his everlasting commitment to his country.
In fact, it was his play at his first World Championship, in 1995, that helped launch his career from local to worldly. The son of the legendary Timo, Petteri had been playing for his hometown team of Turku when he was invited to join the Finnish national team for the ’95 Worlds. But the defenceman was not guaranteed a spot on that team. “I remember sitting in the stands for the first three games, waiting to see if any NHLers were coming over,” he related. “I was 22 years old. When I finally got to play, I was so nervous. I don’t remember anything about the game, really. I just wanted to make sure not to fall down.”
The timing of his development couldn’t have been better. Finland won the gold medal that year – the first and still only gold in the country’s history – and as a result he attracted interest from club teams in Sweden. He signed with Frölunda and stayed two years before moving on to Switzerland, the country he would return to time and again.
It was during his three seasons with Davos that Nummelin developed into a world-class player, and, not surprisingly, he attracted attention from the NHL. He was drafted by Columbus in 2000 and played for the Blue Jackets that fall, recording four goals and 16 points in 61 games. After just one season, however, he returned to Switzerland, this time to Lugano, where he stayed for five years.
Nummelin accomplished something almost unheard of in hockey during his second stay in Switzerland. In 2002-03 he won the Swiss scoring title, only the second defenceman to do so (current Team USA coach Ron Wilson was the first, in 1984-85). Two years later, he almost did it again, finishing only five points behind Joe Thornton despite playing four fewer games.
Nummelin was lured back to the NHL in 2006, playing two seasons with the Minnesota Wild because of his friend and compatriot, Mikko Koivu, who was with the team. Again, however, the lure of Switzerland pulled Nummelin back to Europe, and in 2008 he signed a three-year contract with Lugano again. This means he’ll likely be in at least two more World Championships before his days are done. “We’ll see have to wait until next year to see if I play,” he said with a telling smile. “One year at a time.”
During his second stint in the NHL, Nummelin developed a knack for success in the shootout. In fact, he is a career 8-for-9 in the extra time penalty shots, a remarkable record for a defenceman. This stat merely highlights his many offensive talents, though.
Regardless of his professional success, Nummelin is far more famous as a Finn playing for his country than as a member of any particular club team. In addition to the gold in 1995, he won silver medals in 1998, 1999, 2001, and 2007 (as well as in Turin in ’06). He also won two bronze, in 2000 and 2006. Heading into this year’s tournament, he had played 93 World Championship games, and if all goes according to form he’ll reach the century mark before the end of the championship.
Nonetheless, it is his first World Championship that remains special. “Winning gold was the best experience of my career,” he admitted. “I mean, we haven’t won since. We’ve been close a couple of times but just weren’t able to get the win. That’s hockey.”