COLOGNE – In the 1978 World Championship in Prague, Czechoslovakia, Team Finland introduced a young, but talented defenceman to the world. He was 18, smallish, a right-hand shot, and a great skater. He had just finished his first SM-liiga season, and would, two years later, be named Best Defenceman at the World Junior Championship.
His name was Reijo Ruotsalainen. “Reksa” - his Finnish nickname - went on to win one Finnish and three Swiss titles, and the Stanley Cup twice with the Edmonton Oilers.
This year, there's another 18-year-old defenceman on Team Finland in the World Championship. He, too, is smallish - 175 centimetres, 75 kilos - a right-hand shot, and a great skater. He just finished his first SM-liiga season.
His name is Sami Vatanen.
“He moves really well, and has a great hockey sense. He’s taken a surprisingly big role on the team here, and that’s been good to see,” says Reijo Ruotsalainen, who can see a bit of himself in Vatanen.
Three years ago, Vatanen played with a JYP under-15 team. Two years ago, his team won the Finnish junior title in under-16. A year ago, he made his debut in a men’s league, playing five games in the Finnish Mestis, and this year, he scored seven goals and 30 points - a record for rookie defencemen in SM-liiga.
At the 2010 World Junior Championship game against the Czechs, he scored two goals so impressive that when you search for "Sami Vatanen" on YouTube, you're prompted to add "amazing" to the search string.
He finishes the season with a trip to the World Championship, fighting off superstar forwards like Kovalchuk, Ovechkin, and, in the next game, Jaromir Jagr.
But Vatanen seems unfazed by it all.
“I love to play hockey, and have always been the one who wants the puck, or in the road hockey games, the ball,” he says.
“I just throw myself into the scheme of things. There’s no need to be afraid of making a mistake, everybody makes mistakes. Things happen,” he adds.
Good things happen, too, even if Vatanen tries to stay critical of his own play in the tournament. He’s averaged close to 17 minutes in the six games, and is minus-2. He also plays on the second powerplay unit.
“You have to be able to get better with each game here, and I’m happy with the way both the team and I have improved here,” he says.
According to Vatanen, a few years ago, he’d come home from school, hit the local rink, play with his friends all night long, come home to sleep, and go to school in the morning. And repeat that five days a week.
Quite the jump to the World Championship rink where he’s facing the Kovalchuks, Ovechkins, and, in the quarterfinal, Jaromir Jagr.
“I don’t think there have been any big surprises. Of course, I see superstars at the hotel in the morning, but that’s about it. But of course, I’ll have to work hard to keep up with the best players in the rink,” he says.
Vatanen has a lot of work to do, as well.
“Hockey is quite a bit different from when I played, but I’d like to see him make some even bolder moves. For example, on the power play, he should try to cycle the puck more, and use the other players to create scoring chances,” says Ruotsalainen. “Then again, it all depends on what he’s asked to do. If the coach tells him to shoot, he shoots.”
"Everybody understands that he’s not as strong as the more experienced and older players, but he’s just 18, that will come. All in all, he’s a fantastic player, and probably won’t stay in Finland very long,” he adds.
Fortunately for the Finnish fans, Vatanen recently signed a contract extension that will keep him in Jyväskylä for another two years.
“I’m not listening to any other offers, I signed with JYP, and that’s where I’ll play,” says the Anaheim Ducks’ fourth-round pick, 106th over all, in 2009.
“I don’t plan my career too much, I just try to enjoy playing, and take it one season at a time. I had a big role in Jyväskylä last year, so why not next year, as well. All I want to do now is to keep on developing as a player,” he adds.
Onward and upward.