ZÜRICH – Ari Sulander, 40, has won a World Championship with Team Finland, four Finnish championships with Jokerit, three Swiss titles with the ZSC Lions, two European Cup titles with Jokerit, and last season, the Champions Hockey League with ZSC Lions.
He’s never been drafted to the NHL, and while he did face Wayne Gretzky in the 1998 Nagano Olympics bronze medal game - which Finland won - Sulander has never played against an NHL opponent.
He almost did, once. But that was 15 years ago.
“Back in 1994, the Winnipeg Jets started their season in Finland, and Jokerit had a chance to play against them,” Sulander says.
The Jets were in Finland with Teemu Selanne and Teppo Numminen, and games against both players’ old teams were planned. Only, to make it a tournament, the organizers needed a fourth team to play in the other semi-final. That way, the Jets would play against Tappara, Numminen’s old team, while Jokerit would play the Jets in the final after they’d beat Helsinki rival HIFK.
“But we messed it up, and HIFK got to play in the final against the Jets. But this time, it will come true,” Sulander says, smiling.
This time, Sulander and his team have earned their place in the main event. The veteran goaltender is looking forward to Tuesday’s Victoria Cup.
“It’s been a long summer, especially long since we got ousted form the playoffs in the first round, which was a huge disappointment, but it’s a new season, with new challenges and opportunities,” he says.
“Obviously, we’re a little longer into the season, and have played regular season games while their season is just starting, but on the other hand, they’re probably more skilled and have more toughness than we. Our advantage is that we’ll be playing on a big ice and it may just be very big for them. I know I have to stop the first puck and then be ready for them when they come for rebounds.
“If we get a good start and can skate and move the puck fast, anything is possible,” he adds.
That “anything” would be a Lions victory.
“Of course we want to win, we aim to win. It would a nice feather in the cap for a European team if we managed to beat them,” says Sulander.
In fact, European teams have been on the losing end since 1991 when Dynamo Moscow beat the Quebec Nordiques, 4-1.
Sulander may just be a little hungrier than the rest, and not only because he’s had to wait for 15 years to meet an NHL team, but also because he’s only played one game this season.
“We’ve had injury problems with forwards, so the coaching staff has had to play all our non-Swiss forwards, which has then left me out of the lineup,” he says.
“And then we’ve won so there hasn’t been a need for a change. I played our last game which was good for Tuesday,” he says.
That’s about to change because, according to recent news reports, Sulander will apply for a Swiss passport which would free him from import rules next year and might add another season to his career. Another goalie about to apply for Swiss citizenship is Cristobal Huet, a Frenchman married to a Swiss. And the Blackhawks’ starting goalkeeper Sulander will be facing in the Victoria Cup.
Tuesday’s game won’t be their first battle.
In 2001, Sulander’s Lions met Huet’s Lugano in the Swiss National League A final. In Game 7, the Lions were down by a goal, 1-0, a few minutes before the end, but managed to tie the game, and then win it in overtime to clinch the Swiss title. The Lugano fans went mad in such a way that the players were rushed to the locker room for safety.
There is only one way to make the Victoria Cup more memorable than that for Sulander – winning.