PLYMOUTH, USA –
The last time Otto Somppi wore the Suomi sweater he was one happy camper. The scene was Grand Forks, North Dakota, in April, and Finland beat arch-rivals Sweden, 6-1, to win the gold medal at the 2016 World U18 Championship.
Somppi scored what turned out to be the winning goal late in the first period.
“I remember my good buddy Janne Kuokkonen got the puck off a faceoff and jammed it to the net,” Somppi recalled. “I got the rebound. It was pretty special because we are good friends. It was nice to play with him.”
Flash forward a few months and Somppi is again on American soil, this time at USA Hockey Arena in Plymouth, Michigan at the U20 evaluation camp with Finland, Canada, Sweden, and host United States.
Indeed, in the last 12 months Sommpi has had many successes in North America. After participating in the Ivan Hlinka tournament a year ago, he played the 2015-16 hockey season with the Halifax Mooseheads of the QMJHL, and after the U18 he went to Buffalo to attend the NHL Entry Draft in June.
“I went to Halifax because I want to play in the NHL. That’s where I want to be, and Canadian junior is the best way for me to get there,” he enthused after an optional practice in Plymouth. The 18-year-old had an admittedly tough rookie season by his standards.
“It maybe didn’t go exactly as I had hoped in Halifax. It wasn’t easy. I expected a little bit more from myself,” he said.
The language barrier, the lack of Finnish friends, the smaller ice, the culture change were all an adjustment, but by the end of the season he was back with Suomi for the U18, so perhaps he’s being hard on himself as well.
“I think I played well in the Hlinka tournament, so I was pretty confident I’d play in the U18,” Somppi continued. “The coaches watched me all year and gave me confidence.”
After the season he went to the Draft. It was a great experience because he heard his name called, but it was disappointing because he was selected 206th overall by Tampa Bay. Only five players were drafted after him on a weekend when 211 names were called.
“I went, but there were a lot of nerves,” he said candidly. “It was a really big event, but I was really happy I got selected.”
As for the low selection? “It’s great motivation,” he enthused. “I want to show everyone I’m not a 7th-rounder. I think my talent is more than the 7th round. It gives me a lot of motivation to show everyone.”
Ironically, Somppi is one of the older players on a very young Finnish team here in Plymouth. What’s more, he’s the only Moosehead player here, the coach of which is Canada’s head coach Dominique Ducharme.
“He showed me videos and talked to me a lot. He helped a lot in my first year,” Somppi said of Ducharme, knowing he has to show improvement in his second year. “I just need to develop my all-around game, improve in every area and become a better player. I think I can do that.”
Ducharme agreed. “It’s always an adjustment for players coming to North America,” he suggested. “Some adjust faster than others. I think it was a year of transition for him. He has great vision on ice, great skills. He can shoot and pass. He’s a kid who needs to see how everything works to feel comfortable. I wouldn’t be surprised if he takes a really big step this year and has a solid season in his second year.”
Further encouragement came from Ducharme regarding Sommpi’s draft placing. “You can’t control or predict the draft,” the coach explained. “Everyone has an opinion. But the most important thing is not what position you’re drafted; it’s more how you come out of it and how ready you are. Some guys don’t even get drafted and have great careers.”
As for Plymouth, Somppi is like every teammate and opponent—he’s here to impress. “Yes, this is also a tryout, for sure. Everyone here is thinking about making the team. I want to make the U20 team. I know if I play really well in Halifax, I will make it, in my mind.”
So far so good, but like any teen, he’s excited and impatient to show more. “I played in the first game and scored a goal, but I haven’t played since. It’s never easy not playing. I need to keep positive.”