LAPPEENRANTA – For Michael Nylander and Sami Kapanen, whose sons will face off at the 2014 IIHF Ice Hockey U18 World Championship quarter-final game between Finland and Sweden, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.
With Kasperi Kapanen and William Nylander headlining the European player rankings for the 2014 NHL Entry Draft, Thursday’s game could be the last chance for one of the players to make a big impression on the over 230 scouts that are in Lappeenranta and Imatra for the U18s.
Nylander has been on fire lately, registering 11 points in the four games of the preliminary round, including nine in the last two games. Kapanen has been quieter with just a goal and an assist despite leading his team with 15 shots on net.
"They both have great tools and excellent offensive instincts," said NHL European scouting director Goran Stubb on the league website. "Kapanen [6-foot, 180 pounds] is a bit taller than Nylander [5-11, 169] and perhaps more mature as a player, but there is a very small difference between the two."
Both players were born in 1996 when their fathers were still in the NHL. Nylander was born in Calgary where his father played for the Flames, Kapanen in Finland but moved to Hartford almost immediately, the former home of the Whalers who drafted Sami in the fourth round in 1991.
For Kasperi, his road to hockey was a short one. “It runs in the blood, when I was one or two years old I got a stick and started whacking at anything on the floor,” he said.
“Kasperi has loved hockey since he could walk, he would play with anybody who would be willing, grandparents, family friends, or whoever would come to the house,” said Sami. “I remember coming home after late games, and in the morning Kasperi would be at my bed wanting to play hockey before I had to leave for practice.”
No surprise, given that the Kapanens, like the Koivus and Ruutus, are among Finnish hockey’s first families. When Kasperi stepped onto the ice in his first game for KalPa Kuopio, it marked the third generation of his family to play in Finland’s top league. His grandfather Hannu, Sami’s father, had both coaching and playing stints with Jokerit Helsinki and HIFK among others. He also coached the Finnish team at the U20 World Championship in 1998 and 2000.
Funny enough Kasperi’s first pro game came against SaiPa Lappeenranta, the home team at the U18 Worlds’ main venue. Sami wasn’t able to join him that first game due to an injury, but recalls watching him step on the ice.
“I was nervous in the back of my mind, hoping that he would do well and not get hurt, but once he started playing I knew he would be fine,” he said.
Not long after, father and son played their first game together.
“It’s honestly hard to put into words playing with Kasperi at the highest level of Finnish hockey,” said Sami. “It’s special but when the game starts the play takes over and that’s all you think about.”
Kapanen had an up and down season prior to the U18 tournament. While he got to play with KalPa for the whole year, he was all set to participate in the 2014 IIHF World Junior Championship before a shoulder injury sidelined him just a week before the start of the tournament, forcing him to return home and watch the national team win gold from his couch.
“It was unfortunate, I’ve gotten over it but it still stings a bit when I think about it, but you can’t do anything. I was really happy for them though,” said Kapanen.
Looking ahead to the summer if all goes to plan Kasperi will be picked in the first round of the 2014 NHL Entry Draft in Philadelphia. It’s a fitting location considering that his father finished his NHL career with the Flyers.
“It will be pretty special to be in Philadelphia for the draft,” said Sami. “I haven’t been to an NHL draft before so it will be exciting to see.”
Kasperi’s experiences at the top level of Finnish hockey have taught him a few things, and he feels he really benefitted from his move to the senior team.
“I think I’m a bit more mature on and off the ice, you really got to be strict with sleeping and eating and all that healthy stuff, it’s a long season and you got to be in tip top shape for every game.
For a teenager playing against men at the top level of a physical sport, Kapanen doesn’t seem too afraid of taking on the agitator role.
“There are stronger guys there so you got to be tough, I’m kind of loud I like to talk a lot, sometimes it gets me into trouble (laughs), I mean who wants a 16 year old chirping them? It gets them off their game though.”
Kapanen went back to his junior team at the end of the season and helped them win the bronze medal, scoring a gorgeous game winning goal. In overtime, he gained possession of the puck after a great backchecking effort, before deking out seemingly the entire team and finishing off by firing the puck into the net from between his legs (Click here for the video
“At first I didn’t know what I did, I can remember up to the point I got to the D-man then I kind of blacked out (laughs), but I talked to my dad after the game, he had a big smile on his face.”
“He’s at least a step ahead of what I was at that age on a lot of things,” said Sami. “He’s got hustle, he’s stronger, faster, taller.”
Faster? Surely the former two-time NHL All-Star Fastest Skater could still win in a race?
“Not anymore,” said Sami.
As for Nylander, he is right on track to an NHL career that seemed predestined given the example set by his father. Michael Nylander built a reputation in the NHL as a great playmaker, something that his son is doing all over again, particularly at the U18s where he has been all over the ice and seemingly involved in every Swedish goal.
“He was the one who put me on skates for the first time, and I watched him play all the time on television, I was never too far from the hockey world,” said William. “I remember standing in the elevator with Mario Lemieux one time, I said hi to him and will always remember that. I also met a lot of the guys who my dad played with like Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom.”
“It’s a pretty special feeling, not many players get to experience that, to have someone so close who’s had so much NHL experience, I sort of follow him around and look at his routine and how he goes about doing things and try to put it into my routine as well.”
Talking to Michael, you get the sense that William is mature beyond his years, and has the right temperament to be a successful professional athlete.
“He’s the older brother in the household and when I was playing on the road he helped to handle things at home and taking care of his siblings. He’s very easy going and his maturity level is high and it’s translated well to hockey.”
“He has high expectations of himself, he’s not happy after most games,” said Michael. “But he’s done well at every level.”
In what might have been a serious blow for the Swedish U18 offence, growing up William flirted with the idea of playing goalie, but Dad subtly turned him off of that road.
“When he was younger he was really into being a goalie, I just kept shooting hard at him inside the basement to stop that (laughs),” said Michael.
William got the chance to play with his dad for Sodertalje when both players joined the team for the 2012/2013 season.
“It was really fun, practising at the same time and sitting across from each other in the dressing room, it was really cool to play with him or to be on the bench watching and seeing his development from so close and taking his step from junior hockey to [second-tier senior league] Allsvenskan.”
“He’s more laid-back,” said William. “But once the game starts he’s all about it and an hour or so after the game he goes over everything that happened, sometimes he gives you advice and other times he’ll give you crap (laughs).”
Whatever happens in this tournament, it is clear that both Sami and Michael Nylander raised some quality hockey players. Both fathers will be on hand to watch their sons play against each other on Thursday afternoon, and regardless of the result, the future looks bright for Kasperi and William. Finland plays Sweden in the 2014 IIHF Ice Hockey U18 World Championship quarter-final game at 17:00 EET.