While the announcement came in June, Kukkonen had made the decision already in February, as the transfer window closed. While most players have been in a state of limbo, not knowing when the next season would start, the pause gave Kukkonen a chance to reconsider his decision.
“If anything, I’ve become even more convinced that this was the right thing to do,” Kukkonen said in Finnish broadcaster YLE’s sports radio show.
“I can leave the game on my own terms, sort of, without an injury putting an end to it, and that’s something I always wanted,” he added.
The Oulu native can look back on a fantastic career that began and ended in his hometown in northern Finland and took him to the NHL, the KHL, Sweden, four Olympics, and ten World Championships. He came up through the Karpat junior system, was named the captain at 21 - the youngest captain in Liiga history at the time - he’s now the Karpat all-time leader in games played with 673.
He won Olympic silver in 2006, bronze in 2010 and 2014 and the World Championship gold medal in 2011 as well as two World Championship silver medals and one bronze. He was also on the 1999 national team that won the inaugural U18 World Championship. And of course, there are the four Finnish titles, and the three times he got to hoist the championship trophy – the Canada Bowl – as team captain.
Another career highlight came in the NHL when Kukkonen, having been traded to Philadelphia from the Blackhawks that drafted him in the fifth round in 2003, formed a defensive pair with another Oulu native, Joni Pitkanen.
“We’ve known each other since we were kids, we lived close in Oulu. When we played outdoor shinny in Oulu, neither one of us could have imagined that one day we’d play together in the NHL. That was unforgettable,” Kukkonen says.
Kukkonen hasn’t turned his back on the game by any means. He still works out at the same facilities as before, but the workouts are a little different now.
“There’s more tennis,” he said.
And, once the puck drops for the 2020/21 season in October, Kukkonen will be paying attention to Karpat, even if he’s also looking forward to returning to the Oulu outdoor skating rinks, and maybe playing in charity pond hockey tournaments.
“It’ll be a long while ’til I put on my shoulder pads again,” said Kukkonen, known as a reliable stay-at-home defenceman who wouldn’t hesitate to throw himself in front of the puck.
“To be honest, I may never wear them again, because they were so old that they don’t make them anymore. The only other player who uses similar ones is [another Oulu native and Kukkonen’s long-time teammate] Juhamatti Aaltonen and he’s already asked me to give them to him, for parts,” Kukkonen said with a laugh.
Once hockey returns, so will Kukkonen return to the Karpat arena in Raksila. If nothing else, then to the inevitable number retirement ceremony.