The Late Bloomer
by Ryan O'Leary|08 SEP 2020
Finnish forward Joel Kiviranta celebrates with the trophy following the 3-1 gold medal game win against Canada at the 2019 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship.
photo: Matt Zambonin / HHOF-IIHF Images
“We’re not going home!”

That was the line yelled out by Dallas Stars Forward Joel Kiviranta in the locker room following his most improbable hat trick in Game 7 against the Colorado Avalanche last weekend.

Kiviranta looked like a deer in headlights as his teammates demanded a “speech” from him and his shy, somewhat shell-shocked demeanour came with good reason.

Earlier that morning, the 24-year-old wasn’t even in the line-up for the pivotal tilt. A late inclusion due to injury, Kiviranta joined Dallas’ fourth line in his first-ever NHL playoff game.

“It’s an unforgettable moment,” Kiviranta said in postgame comments. “I didn’t know what to expect from this day, it was the first Game 7 of my life.”

“It was pretty fun,” he said with a smile. And boy did he take advantage of the opportunity.

At 3:06 of the second period, Kiviranta adroitly deflected a Denis Guryanov shot from the point past Avs’ goalkeeper Michael Hutchinson to tie the game at two goals apiece.

Right place. Right time.

Then, during a crazy flurry of lead changes, in which the teams flip-flopped three goals late in the third period, Kiviranta buried a tough-angle rebound from the goal line to tie the game at four and force overtime.

As the puck rebounded off the goaltender, again, it was Kiviranta in the right place at the right time.

Finally, at 7:24 of overtime, Kiviranta completed the hat trick, skating to a soft spot in the high slot, taking a pass from Andrej Sekera and snapping the puck quickly over Hutchinson’s shoulder to end the series.

“It was pretty unreal,” Kiviranta exclaimed with a wide grin. “This is the moment you dream about as a kid.

How ‘unreal’ was his three-goal performance. Put it to you this way: the last person to notch a trio of goals in a playoff game seven was Wayne Gretzky in 1993.

But, if you ask Finnish national team head coach Jukka Jalonen, he’s not totally surprised by the performance.

“Joel has always worked hard, skates well and puts himself in the right position to succeed,” he began. “And, he’s always had a great shot, so he’s capable of scoring those goals.”

Kiviranta was called up a few times this season from the Texas Stars, Dallas’ AHL affiliate, and notched one goal in 11 games. He’s been with Dallas in the bubble – part of the taxi squad – since they arrived in Edmonton in late July.

Just like his improbable hat trick, Kiviranta’s ascent to the NHL playoffs has not been an easy road. Known as a great skater, but not for elite puck skills, Kiviranta went undrafted and decided to ply his trade in Finland with Vaasa Sport in the country’s top league.

“He wasn’t the top player in his draft year,” Jalonen said. “He was a late bloomer.”

With Vaasa, “Kivi” learned to develop all parts of his game, how to become a reliable penalty killer, a tight checker and oh yeah, how to have a quick, advantageous shot release.

After three productive years with Vaasa, Kiviranta gained the attention of Jalonen for inclusion on the 2019 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship roster.

“He came to camp ready and did everything we asked him to do,” Jalonen remembered. “He was extremely productive throughout and really showed his growth as a hockey player during the process.”

Kiviranta and the so-called “No Name” Finnish team put together another classic tournament performance that the country is known for.

Great goaltending. Tight checking. Timely scoring. The Finnish way.

Going into the tournament as underdogs, the team won gold for Finland for the third time in history.

In the middle of that defensive, responsible performance was Kiviranta – a stalwart in the bottom six for Jalonen’s squad.

“Joel is the type of player a coach can trust in all situations,” said Jalonen. “I never worried when he was on the ice and that’s saying a lot.”

Jalonen used Kiviranta on his best defensive line throughout the tournament, had him kill penalties and frustrate the opponent’s skill players. Of course, he wouldn’t shy away from the heroics, scoring the game winner against France in the preliminary round.

The trust between the two was so strong that Jalonen put Kiviranta on the ice for the final shift of the gold medal game against Canada. 

Kiviranta’s hard work, both in terms of overcoming draft disappointment and committing to a more balanced, bottom-six forward role paid off.

In late May, after the tournament, Dallas Stars general manager Jim Nill came calling with a two-way, entry-level contract for the young Finn – sending him to play for the AHL Stars. Kiviranta is not the first player to get a “boost” from a fine World Championship performance, but certainly the latest to make good on it.

Kiviranta is so accustomed to his position with the Texas Stars that he gave a humorous response to a reporter’s question about his mindset during Game 7.

“I just hope I get more games,” Kiviranta said humbly. “I know it’s not just about me and it’s about making the best roster and the best chance to win.”

“Like I said, team first,” he finished.

Jalonen says he’s spoken to Kiviranta over the past season and believes the player still probably sees himself as an AHL player, despite the moment of heroism.

“Dallas should give him as many games as he wants,” Jalonen said confidently. “He’s going to have a long career if he continues to do the things he’s capable of.

To round out Kiviranta’s story, Jalonen probably gave the best anecdote. When asked if he had anything else to ask, the long-time Finnish coach said: “When players ask what they should do if they’re not drafted, I’ll use Joel as an example of a guy who kept getting better and is now enjoying the rewards.”

Author’s Note: The Dallas Stars beat the Vegas Golden Knights in Game 1 of the Western Conference final, and yes, Kiviranta was definitely in the line-up.