After the Jets drafted Ville Heinola from Honkajoki, Finland during the 1st round of the 2019 Entry Draft in Vancouver it seemed like the city and Jets team were officially wild for all things Finnish.
It’s official. Winnipeg is now FinniPeg. #NHLJets
— Dave Minuk (@ICdave) June 22, 2019
Of course when you consider the love affair spawned by superstar Teemu Selanne here in Winnipeg between 1992 and 1995 and before him fan favouite/rock steady defenceman Teppo Numminen (1988-96) it isn’t hard to understand why folks in ‘Peg city continue to go crazy for Finns.
While it seems normal to see Finnish players on either the Jets or Moose roster the first time the team actually drafted a player from Finland was back in 2015 when they took smooth-skating Sami Niku in the 7th round with the 198th overall pick. He was followed by the selection of Patrik Laine with the 2nd overall pick in 2016. The next year the Jets added two more Finns with the selection of Kristian Vesalainen (1st round) and Santeri Virtanen (4th) at the 2017 draft in Chicago. They didn’t draft any Finns at the NHL Draft in Dallas back in 2018 but most recently in Vancouver they again added a pair in Ville Heinola (1st) and Henri Nikkanen (4th).
Now before you think this is by design Jets Director of amateur scouting Mark Hillier was speaking following the draft in Vancouver and was asked about their willingness to take guys from different spots “I don’t care where they come from I’m just trying to find NHL players. That’s the bottom line.” Although he clearly recognizes the state of things as he dropped a Finnipeg reference in that same scrum.
And while it may not be by design it clearly doesn’t hurt having familiar faces in an unfamiliar environment. When 2019 4th rounder Henri Nikkanen was asked this week at Development Camp about what he thought when he heard he was drafted by Winnipeg “Of course there’s a lot of Finns here. I am happy for that. I know lots of guys from here. I know these young guys and I have heard that this is a real great organization with great fans and ya I am happy to be here.”
In addition to these drafted players the Jets signed Finnish forward Joona Luoto to a three-year entry-level contract back on June 15th. Luoto has spent the past three seasons playing with Tappara in Finland. He was asked during Development Camp about the Finnish presence in Winnipeg “Ya of course it’s so much easier when there is someone who speaks your native language. But that’s not the main thing, but it’s like bonus thing for me.”.
Between the Jets and Moose roster that means there will be four Finnish players next season and there could be as many as five to seven Finnish players between the two teams in the next year or two.
When Kristian Vesalainen was asked about it this week and whether Finland is taking over the organization he clearly agreed with the sentiment in the headline “We should maybe call this Finnipeg or something like that. It is fun to have Finnish and Swedish guys here.”
This isn’t to suggest that there haven’t been Finns in the organization prior to 2015. Who could forget Antti “mittens” Miettinen (2011-2013) and Olli Jokinen (2012-2014) as well as Joel Armia (2015-2018). But those Finns were added by way of waiver claim (Miettinen), free agent signing (Jokinen) as well as by trade (Armia) and not via the draft and develop model which has been a key to the recent Jets success. Honourable mention goes out to goalie Jussi Olkinuora who was signed back in 2013 after spending two seasons at the University of Denver and spent a few years playing in the AHL and ECHL before returning home to continue his career in Finland.
And while she wasn’t in the Winnipeg Jets organization I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Finnish forward Venla Hovi. She was part of the University of Manitoba Bison women’s hockey team which brought the first national title to the program in 2017-18.
It looks like it is past time for me to brush up on my Finnish. Simply knowing Kiitos (thank you) won’t be sufficient anymore here in Finnipeg.