Finland has become a hockey power. It was quiet at first with three wins at World Junior tournaments in the past few years (2014, 2016, and 2019). The nation announced their arrival among the international hockey elite with great fanfare in all tournaments over the last two years, culminating this past year with a stunning championship win at the World Championship.
This shouldn’t come as a surprise to those who have followed the small country’s growth in recent years. They’ve focused heavily on developing their prospects during their amateur careers.
The 2019 draft class is the latest crop from that revamped system. Finland was among the most well-represented groups at the NHL Scouting Combine in Buffalo. These young stars are sure to be next in what is becoming a long line of standout NHL players, and this emergence is changing the game for other countries now.
Many of the Finns are still enjoying their gold medal from the World Championship. Ville Heinola is currently looking to make it to the NHL, but that hasn’t stopped him from savouring the win with his fellow countrymen.
“I’ve been here [at the combine In Buffalo],” said Heinola, “but still happy to celebrate it like I was on the ice with other Finns.”
Heinola was also part of the latest Finnish U20 squad that captured a gold medal at the World Juniors this past January.
“It is awesome to represent them,” he explained. “Finnish hockey is now the hot thing, and that’s really good.”
Antti Saarela also boosted the Finnish program, and recognizes his place, and that of his peers, in the rise.
“In Finland we do really good stuff in hockey and it’s fun to be a part of it,” he said. “I think they’re doing their best to push us forward.”
Fellow draft mate Patrik Puistola echoed these sentiments, speaking of his time with the U18 squad this past season.
“Of course it’s good and it’s positive for sure,” said Puistola. “Finland doesn’t win often, but when they do it shows the rest of us that we can win, too.”
Puistola, Saarela, and Anttoni Honka will all be key pieces of a Finland squad that should be a top contender at the 2020 World Juniors in the Czech Republic, but aren’t limiting their focus to just their current level.
“Of course the one gold is nice, but I want to play as an Under-20 at the World Championship games. That’s where I want to be and to help the team,” Honka explained.
Puistola hopes to be a big part of that, building on a five-goals-in-five-games performance at the U18 tournament. With players like him joining returning members like Honka and Heinola, the Finns will be another difficult opponent for any team to face.
Despite the ability to play in North America after their draft, many of these players are opting to stay in Liiga, representing the top league in Finland. Not only is this surprising based on past history, as many young players typically came overseas to make their names, it highlights the quality of the prospects coming up through the club system with so many top-ranked Finns each year. Players as young as 18 are playing regular minutes on Liiga teams, and thriving in their development.
“I think we are doing a lot of good things as we’re growing up as players,” said Honka. “We’re going to the ice often, and doing things on the ice to help us develop.”
This year’s draft class is following in the steps of former young Finnish stars like Jesperi Kotkaniemi, who starred in Montreal this past year despite being just 18 years old.
“It always helps if someone else does it first,” said Saarela. “I see that and all I need now is to just believe in myself.”
With Kaapo Kakko right at the top, the 2019 Draft is loaded with Finnish talent. Elite Prospects lists 42 of them on their prospect list.
Regardless of where any of these prospects get selected, one point remains clear: The small European nation is setting down roots across the game of hockey. The Finnish invasion is not slowing down any time soon.