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Send ‘em to Suomi: Finnish Canes hopeful for chance to play in home country

The Carolina Hurricanes are one of the top teams in the league, and have one of the best pools of Finnish talent at that, so there’s been no better time for Carolina to be picked to showcase in the NHL Global Series than now.

Florida Panthers v Carolina Hurricanes Photo by Gregg Forwerck/NHLI via Getty Images

Finland has long been a special place and one of deep reverence for the Carolina Hurricanes and their fans.

The Canes have a long tradition of top-end Finnish talent beyond the current entourage of Sebastian Aho, Teuvo Teravainen, Jesperi Kotkaniemi and Antti Raanta. From Sami Kapanen, one of the teams’ first All-Stars to the dynamic trio of Jussi Jokinen, Tuomo Ruutu and Joni Pitkanen, the latter of whom brought home Olympic bronze in 2010, Raleigh has become a home for many Finns.

It was also in 2010 that the Hurricanes had their first chance to play abroad in Finland, facing off against the Minnesota Wild in Helsinki.

And it was a moment that would unknowingly, yet profoundly, shape the future of the franchise.

“That was the only NHL game I had ever watched,” said current Canes star Sebastian Aho, “in Helsinki, when Carolina played Minnesota years ago. Before it, I wasn’t really into the NHL that much, but right away, it changed my mind.

“Back then my goal was just to make it to the Finnish League with my home club. I wasn’t thinking too much about the NHL. But just seeing that, it got me more into watching, especially Finnish players in the NHL, all over the league. As soon as I saw them live, I just watched them on Youtube and tried to watch all the games they played and all that stuff. For me at least, it brought me closer to the NHL.”

Five years later, as if fated, the Hurricanes selected Aho in the second round of the 2015 NHL Entry Draft. He has since blossomed into a true star, leading the Hurricanes in goals and points in each of the last five regular seasons and producing at nearly a point per playoff game as Carolina’s No. 1 center.

Now, over a decade removed from their last showcase, is the perfect time for Carolina to be back in Finland, showcasing some of the top NHL – and especially Finnish – talent the league has to offer.

“I do think it makes a big difference,” said current Hurricanes defenseman Brent Burns who played for Minnesota in that 2010 Helsinki series. “You can hear it from a guy like [Aho] that when he was a kid and witnessing it, it meant something to him as someone being in that country and seeing a game.”

The NHL Global Series is a chance to showcase the highest level of professional hockey across the European continent to audiences who usually wouldn’t ever have a chance to physically go to an NHL game.

“You don’t usually ever see those guys that play [in North America],” said forward Jesperi Kotkaniemi. “It’s special for the Finnish people to see North American players over there.

“It’s pretty awesome for them, but especially for the younger players and the kids that don’t really get to see us that much. I think it’s pretty cool for them to see us live and see how it is here.”

Since the inception of the NHL Global Series (2017-2019; 2022), the league has hosted games in Sweden, Finland and Czechia, but even dating back to the inception of the NHL Premiere series (2007-2011) the only other additions were London in 2007 and Berlin in 2011.

There’s been a set group of rotating home countries that the NHL likes to visit, so even though Finland was a site this year, there’s no reason for it to not come up again in the rotation soon.

While it would matter a lot to Hurricanes fans to see their team shine as one of the league representatives abroad, the opportunity would mean even more to the players who call Suomi – the word for the country in Finnish – home.

“It would obviously be nice to get my grandma to a game because she hasn’t had a chance to fly down here ever, so obviously that would be great for her to come and see the game and do that,” Raanta said.

Kotkaniemi was excited about the prospect, stating that it would be “a memory for a lifetime.”

The chance to play near your home and to be able to see dozens of friends and family is something that many North American players can take for granted.

“I think as North American guys, we get to play in our hometown or usually somewhere close,” Burns said. “So it’s nice to give those guys a treat to get a ton of family there. I think even just showing off the country a little bit and doing some cool things that are a little different for us.”

Intercontinental travel isn’t the easiest thing given the logistical concerns such as either starting your season abroad or pausing midway through the season. Then there’s jet lag, players are out of routine and whatnot, but as Burns put it, “Looking back, those games are always special moments.”

“It was awesome,” Burns added. “A great time. I think those are the things that maybe when you do them, it’s a little harder to start a routine, it’s a little different, but looking back they’re always special. Those are the fun things.

The latest trip the NHL took to Finland featured the Columbus Blue Jackets and the Colorado Avalanche in early November, with the Avs taking both games by a combined score of 11-4. And the Finnish stars got to shine.

Patrik Laine, the hometown kid, had a goal and two points, Artturi Lehkonen had a goal, Joonas Korpisalo had a 39-save performance starting in the second game. But by far the best player in the series was Mikko Rantanen who had a hat trick in the first game and finished with three goals and five points.

“It’s obviously big for Finnish people,” said Raanta. “It’s one of those things where they’ve done it before but now it’s even more fun because you’ve got the superstars from Finland playing in Finland. So it’s great for the Finnish people for sure.”

In terms of star talent to display though, few teams have as much as Carolina.

Among active Finnish players, Aho is fourth in points (428) and second in goals (193) and Teravainen is fifth in points (381). Kotkaniemi recently recorded his 100th career point as well.

And in terms of goaltending, Raanta is also third all-time in save percentage by a Finnish netminder.

If the star-laden Hurricanes do make it out to Finland, who’d make the best opponent? You’d have to think either the Florida Panthers or the Dallas Stars.

The Panthers have the best active Finnish player in Aleksander Barkov, who leads all players with 226 goals and 575 points, along with exciting young Finns like Anton Lundell and Eetu Luostarinen – himself a former Hurricanes draft pick.

The Stars on the other hand have the most Finnish players in the league. Miro Heiskanen is the biggest draw, but Dallas also boasts Roope Hintz, Esa Lindell, Joel Kiviranta and Jani Hakanpaa.

If the league is serious about wanting to showcase its top talent, then there is no better team to go with then the Carolina Hurricanes and it’s high time that the Canes make their way back to the Land of 1,000 Lakes.

“If it was up to me,” Aho said, “We’d have already played there.”