The Revival? Photo by Bruce McCurdy
A long, long time ago, in an NHL far, far away, the Edmonton Oilers used to employ a wide variety of Finnish players. A long, long time ago, in an NHL far, far away, the used to be the most dominant franchise in professional sports. The argument as to whether the Finnish connection was correlation or causation is meaningless. The Oilers had Finns and they won. Kari Makkonen, Kari Jalonen, Risto Jalo, Matti Hagman, Esa Tikkanen, Raimo Summanen, Risto Siltanen, Reijo Ruotsalainen and of course, the greatest winger ever to play the game, Jari Kurri, may not have been the best players on the team, but it was those men of Suomi that made the team go.
Glen Sather had an obvious fondness for Finns, acquiring them like Ken Holland collects Swedes, and whether he knew it or not, he forced Finland into the collective consciousness of Oiler fans during the 1980's. Fans knew the hometowns and Finnish League teams of each of their Finns, and play-by-play men referred to them as such: "Jari Kurri, the smooth-skating winger from Jokerit in Helsinki", or "Ruotsalainen from Karpat skates swiftly into the zone". Even the distinct Finnish accents left an indelible mark on the memories of the Edmonton fanbase.
But after dominating for so long, some of the Finns went back to their homeland to play out the string and the Oilers traded (or sold) the rest of them. The Oilers averaged 147 Finnish man-games per year over their first eleven years in the NHL. During those eleven years, the Oilers won five Stanley Cups and lost in the finals once. But the final Cup came in 1989-1990 and shortly thereafter Kurri went first to Milan and then followed Wayne Gretzky to Los Angeles. Only Tikkanen remained. Over the next three seasons, the Oilers averaged only 65 Finnish man-games, and though Tikkanen willed them back to the conference finals twice, there is only so much a single Finn can do. Tikkanen was dispatched at the trade deadline during the 1992-93 season to New York to help Mark Messier in his quest for another Cup, and at that point, the Oilers ceased to employ a Finn. The fall was brutal.
The worst three, four, and five-year stretches in team history occurred from 1992-93 through 1997-98. From 1993-94 through 1997-98, only four total man-games were played by Finnish players. During that time, the Oilers earned only 42% of their total possible regular season points after averaging 60% through 1991.
The plucky teams of the the late 90's - early 00's managed to turn it around, averaging 54% of their possible points, a feat made possible by the late 1998 acquisition of Janne (now with less cartilage!) Niinimaa. After they added the Finnish defenseman, the Oilers began to win games again, but playoff success eluded them because, again, there is only so much a single Finn can do.
Niinimaa was traded away in 2004, the year before the lockout and the Oilers were left with only backup goaltender Jussi Markkanen. But, as the Chicago Blackhawks learned, never underestimate the power of a Finn. The Oilers, though giving only 58 man-games to Finns, managed to make it to the Stanley Cup Finals, where they inexplicably lost to a team with six Europeans, but no Finns.
Over the last four seasons, the Oilers have only tallied 85 Finnish man-games, and like the four year stretch in the mid-90s, the lack of Finns on the ice shows in the lack of points in the standings. The Oilers have only earned 46% of their possible points during that time, bottoming out last season, a season in which Finns played zero games for Edmonton.
In their history, the Oilers have failed to give any regular season minutes to a Finn five times. Four of those five times, they missed the playoffs. if Teemu Hartikainen doesn't shock the province and make the team, the Oilers won't have a Finn on the 2010-2011 edition. If that is the case, their chances of making the playoffs are slim and none. And Slim is walking out the door.
So why were Finns so important to the Oilers and why will they be important again? The answer lies in the makeup of the players that the Oilers brought in - each of them was a character guy who played with the much-coveted grit and grease. Each one played both ends of the ice (even Kurri) and never saw a corner that he was afraid to launch himself into, no matter the opponent. Don Cherry might laud a stout Ontario boy or a good Manitoba boy as the face of two-way play, or grit and sandpaper, or blood and guts, but there is no grouping of players that have proven themselves capable of doing more with less than the Finns.
The Finns lead the world in Olympic medals since 1998. Even though they've been the least-talented overall team of the big six during that time, they seem to always find a way to the podium at the end of the tournament. To steal and mash a line from the great Nigel Tufnel: "It's like, how much more gritty could they be? And the answer is none. None more gritty."
The secret to the success of the Finns on the international stage lies on the crest of their sweaters and in their nickname, "Leijonat", or "The Lions". The Finns have enormous amounts of heart, and that was never more evident than in Nagano and Torino - especially in Teemu Selanne. It's that willingness to run through pits of razor wire and pools of iodine that make the Finns successful in the NHL and it was that willingness that pushed the Oilers to greatness. The Oilers had the heart of a lion because the heart of the Oilers was a bunch of Lions.
Sure, there's an exception to every rule, like the failed experiment with Joni Pitkanen, but for every Joni Pitkanen there is Ville Nieminen, plus a half-dozen ex-Oilers that pushed their team to a Stanley Cup.
Stu MacGregor is attempting to correct the mistakes of the recent past and restore the heart of the Oilers franchise by adding the heart of a lion. Teemu Hartikainen is the first step, not the last. There's only so much a single Finn can do and counting on Toni Rajala seems like an iffy bet at this point. MacGregor can always go back to Finland in next year's draft and select Mika Partanen, but Steve Tambellini needs to step in to help out. There are a few Finnish unrestricted free agents in the 2011 pool - Antti Miettinen, Joni Pitkanen, Jussi Jokinen, and Ville Leino - worth looking into; it's also possible that someone like Sean Bergenheim could come to Edmonton via trade. Either way, the Finns must return to Edmonton. We should blame Kevin Lowe's failures for the Oilers' current situation, but in doing so, must remember that Lowe's greatest failure was veering from what made those teams from the 1980's great: Suomi.