Kapanen set to write new chapter in family's legacy
On a certain level most children grow up idolizing their parents and would want to follow in the footsteps of their mom or dad when it comes to finding a career.
Sometimes that career is being a doctor, a teacher or an electrician. In the case of Kasperi Kapanen, it's playing hockey.
Most hockey fans in North America know about the Howes, the Hextalls and the Sutters; in professional hockey in Finland, the Kapanen name is just as big.
"It's a big thing," Kasperi said. "It's a burden to carry that name, but I like it."
Kasperi made hockey history in Finland last season when he made his debut in Liiga, Finland's top professional league, as a 16-year-old. In 13 games with KalPa he had four goals, and he also got into four playoff games.
Now 17, he played all season with KalPa in 2013-14, totaling seven goals and 14 points in 47 games. He's No. 1 on NHL Central Scouting's final ranking of European skaters for the 2014 NHL Draft.
"He plays a mature two-way game," NHL Director of European Scouting Goran Stubb said. "He has great offensive instincts, including an explosive, surprising shot. His moves are also surprising and very quick. He makes a lot of trouble for opponents. Skating, mobility and physical strength all are very good for a 17-year-old. He has the tools to become very good."
Helping groom him into a top prospect the past two seasons has been one of his teammates -- his father Sami Kapanen, 40.
"It was extremely fun," Sami said of playing with his son. "It was a great year to be on the same team. It was something that we were dreaming of in the past years. I was hoping that I could keep playing and have that opportunity to play on the same team with my son. We got to fulfill that dream the season before … this year was an extra plus because we got the whole season on the same team."
Though KalPa finished last in the 14-team league, Sami saw his time playing with Kasperi as the perfect way to end his professional career. He announced his retirement when the season ended.
"I think on a personal level that has to be one of the most memorable moments," Sami said of playing with Kasperi. "The first game, the chance to play on the same line, scoring goals in the same game; those kinds of things, it's really hard to put into words and describe to people how you feel, how proud you are in those moments when you get to play with your own son."
It was an up-and-down season for Kasperi. A shoulder injury kept him from Finland's run to the gold medal at the 2014 IIHF World Junior Championship, he didn't produce offensively as much as he hoped with KalPa, and then he had two points in five games as Finland was eliminated in the quarterfinals of the World Under-18 Championship on home soil.
However, the time he got to have with his father was a highlight.
"It was special," Kasperi said. "Just to see him in the locker room, just being there was a big thing for me and probably a bigger thing for him. Playing with him, it was a little bit weird at first. But now that I think about it, it was really a good experience and a dream come true for both of us."
Kasperi said watching his father helped him understand the competitiveness it takes to make it at the professional level. The biggest lesson, though, was remembering that playing hockey for a living is a lot of fun.
"Just enjoy the game," Kasperi said. "I know how to do everything else. That's one thing you have to remember to do, enjoy the game. I love to play hockey and that's what I'm best at doing. That's one thing I'll never forget."
He also learned to manage the expectations that come with having the name Kapanen on the back of your jersey.
Hannu Kapanen, the family patriarch, spent nine seasons in Finland's top league; in 300 games he had 141 goals, 321 points and 420 penalty minutes. He also represented Finland at the 1976 Innsbruck Olympics, the 1976 Canada Cup and the 1976 World Championship.
"He was a smart, crafty, skilled player with a bit of an edge too," said Columbus Blue Jackets general manager Jarmo Kekalainen, who grew up in Finland. "He was a national team-caliber player earlier and a star in the elite league. My hometown Kuopio and [Kapanen's hometown] Joensuu had a big rivalry, and Hannu was the best player in those games."
After retiring, Hannu coached in Finland at the professional and junior level; the highlight came when he led Finland to the gold medal on home soil at the 1998 World Junior Championship.
By then, Hannu's son Sami had started his professional career. Sami Kapanen was selected by the Hartford Whalers in the fourth round (No. 87) of the 1995 NHL Draft. He was 22 when he made his NHL debut in the 1995-96 season and already had five seasons of Liiga experience, as well as an Olympic bronze medal from the 1994 Albertville Games and a gold medal from the 1995 World Championship.
"He had character and was an intense competitor," said Kekalainen, who was a teammate of Sami's with KalPa in 1991-92, Sami's second Liiga season.
Sami went on to play 831 NHL games with the Whalers, Carolina Hurricanes and Philadelphia Flyers, totaling 189 goals and 458 points. He had five 20-goal seasons and helped the Hurricanes reach the 2002 Stanley Cup Final. He also played for Finland at the 1998 and 2002 Olympics.
He succeeded in raising the stature of the Kapanen name, but it wasn't always easy.
"I think it's hard," Sami said. "It's something that people don't realize. The next generation, they have probably some advantages of having the information from the older generation, the feedback and the understanding of the game. Maybe they get some opportunities or they get to see some of the things other people don't get to see behind the scenes. But it's also high expectations. You're scrutinized, people looking into you and what you're doing a lot more closely than other kids. At a young age, the last name has weight. It's not always easy. The expectations can be heavy.
"If you can handle it I think it makes you stronger. … You know what it's like to play under that pressure and handle the expectations of other people. It can be good, but it's a hard learning process and sometimes not always that much fun."
In 2008 Sami returned to Finland to play for KalPa, the team he purchased in 2003. He retired after two seasons, but returned in 2011; a bonus was two seasons in the lineup with his son.
Kasperi has seen and heard much about his father's career, and also heard tales from his grandfather's playing days.
"Back in the day I think hockey was a bit different," Kasperi said of stories from Hannu. "You hear stories of guys smoking cigars between games. It's rough, but it's pretty funny to hear."
Kasperi has the chance now to write his own stories. It starts this summer, where he and Sami are spending the summer in the southern New Jersey suburbs of Philadelphia working out. It's an area he considers home; he was six when Sami was traded to the Flyers in 2003 and 12 when the family returned to Finland.
"I have my best memories from there," Kasperi said.
Kasperi has two years left on his contract with KalPa and would like to fulfill it, but said right now his aim is to bring the Kapanen name back to North America.
"Maybe someday I'll come back to the Finnish league and make a name for myself there," he said. "Now I'm starting to focus on the NHL and making myself a career there."
Author: Adam Kimelman | NHL.com Deputy Managing Editor