Courtesy of Point Park University

‘Tables have turned’ for Finnish players


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Emil Larmi, Niclas Almari. -- MATT SUNDAY / DKPS

CRANBERRY, Pa. -- There are a lot of Finns here at Penguins development camp.

There are six, to be exact -- draft pick defensemen Niclas Amari and Antti Palojarvi, draft pick forwards Valtteri Puustinen and Santeri Airola, free agent goaltender signing Emil Larmi, and free agent invite defenseman Roni Allen. There are more players from Finland here than any other European country, and they outnumber all of the other Europeans attending the camp combined.

They're all pretty proud of that, too.

"And Kasper (Bjorkqvist) is missing so we could've had seven," Almari reminded me. "Who is the Swede here? The second-round pick?"

Filip Hallander?

"Yeah, he's the only Swede here," Almari beamed. "We try to keep him some company, though."

The Finns here can be heard speaking Finnish together in the locker room, or chattering back and forth as they're going to and from the rink. They spend a lot of time together.

"It's really fun," Palojarvi said of being around the other Finns at camp. "We can speak Finnish together in here, so it's a little bit different, it's nice."

Some of the Finns have experience playing together prior to joining the Penguins' organization, too. Almari, Larmi, and Puustinen all played for the same Finnish club, HPK.

"I've been playing against them and with them several years, and it's kind of cool that all of those guys are here," Almari said. "Larmi, we're best of friends. It's really cool that he's here, it's awesome. ... Bjorkqvist I played with in juniors, he's from the same area as me in Finland, I know him well."

Larmi also called Almari his best friend, so I asked Larmi what kind of guy Almari is off the ice, what kind of teammate he is.

"Oh, I don't know," Larmi said. "He's a basic Finnish guy. He doesn't talk much. I just have a good time with him."

They all have the same quiet, dry sense of humor.

It looks as if Wilkes-Barre will have at least four Finns on the roster next season, in Almari, Larmi, Bjorkqvis, and Oula Palve, who also played with Larmi and Almari with HPK. Wilkes-Barre has never had more than one Finn on its roster in its 20-year history. The players are aware of how rare it is to have so many of them together.

"I say the tables have turned," Almari laughed. "It's cool, it's cool."

The influx of Finnish players isn't surprising, given the growth of Finnish hockey in recent years. 22 Finnish players were drafted this summer, with three being selected in the first round alone. Ten years ago, there were 10 Finnish players taken in the draft, with none being selected in the first round. Finland has won gold in three of the past six World Junior Championships, and the men's team has also medaled in three of the past six World Championships, winning gold once and silver twice.

The growth of Finnish hockey isn't limited to the men's side, either. Finland won the silver medal in the World Women's Championship this year, the first time that Canada and the United States weren't the top two teams since the tournament's inception in 1990.

Penguins goaltending coach Andy Chiodo played professionally in Finland for four seasons dating back to the 2006-07 season and most recently in 2014-15, so he's seen the growth of Finnish hockey firsthand.

"What the Finns have done is they've added more skill development, and they've been more open with their players to let loose a little bit on the ice," Chiodo explained. "The Finns are known for structure, for discipline. They are well-coached. The coaching in Finland, they're teachers. If you look at the academic school system in Finland, it's actually one of the best in the world, and that translates into their coaching. The coaching is strong, the culture is strong, their work ethic is strong. ... It's just a good hockey country, they're always in the mix in these World tournaments, and they're such a small country."

With four Finns set to either play in their first professional season or their first season in North America this year, having so many countrymen will make the transition more comfortable.

"It helps having all those guys around, maybe we will live together," Almari said. "It's really cool and it will help me adjust to the American lifestyle."

"It'll definitely help," Larmi said of having so many Finns together. "Everything is new here, it's my first time in the States. It'll help a lot."

I asked Larmi what really stands out to him as being different culturally for him compared to Finland, and he didn't hesitate.

"People talk a lot," Larmi laughed. "In Finland, we don't talk. That's the biggest difference. And the food is different, everything is bigger. The sweets? It's like, so much bigger."


• Last year the four tournament teams were named after recent Stanley Cup champion players who had previously attended development camps. This year, the four teams are named after the four highest-scoring players in franchise history:

• Note that Austin Lemieux isn't on Team Lemieux, he's on Team Crosby. I think that's kind of funny.

• Here is the format for tonight's tournament:

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