Overshadowed Kapanen emerges as WJC hero

Finland’s win at the World Junior Hockey Championship was enough to prove to Sam Cosentino that they’ve entered the upper echelon of hockey, right up there with Canada, USA, Sweden and Russia.

HELSINKI — Back on the first Saturday in December, I spoke to Kasperi Kapanen after the Toronto Marlies knocked off the Manitoba Moose in a fairly obscure and instantly forgettable AHL game at the Ricoh Coliseum.

At that point, the idea that the Leafs organization would be open to loaning Kapanen to the Finnish team at the world juniors was a matter of speculation. When I asked him about the prospect, he was more subdued than you might expect.

"That’s something we’re going to talk about with [management]," Kapanen said. "It’s something that intrigues me. It’s back home in Finland so I would be excited about that. Other than that, I really can’t say anything about it. I don’t know anything about it right now."

In part, Kapanen was choosing his words carefully, wanting to defer to management rather than come off headstrong. Given that his father Sammi played over 1,000 NHL games, he grew up around NHL arenas and there developed a keen sense of locker room politics. There was more to it than that, though.

Kapanen wasn’t happy with the way his first North American professional season had gone to that point and he was frustrated.

"I was sick at the beginning [of the season] and it was hard to get going at first and then I got injured," he said. "It hasn’t been the best start for me this season but I think I’m playing well now."

A month and a day later, with a gold medal around his neck, with his overtime wraparound goal against Russia being replayed on monitors around Hartwall Arena, with a video of his goofy dance in the Finnish dressing room already trending on Twitter, Kapanen's struggles seemed very far away.

Again, he grew up around NHL rinks and, even though he was a member of a cast of teenagers, he tried to affect a professional tone: excited but not in a selfish way. It was "we" rather than "me."

"I think we really deserved that gold medal," he told reporters. "I think we had a really good tournament throughout."

He wouldn’t bite when pushed on about the feeling of personal satisfaction of scoring a goal that will take its place among the most historic moments in the history of Finnish hockey.

"It will be nice to be remembered that way but…"

And here he changed direction, reversing as quickly as he did to get a little daylight along the boards in the second minute of overtime.

"…it was a real team effort. It just happened to be me."

Maybe someday, after Kapanen has viewed replays of the goal, after he sees how two Russian defenceman tumbled like bowling pins in his wake as he went behind the net, after he sees goalie Alexander Georgiev was sprawling in the crease and throwing his stick to try to get a piece of a wraparound shot, his memory will be refreshed and it will all kick in. Minutes after he skated off the ice, though, it was far too soon.

"Everything is so blurry," he said when asked to break down the play.

Kapanen said that only days ago he would have laughed at any suggestion that he would wind up being the hero, reprising the role of Niklas Hagman, who in 1998 in Helsinki also scored in overtime to beat the Russians in the gold-medal game.

"It’s one of those goals you dream of and dreams come true," he said.

In the dreams of Toronto Maple Leafs fans, the scene played out as if in a dream but with a different player in the lead. Before the world juniors, most of the speculation focused on the Leafs’ decision to send William Nylander from the Marlies to the Swedish junior team. Nylander had been nothing less than sensational, at the top of the AHL’s scoring table. Kapanen was very much viewed as the other guy. Fans and folks who draw NHL paycheques expected Nylander to be a dominant figure in the tournament, at least on par with American Auston Matthews. Kapanen, they figured, would be in the Finnish ensemble and play in the shadow of two spectacular draft-eligible players, Patrik Laine and Jesse Puljujarvi.

Things went sideways for Nylander, though, when a hit at mid-ice knocked him dizzy and out of the tournament midway through the Swedes’ win over the Swiss in their opening game.

But through six games before the final and 60 minutes of white-knuckle tension, Laine and Puljujarvi did in fact overshadow Kapanen. And pretty much everybody else. Those two 17-year-olds keyed comebacks from 1-0 and 2-1 down in the third period against the Russians. A couple of NHL scouts suggested after the game that Laine and Puljujarvi, while not threats to overtake Matthews in the entry draft in June, both outplayed him in Helsinki.

It wouldn't be fair or accurate to say that the tournament’s biggest goal was scored by the best player or the shiniest prospect. You could make a case, though, that the player who scored the winner needed it most. Yes, the golden goal was blurry for Kapanen but those struggles at the start of the season with the Marlies were as good as forgotten.