By David Singh in Detroit
By David Singh in Detroit
Mikko Rantanen's flown under the radar his whole career. Leading the NHL in scoring is one hell of a way to attract attention.

The Gatorade bottle is standing upright, a still point at the centre of a chaotic swirl of bodies. Placed between the face-off circles, it’s a visual marker for the Colorado Avalanche players taking turns rushing the net during morning skate in Detroit. At the end of the drill, head coach Jared Bednar blows his whistle and calls for half the team to assemble near the middle of the rink. The bottle is momentarily free from danger — until Mikko Rantanen spots it.

The 22-year-old is standing by the bench at the opposite end of the ice. He slowly surveys his teammates and the coaching staff to see if anybody’s paying attention. The coast is clear. He cradles a loose puck with his stick and slips his tongue between his teeth like a child in deep concentration before firing at the bottle. He misses by inches.

Immediately the tongue is replaced by an unbothered smile that stays stitched to his boyish face as he skates across the ice, chirping teammates and playfully tapping their sticks and pads. It’s still there when the six-foot-four Rantanen wraps Carl Soderberg in a bear hug that causes the veteran Swede to nearly lose his balance.

Ask Soderberg or any other teammate — whether from the Avalanche, the AHL’s San Antonio Rampage or the Finnish national team — and the first thing they mention about Rantanen is his happy-go-lucky nature and that big ol’ grin. Don’t get it twisted, though: He’s not the loud guy in the room or the distracting joker always demanding attention. His buoyant personality is simply a fact of his existence. Like his marvelous talent, which is the next topic his comrades are eager to tell you about.

“I honestly think it’s mind blowing how it’s taken everybody so long to recognize what he’s been able to do in this league.”

Heading into this early December game against the Red Wings, Rantanen is the NHL’s leader in points. And since the calendar flipped to 2018, only one player has registered more: Connor McDavid. Fans and national media outlets are slowly catching on, realizing that something truly special is happening in Colorado, but not at the pace the right winger’s production warrants. “I honestly think it’s mind blowing how it’s taken everybody so long to recognize what he’s been able to do in this league,” says linemate Gabriel Landeskog.

For anyone in that late-to-the-Rantanen-party majority, this early December game against the Red Wings is a crash course, the Coles Notes on the Avalanche’s dominant winger. It may be an unremarkable stop on Colorado’s march toward the playoffs, but it offers a solid portrait of the many ways Rantanen has set himself apart this season — as well as definitive proof that there’s plenty more to one of the league’s most exciting young players than the easygoing smile lets on.

Rantanen's physicality is a problem for opponents. "When he has the puck, it’s very Jagr-esque," says Wilson. "He has a big ass and you can’t get by it."

There was a time when an Avalanche-Red Wings tilt was as hyped as a wrestling Pay-Per-View. Now, the plethora of empty seats at Little Caesars Arena are just one sign the glory days and the rivalry’s bad blood are long gone. The franchises are operating in different stages: The Avs are one of the better teams in the Western Conference, while the Wings sit near the basement in the East. However, that doesn’t stop arena staff from trying to stoke nostalgia in the home crowd. Before the start of this contest, the centre-hung video board displays the famous image of former Detroit enforcer Darren McCarty hovering over Claude Lemieux, in the turtle position following a vicious fight more than two decades in the past.

When the puck drops, there’s no visible animosity between present-day players. In the opening minutes, Rantanen picks a pass off the boards from linemate Nathan MacKinnon behind the Red Wings net. Dylan Larkin tries to apply pressure, but Rantanen simply turns his back on the centre and protects the puck for a few seconds before passing it out. Later in the period, the big Finn strips a Red Wings player in the Detroit zone and turns around, one hand on his stick, the other fending off a defender — the hockey version of a Heisman pose. He dangles from circle to circle, before dishing out to a Colorado blue-liner.

There’s no scoring in the frame, but both plays illustrate a major element of Rantanen’s game. “There’s not much an opponent can do to get around that big body,” says Avalanche forward Colin Wilson. “When he has the puck, it’s very Jagr-esque. He has a big ass and you can’t get by it.”

Building strength has long been a focus for Rantanen, dating back to his childhood in Finland. He grew up in Nousiainen, a small municipality located roughly 20 km north of Turku. His father, Hannu, is a carpenter and his mother, Hannamaija, a nurse; they made sure sports were a vital ingredient in the lives of Rantanen and his two sisters, Laura and Noora.

Rantanen took to the ice at age three and just a few winters later, it became a daily routine for him to lug his skates to school so he could head to the nearby outdoor rink after the classroom bell rang. At a young age, he was encouraged by his father to pay attention to the humility fellow Finn Jere Lehtinen displayed on and off the ice. The NHLer wasn’t an offensive dynamo, but he won multiple Selke awards with the Dallas Stars, as well as four Olympic medals with the national team. “My dad really liked how Jere was always a great leader and a great guy,” Rantanen says. “He was never cocky or anything. He played really hard, and always had respect from the other guys … [My dad] said, ‘You can always learn from him.’”

“All Mikko has to do is walk through the gym and he’s going to gain a kilo of muscle.”

Rantanen excelled on the ice and made his debut on TPS of the Finnish Elite League at age 16. It was the same SM-liiga squad that Lehtinen once played for. “The first time I saw Mikko, he was playing with men,” recalls Max Kolu, a European scout for the Arizona Coyotes. “He was still a weak child compared to them. Skinny, but you could definitely see the talent and the quickness in his thinking — and the skill level.” Rantanen was already around six-foot at the time but had yet to fill out. It wasn’t until he began working with strength coach Hannu Rautala that the power necessary to stiff-arm NHLers became a realistic possibility.

Rautala, now 70, comes from a decathlon background and trains hockey-playing clients with an emphasis on track and field exercises, in addition to weights. He shaped Rantanen like a blacksmith would, hammering out a new physique for the winger, who has worked with him each of the past five summers. People familiar with Rantanen’s training have adopted a saying about his body: “All Mikko has to do is walk through the gym and he’s going to gain a kilo of muscle.”

Hand in hand with that strength is his near-obsessive devotion to stretching, which Rantanen says he picked up from his dad at an early age. Some players swear they’ve seen him go through his routine for at least two hours at a time. While watching TV at night, he’ll sprawl on the floor, opening up his hip flexors and elongating his hamstrings. And though he maintains he only ever stretches for 20 to 30 minutes at a time, his commitment has only added to his reputation as a physical specimen within the Avalanche dressing room. “Genetically, he’s extremely gifted,” says Wilson. “Very, very built.”

Adds MacKinnon: “He’s so big and he’s so strong. He’s definitely a freak off the ice.”

Boasting the NHL's top two scorers in Rantanen and MacKinnon, as well as No. 13 in Landeskog, Colorado's first line has thrived this season thanks to chemistry, trust and talent.

The second period begins and the arena staff ratchet up their effort to awaken the home crowd’s memories. Footage of the McCarty-Lemieux fight is shown, followed immediately by the bout between Wings goaltender Mike Vernon and his then-Avs counterpart, Patrick Roy. McCarty appears on the screen calling for noise and raising his hand to his ear, a la Hulk Hogan. The trick works to rile up the Detroit faithful, but it only takes a few minutes for Rantanen and his lethal accomplices to plant them back in their seats.

On the Avs’ first power play of the night, MacKinnon wins the faceoff and sends it to blue-liner Sam Girard, who quickly slides the puck to Landeskog. The Swede stickhandles for a second, then passes to Rantanen, who’s lurking behind the goal line to the left of the net. The winger one-times the pass to MacKinnon in front and he buries it to give Colorado the game’s first marker. The breathtaking display of tic-tac-toe is a six-second summary of what MacKinnon, Landeskog and Rantanen have been doing all season, a stretch that has cemented the trio as arguably the best line in the NHL.

“You’re not supposed to have the hands when he’s that big. He’s got the hands of one of those smaller players who are real nifty with the puck.”

Landeskog, at 26, is the senior member; MacKinnon is sandwiched in the middle at 23. Both players were fixtures on the team by 2015, the year Colorado selected Rantanen 10th overall. The rookie made the Avalanche roster out of training camp, but was soon sent back to the AHL. That winter, he was a member of the much-discussed Finnish squad that captured gold on home ice at the world juniors. The team featured a bevy of up-and-coming talent: Patrik Laine, Jesse Puljujarvi and Sebastian Aho formed the top line and commanded most of the attention, but it was Rantanen who wore the ‘C.’

“He’s not the most vocal guy ever,” recalls Kasperi Kapanen, the Toronto Maple Leafs forward who scored Finland’s overtime clincher at that WJC. “I don’t think a captain needs to be, either. That may be a little old school, or maybe some people like to be vocal and that’s their thing, but I feel like he was a leader on the ice and let his actions speak for themselves.” The two have been close friends since they were teenagers, and roomed together at later international tournaments. Kapanen watched with pride as Rantanen gained a foothold in the NHL with a 20-goal campaign in 2016–17. Then, last season, he clicked with the Avs top line and produced 29 goals and 84 points.

Not one to dominate dressing room conversation, Rantanen leads by example. "I feel like he was a leader on the ice and let his actions speak for themselves," says Kapanen.

Despite a breakout that placed him among the league’s elite offensive performers, Rantanen still felt something was amiss. “I knew that there’s still part of the game that I could be better at,” he says. Skating, like strength, has always been a work in progress for him — he listed both as areas of potential improvement on his 2014 draft form. So, with the help of his agent, Petteri Lehto, he sought help this past July from Kolu, the Coyotes scout who also runs power skating sessions in Finland during the off-season. Twice a week, the pair worked to better his edge work, smooth his skating technique and improve his overall balance. When Rantanen returned to Colorado for training camp in September, he felt a marked difference. No longer was he teetering when players bumped into him; he also had a more explosive first step and was doing a better job of utilizing his entire body, even when fatigued.

Early in camp, Avalanche players participated in a skating test that measured endurance. They circled the rink three times each while wearing heart monitors, the idea being to see how quickly a player could lower their max heart rate to the point where they could comfortably repeat the drill. Rantanen produced some of the best numbers on the team. Avalanche colour commentator Peter McNab watched the test and noticed Rantanen’s stride never changed. Usually big guys tend to straighten out their legs, abbreviating their stride when they get tired, notes McNab. But that didn’t happen to No. 96. “It was, ‘OK, he put in the work, he’s ready to have that good season,’” says McNab, adding that the improved skating has rounded out Rantanen’s game. “You’re not supposed to have the hands when he’s that big. He’s got the hands of one of those smaller players who are real nifty with the puck. And his vision is great.”

The improved skating has also helped Rantanen keep up with MacKinnon, who is the No. 1 line’s catalyst and a player renowned for his blazing speed. According to McNab, Landeskog brings veteran stability and completes the puzzle as a pure-power left winger. Since October 2017, no other NHL line has combined for more regular-season goals. “They’ve learned how to play with each other on top of having instant chemistry,” McNab says. “They must be very intelligent hockey people because the conversations they have, how they improve, what they work on over time. The biggest, single [difference] I see from last year is just absolute trust. They trust the guy with the puck is going to make the right play, so if I make the right play behind him, I’m going to get the puck.”

When Avalanche games are over and players retire to their homes or hotel rooms, Landeskog will often hear a familiar ping on his smartphone. After glancing down and seeing that Rantanen has sent a text, the captain usually realizes that even though the final horn has sounded, the game’s not truly done. “He never leaves me alone,” Landeskog says with a laugh.

Rantanen often watches league highlights and will come across a power-play breakout or face-off play that mesmerizes him. The No. 1 line doesn’t have a WhatsApp group, so Rantanen will fire off his ideas to Landeskog, who acts as the middle man between the winger and MacKinnon, the centre. “That’s sort of how it works,” Landeskog says. “Mikko and I are very close — all three of us are close — but yeah, I think Mikko prefers coming to me, because he knows I’m open to suggestions. Sometimes Nate can be [less] welcoming.

“We have a few plays that Mikko has come with. We will try ’em out there and, a lot of times, they work.”

Rantanen's easygoing, buoyant attitude is the first thing teammates and friends bring up about him.

OK, maybe there is some sticky residue of hatred left over from the old days. Maybe these players caught glimpses of those old scraps on the video board, because at the outset of the third period, this contest is officially chippy, quickly veering toward ugly. Avalanche defenceman Ian Cole delivers a huge hit on Andreas Athanasiou and faces swift retribution in a fight with Wings forward Tyler Bertuzzi. It’s a real bout, too, with Bertuzzi landing uppercuts on Cole’s jaw. The crowd, not quite bloodthirsty yet, but definitely enjoying an afterglow from the tilt, is treated to another when Anthony Mantha and Patrik Nemeth square off. Then, just past the midway point of the frame, Avalanche winger Matt Calvert is grabbed by several Red Wings seated on their bench and sucker-punched by Bertuzzi, a decision that eventually lands him a two-game suspension without pay. Just like the good old days.

Colorado is still clinging to its 1-0 lead in the dying moments, and with the Detroit net empty, Rantanen grabs the puck around his blue line. Mantha is tugging on him from the left side, while Tomas Vanek completes the flank as he trips Rantanen with his stick, causing the big Finn’s knee to buckle. Mantha goes down with him, landing with his arm wrapped around Rantanen’s head. But just before his belly hits the ice, No. 96 manages to do what he couldn’t prior to the game, when he took aim at the Gatorade bottle. He swipes the puck forward and it connects with his intended target, which is, of course, the blade of MacKinnon’s stick. The centre speeds up the ice and sets up Landeskog. Just like that the contest is out of reach.

Rantanen’s part of the play won’t make the highlight reels, but it speaks to the role he has played thus far in his career. He’s the guy flying just under the radar. When you play on the same team as Hart Trophy-candidate MacKinnon, that’s going to happen. But it’s been a recurring theme for Rantanen, one that stretches back before he made the NHL. Most conversations about his draft class still centre on other players — McDavid, Eichel, Marner and Hanifin. And it was the same on that gold-winning Finnish WJC team, with Laine receiving much of the shine. “That’s Mikko, that’s his personality,” says Sami Hoffren, a Finnish NHL reporter based in Toronto. “He’s not the vocal guy. He’s kind of like Jere Lehtinen. [Lehtinen] was one of the best players in Finnish hockey, but back in the day when he played, it was Teemu Selanne and Saku Koivu — people knew them better. It’s the same with Mikko right now. Even though he’s leading the NHL in points, Patrik Laine gets the most attention.”

The dynamic holds back home in Finland, too. Laine has the aura of a true rock star in the Mick Jagger sense. The Winnipeg Jets sniper is recognized anywhere he goes in his home nation, but Rantanen has yet to receive that treatment. Maybe it’s the humble, happy-go-lucky personality. Rantanen can still walk down most streets in the country (outside of his hometown) and nobody bats an eye, according to several Finns. “I understand why people would say that,” says Kapanen of his friend. “He’s been undercover. But I feel that after this year, when he comes back home, he’s gonna be a huge star there and it’s well deserved. He’s been working hard and he’s lighting it up.”

So, the number of requests he gets for selfies is about to go through the roof. Fortunately, Rantanen already has the smile locked down.

Designed and edited by Evan Rosser

Photo Credits

Michael Martin/NHLI via Getty Images; John Russell/NHLI via Getty Images; Bruce Bennett/Getty Images; Michael Martin/NHLI via Getty Images (2).