How unlikely series of events led Stars' Kiviranta from obscurity to history

EDMONTON -- Two days after he became a world champion, Joel Kiviranta walked into his local pub.

Bar Finnegan’s in the Tuusula municipality north of Helsinki is the kind of place where they draw a crowd for big games shown on the giant screen. And Finland is the only country on earth where gold-medal victories are celebrated by adults jumping into public fountains in various states of undress.

So having a member of the national team randomly show up in the hazy aftermath of that crowning moment counts as a big deal. Kiviranta even had the gold medal in his pocket as he elbowed up to the bar for “a little lunch and one beer.”

Alper Aykut Sari, the bartender Kiviranta calls “Aikku,” still had the worlds on his mind. They discussed the 3-1 victory over Team Canada in the final and the scene in the pub. Sari knew Kiviranta was a hockey player and asked where he had watched the games.

“I was like ‘I was there,'" said Kiviranta. “'Pretty good seat.'”

In the event there was any doubt, he unfurled his No. 41 sweater and handed it to the bartender. He was grabbing lunch before travelling back into Helsinki to continue the celebrations with his teammates.

“It was a bit awkward and also humiliating,” said Sari.

“It was a funny moment. I just said to him like, ‘Don’t worry,”’ said Kiviranta. “'I’m not the big face, so don’t worry.'”

He may not have been the big face, but it was not out of charity that his coach had him on the ice for the final minute of that tight gold-medal game. Kiviranta changed the course of his career, and ultimately his life, during that 17-day tournament in May 2019.

Until that point, he had never drawn any attention from a NHL team. Never interviewed, never invited to a development camp, never drafted.

In fact, somewhere along the way the 24-year-old said he had to make peace with the possibility his dream might be a little out of reach. That it would be OK if he only ever played for Sport Vaasa in the SM-liiga and could walk in and out of Finnegan’s without raising any alarm.

“I was undrafted and never talked to anyone from North America, so I started thinking there’s still good places in the world where you can play pro hockey,” said Kiviranta. “Of course I dream about it and think about it a lot, but I still needed to be realistic.”

There’s very little room for realism when trying to assess what’s happened since.

Today, Kiviranta woke up inside the NHL bubble in Edmonton. Pending the outcome of games to be played over the coming week, he’s scored goals that could go down as some of the biggest in the history of the Dallas Stars.

Put another way: There’s no way his team would be three wins away from lifting the Stanley Cup without him. He had a Game 7 hat trick in the second round against Colorado that included the equalizer with 3:30 to play in regulation and the overtime winner.

It tells you something about Kiviranta that his first thought after tying that game was something along the lines of, 'Oh no, now I’m going to have to do interviews in English.’ The anonymous young man from Tuusula had pushed himself beyond his comfort zone and he didn’t stop there.

Kiviranta scored another late tying goal the night Dallas eliminated Vegas from the Western Conference Final and added his fifth of the playoffs during the Game 1 win over Tampa Bay in the Stanley Cup Final.

“When you sign players you always anticipate what they may become, but did I ever expect this?” said Stars general manager Jim Nill. “No.”

Oh, and about that.

Consider the unlikely series of events that had to unfold for him to get anywhere close to being a lineup option for head coach Rick Bowness during these playoffs.

First, Finland had to see an unprecedented number of NHL players decline invitations to the 2019 world championship, which opened up available roster spots. Kiviranta arrived at that training camp figuring he had next to no shot at making the team, but decided to give it everything he had.

“We chose Kiviranta because he had a great camp before the tournament,” said Finnish national team coach Jukka Jalonen. “He is a great skater, very reliable defensively, competes hard and is strong in 1-on-1’s.

“[He also] goes to the net, is fearless and can score in a while -- like we have seen in the playoffs! And he has great endurance, physically and mentally.”

Jere Lehtinen was the general manager of that team and tipped the Stars off about Kiviranta’s potential. They offered him an entry-level contract, but nearly saw him sign elsewhere.

Things were moving quickly after that gold-medal win and Kiviranta had to choose between Dallas and another NHL team. What tipped the scales in the Stars' favour is he knew the three Finnish players already on their roster -- Miro Heiskanen, Esa Lindell and Roope Hintz -- and they’d been bringing Finnish strength coach Hero Mali to their development camp for years.

Basically, there was a little more comfort to be found in Dallas.

“It was a hard decision,” said Kiviranta. “Like out of nowhere you have two NHL contracts that you’re staring at. You don’t really know what you should do, but those are the moments when you just need to trust your instincts, I think.”

He had done enough during his first season of pro hockey that Bowness figured he’d be a full-time member of the Stars next year. But after playing just 11 NHL games, Kiviranta arrived in the Edmonton bubble as the 13th or 14th forward on the depth chart and only really got an opportunity to play when Andrew Cogliano was injured during the Colorado series -- an anomaly in and of itself for one of the NHL’s ultimate ironmen.

Talk about an unlikely story.

When Kiviranta scored the overtime winner to eliminate the Avalanche in Game 7, Bowness walked on the ice yelling “The Finns! The Finns! The Finns!”

“The Finns, you just love, because they’re always together, they’re a tight group,” he said Monday. “They’re good down-to-earth hard-working people. They’re great teammates and great players.”

In a hockey-mad country, Kiviranta is basically unknown. But he says now that he always believed he had this in him, and only lacked the chance to show it.

Naturally, they have begun to track his progress more closely in Tuusula. They know he’ll be back home soon.

“It would be nice to see him win the Stanley Cup and after that see him at the bar,” said the man known as Aikku who pours beers at Finnegan’s. “I would ask where he watched the Stanley Cup Final.”

From one of the best seats in the house.

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