PHILADELPHIA — There was only one thing that could bring Sami Kapanen out of retirement. It took something much more than money and fame. Those things he already had after playing more than 800 games in the NHL.
The lure to continue in hockey was something that he could not even quantify in either English or his native Finnish. More than his love of the game, it was the love of his son, Kasperi, that brought his aging body out of retirement for another year of the grind.
“It was the reason I kept pushing myself to give it one more year to have a chance to play with him,” said the 41-year-old. “It’s special and it’s hard to put into exact words. You feel so proud that your son is on the ice at the age of 16, 17 and that he’s capable of playing with men on a professional level of hockey.
“It probably means more to a dad than to a son.”
The Kapanens made their father-son debut together in 2013, playing on the same line with KalPa in Finland’s SM-Liiga. The elder Kapanen was also part-owner and general manager of the team, which made the pressure greater.
Father and son both say they tried to keep the hockey talk at a minimum once they left the rink. Kasperi came up with another rule – no dissecting that night’s game until the next day. At home, hockey took a backseat to other important lessons Sami wanted to impart on his son.
“I’m trying to prepare him for life without his family and hopefully that’s sooner than later playing here (in North America),” said Sami. “He needs to be independent. That’s the biggest concern for me to give him that independence for the rest of his life.”
Playing with his dad for the past two seasons has been fun, though the younger Kapanen admits there were times early on when it became a little awkward. Like the time they were in the team dressing room during an intermission and the rookie teen called his veteran linemate Dad.
“He wasn’t thinking and he yelled out, ‘Hey Dad,’ ” said Sami with a laugh. “Everyone on the team in the room was like, ‘Oh no. Oh no, no, no.’ ”
“At first it was a little bit weird having your dad on the same line,” adds Kasperi. “It’s the same guy you just had breakfast with in the morning – so it’s weird. But you get used to it and I really enjoyed it. It’s probably one of the best things that ever happened to me.”
The next best hockey thing to happen to Kasperi Kapanen will likely come on Friday when the talented Finn is taken in the NHL entry draft. His father was selected 87th overall by the Hartford Whalers in the 1995 draft and Kasperi should be taken much sooner. Presently the right-winger, who turns 18 next month, is the top-rated European skater in the NHL’s Central Scouting Bureau’s rankings.
“Kapanen is a sniper with great offensive instincts,” said Goran Stubb, the NHL’s director of European scouting. “He uses his speed and strong overall skating to his advantage at all times. (He’s) an excellent puck handler with smooth hands – a very good, quick and surprising shot.”
This season was a bit of a wash for Kapanen, who grew up in Carolina and Philadelphia while his dad was playing in the NHL. He was beset by injuries, including a bad shoulder which precluded him from playing for gold medalist Finland at the world junior championships in Malmo, Sweden.
“He is a much better hockey player than what he showed during the 2013-14 season,” noted Stubb. “It did not help much that his team, KalPa in the (Finnish league), was struggling the whole season.”
Kalpa finished last in the league with Kasperi Kapanen scoring seven goals and adding seven assists in 47 pro games. One of the other assets in Kapanen’s favour for Friday’s draft is his maturity and the fact he’s already spent two seasons playing professionally against much bigger, more seasoned, men.
According to Stubb, if there’s one drawback to Kasperi’s game it’s his lack of defensive responsibility. Still, with the offensive tools already in his arsenal, a more well-rounded game should develop over time.
Even his dad has been impressed by the growth he’s seen from his son on the ice. At 5-foot-11 and 180-pounds, Kasperi is slightly bigger than his dad. Sami, known for his speed in the NHL, admits he’s already been bested.
“Two years ago it looked like he was still so far away,” said Sami, of his son’s skill-set. “The next thing you know he was playing with the men at 16 and at that point when he showed up to our practice I started to realize how fast he is. Then it was like ‘Whoa, what the hell has happened in a few years?’ Now it’s not even a contest … he’s a couple steps ahead of me.
“I know I can’t keep up with him anymore. I’m getting old – but that’s a good sign.”