By Tony Brown | AHL On The Beat
Regardless of age, background or experience, on an annual basis, young players learn firsthand that establishing oneself as an American Hockey League regular is often one of the defining challenges of their developing careers.
Just ask second-year Cleveland Monsters left wing Markus Hannikainen.
A 6’2”, 189 lb. left-handed native of Helsinki, Finland, Hannikainen, got his start in Finland’s Liiga, splitting parts of five seasons from 2011 to 2015 with three teams in his native country before making his North American professional debut last season with the eventual Calder Cup champion Monsters.
After going unclaimed in the NHL Entry Draft, Hannikainen signed with the Columbus Blue Jackets as a free agent on April 20th of last year and was forced to adapt to a style of hockey in the AHL that was a far cry from the flowing, big-ice game he’d honed overseas. “The smaller rink was a big change for me,” says Hannikainen. “The North American game is much more about dump-and-chase and the smaller ice means there is less space…It was an adjustment but I like to play a fast game and work hard. I think it suits me.”
After a breakout 2015-16 season in which he posted 20 points (7-13-20) in 50 games in Cleveland and made his NHL debut for Columbus, a 16-appearance romp through the Calder Cup Playoffs that saw Hannikainen register ten points (3-7-10) while playing on a forward line with current Blue Jackets centerman Lukas Sedlak and the eventual Calder Cup Playoff MVP Oliver Bjorkstrand, left Hainnikainen uniquely qualified for a distinct honor heading into his second season in the AHL as he was awarded one of the Monsters’ alternate captainships prior to the team’s regular-season opener on October 14th. It’s a role his teammates say, he’s well-prepared to undertake.
“Markus came in here and really worked hard and was a huge piece of our success last year,” explained returning Cleveland captain Ryan Craig, entering his 14th season in professional hockey. “I look forward to him continuing to step up and hopefully take on an even greater role this season.”
“He’s going to bring a fresh voice to the room,” says returning Monsters alternate captain and 11th-year defenseman Jaime Sifers. “I think it’s important for a team to have fresh voices, young and old…I think he’s well-deserving and I think he’s going to do a great job.”
“It’s huge…I’m very excited about it, it’s a big honor to me to represent our team in that way,” said Hannikainen prior to his team’s first road game of the season in Grand Rapids, Michigan, on October 22nd. “As a young European player I think this is something that’s recognition of my hard work and I just need to stay humble, to continue to show what I can do to lead.”
That leadership, however, will unfold between the dasher boards says the 23-year-old. Don’t expect any fiery intermission pep talks from him. “I’m an on-ice leader for sure…I just work hard every day and I think that’s why I got the letter,” says Hannikainen. “I’m just showing an example for the other guys every single day.”
If his most recent performance, a career-best three-goal showing for Cleveland in a 7-3 road romp over the Iowa Wild on Tuesday, is any indication, Hannikainen’s example is one to be emulated and appreciated, night in and night out.