By Lorne Chan | AHL On The Beat Archive
Mikko Rantanen left San Antonio, Texas, to go home to Finland on Dec. 23. In two weeks in Helsinki, he saw family, got some home cooking and became a national hero by helping lead Finland to the 2016 International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) World Junior Championship.
So his holidays may have been a little better than yours.
Rantanen is back with the Rampage after an incredible run to a gold medal in which Finland defeated Canada, Sweden, and Russia in the elimination round. In the gold medal game, Finland defeated Russia 4-3 in overtime to claim the world title. As team captain, Rantanen was the first to lift the Worlds trophy.
“I was honored to be a part of it,” said Rantanen. “I’m actually still in shock. I think 30 years from now, we’ll all remember the moment and how unforgettable everything was. Right now, all I can say is that it was big for us.”
In the gold-medal game, Rantanen scored with 2:09 remaining in regulation. It would have been the championship-winning goal, but Russia tied the game with 6.9 seconds left in the third period to force overtime.
The Finnish players regrouped, and Toronto Marlies forward Kasperi Kapanen scored the winning goal just 1:33 into overtime to give Finland the title.
Rantanen, a 6-foot-4, 211-pound forward, was named Finland’s player of the game in likely the final game of the 19-year-old’s junior career.
“It was a tough moment when Russia scored, but we knew it was only a tie, we hadn’t lost anything,” said Rantanen. “We talked with the guys and knew we needed to keep going. We all had confidence that we would win. It’s a tough moment but we came out of it.”
The WJC is an annual IIHF event for national under-20 hockey teams from around the world. Featuring the top 10-ranked hockey nations in the world, almost 400 current NHL players are WJC alumni, including past gold medalists Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin.
In Finland, 2.5 million people watched the gold-medal game on TV, about 45 percent of the entire country’s population. Percentage-wise, it’s a similar rating to what the Super Bowl draws in the United States for a junior hockey game.
“It was unbelievable to see everybody cheering for us,” said Rantanen, who scored two goals with three assists for the tournament. “We celebrated for two hours at the rink after the game, and then the next day there was a ceremony for us in Helsinki. To win for my country, that’s always amazing.”
Back in the states, Rantanen’s Rampage teammates were cheering him on. Defenseman Nikita Zadorov said he was a little conflicted as Rantanen’s Finland team faced his home country, Russia. Zadorov, who played in the 2014 WJC, where Russia finished third, called playing in the Worlds one of the most fun experiences of his career.
“Everybody’s battling hard for their country, and you’re playing against some great players,” said Zadorov. “Almost all of my Russian teammates from 2014 have played in the NHL now, but you don’t ever forget playing with the Russia jersey on.”
Rantanen left his gold medal with his parents in Finland, figuring he might lose the hardware in America.
When he left for the Worlds, Rantanen was leading the Rampage in goals (10) and assists (16).
Rantanen said one change for him was carrying the responsibility of the captaincy in Finland, which he said was the first time he wore the ‘C’ since he was 14. In the span of a couple weeks, the Rampage’s youngest player may have done a fair share of growing up.
“You can see a change, when players come back from a win at the WJC or Olympics,” said Rampage coach Dean Chynoweth. “They definitely can have a little more swagger. Then again, Mikko had a lot of confidence going over there to begin with.”