by Jess Mikula || AHL On The Beat Archive
Young hockey players dream of one day making it to the NHL. Even half a world away, in Espoo, Finland, Sami Lepisto was no exception.
The son of a Finnish national team player, Lepisto virtually grew up on the ice and attributes much of his growth as a player to his father.
“It was fun being at the rink and hanging out in the locker room when I was a young boy and getting to know what was going on. My dad has been helping me a lot throughout my career. It’s been a big help, and it was fun to grow up in a hockey surroundings,” he said.
Lepisto played four seasons with Jokerit in Finland, though he spent the first half of last year nursing a broken collarbone.
“I was out for two to three months and came back for Christmas. We start the season in September in Finland. It was hard at first. I had so much energy because I was out for so long,” he said.
“It wasn’t the start I wanted for the season, you know, being out for that long. It was a tough time after that, coming back, and I think in the end I kept improving a lot. And I think in playoffs I played pretty good. I wanted to play the whole season, but it took a little time after the injury to get back in and play good.”
Lepisto finished the season with Jokerit and decided it was time for a change of scenery. He signed with Washington last May, packed his bags and made the more-than-4,000-mile journey to the States.
“After four years in Europe and two losses in the finals, I thought ‘I need something else for a change,’ and the NHL has always been my dream. Coming here [to Hershey] was the next step,” Lepisto said.
Since making his debut with the Bears on opening night, Lepisto has been adapting to the North American style of play — and the transition appears to be a smooth one. He ranks 12th on the list of scoring among AHL defensemen and sits atop the league with a plus-27 rating. He has tallied 32 points in 38 games for Hershey this year.
“At first it was a little hard to realize how the game is played here, but I think I’ve done a pretty good job adapting my game,” Lepisto said. “I think it’s going pretty good.”
The Bears’ blueliner has been steadily overcoming the hurdles of adjusting to hockey this side of the Atlantic.
“I think Finland is the most similar league to the NHL and AHL. And the whole North American thing, the big difference is just the smaller rink and guys in the NHL are faster and stronger and more skilled. It’s faster — a faster game and more physical,” he said.
But what has been the most difficult obstacle for Lepisto in becoming acquainted with North American hockey?
“Getting to know how to play in the corners. You can’t give any opportunities to the teams you’re playing against because they score pretty quickly,” he said.
The preseason practices differed from years past, as well. “In Europe we start earlier. The team starts practicing together way earlier,” Lepisto said.
“Now that I signed here — I didn’t practice alone, but we had a bunch of guys who were playing in North America, so we had a pretty good group as we practiced. I didn’t do things differently, but just, you know, more individual things.”
Despite the differences, Lepisto is enjoying his time in Chocolatetown. “Hershey’s great. Lovely little town. Hockey’s good; the rink is good. The team is a really good organization. The fans are great, and the guys have been helpful. Boomer [Josef Boumedienne] has been a great help for me, being another guy from Finland and Sweden, so it’s been good,” he said.
Lepisto had high expectations upon coming to the United States and credits other members of the Hershey roster with his success on the ice.
“Point-wise, I just like to play the game and not think too much. I’ve just always been a guy who makes plays, so it wasn’t a big shock to me that it’s been going pretty good with the team. It’s obvious I try to play, and if you play with good guys, then the points come,” he said.
“I’ve been blessed to play with good guys.”
Lepisto’s hard work with Hershey has paid off; he made his NHL debut with Washington on Feb. 16, logging 14 minutes of ice time as number 42 for the Capitals in a 3-2 win over Tampa Bay.
As it turns out, that seemingly distant dream of one day making it to the NHL wasn’t so far off.