NEW YORK — The skates were too big and the stick too short for teenage Mikko Rantanen. He was a talented but not always sure-footed hockey prodigy whose rapid growth spurt was already making it difficult to develop his skating and puck-play — especially surrounded by players who were much older on a Finnish professional roster.
Rantanen’s youth teammates often joked that he fell so much, he looked like Bambi on the ice.
“His balance was a little bit bad then,” teammate Teemu Lamsa remembers.
Factor in the oversized skates and a stick that barely touched the ice? “You look like a circus clown,” TPS men’s team coach Miika Elomo would tell Rantanen.
Still, it was obvious that he had the talent to match his worth ethic. Otherwise he would be playing for the club’s U-20 team. “He never wanted to leave the ice,” Elomo said. “He couldn’t skate that well because he grew up so much that the strength wasn’t there, but the hockey sense and the head — sharpest on the team already.”
Elomo’s brief NHL and AHL career had coincided with the superstardom of Joe Sakic. Easton manufactured its one-piece composite hockey stick around that time with a blade curve adopted by the Colorado Avalanche standout. The “Sakic curve,” used by many NHL players today, quickly became all the rage. Elomo’s playing career was shortened by injury, so 15 years later, he had a few extra old sticks from his playing days.
He brought one to Rantanen, along with better-fitting skates. “Just try this,” the coach said.
Almost a decade later, Rantanen still uses the Sakic curve, but now as one of the NHL’s most productive forwards and an integral part of the 2022 Stanley Cup-winning Avalanche team that Sakic built as general manager. Rantanen is back in his home country this week as Colorado (4-4-1) plays Columbus in the NHL Global Series on Friday and Saturday (noon CT).
It’s a sentimental homecoming for Rantanen, who spent three formative years playing for the 100-year-old TPS franchise in Turku. His favorite hockey memory in Finland was his first taste of a championship, but not in the traditional sense.
In 2014-15, Rantanen compiled 28 points for an otherwise bad TPS team in SM-liiga, the nation’s top pro league. Elomo even made the 18-year-old an alternate captain.
The draft loomed as a losing season ended. Rantanen was a guaranteed high pick.
That wasn’t on his mind yet.
“I wanted to try to win something,” he said.
The U-20 team was competing in the playoffs but facing elimination in a best-of-five quarterfinal series. Rantanen was called to join the roster — if he wanted.
Coaches, trainers and mentors advised against it. “He proved himself with the professionals already,” said Elomo, a 1995 first-round draft pick who saw himself as a case study in why Rantanen should avoid the risk. These would be superfluous minutes on the ice, where a competitive playoff environment was more likely to increase physicality.
But this wasn’t a collection of strangers. These were teammates Rantanen had played with since he was seven, such as Manu Honkanen, who knew Rantanen’s eclectic taste for obscure Finnish rap music. These were lifelong friends like Lamsa, who knew Rantanen was a sleep-talker because they always roomed together on junior national team trips. (Once, Lamsa said, Rantanen even starting sleep-singing a British Premier League soccer team’s chant.)
There was even one future Avalanche teammate: goalie Alexandar Georgiev, who remembers Rantanen as the same person he is in Colorado: “always smiling, always messing around.”
The U-20 team was 10 hours north of Turku, in Oulu for Game 5. Rantanen’s friends needed his help.
“He didn’t listen to anybody,” Elomo said. “If he decides something, he makes it happen. I think that’s special. He said he wants to go with his childhood teammates to win something. So it’s all about his character. He’s humble even though he’s the (freaking) moose.”
Rantanen flew solo to join the team. He assisted a game-tying goal in the final two minutes then guaranteed teammates before overtime that they were going to win. He was right.
“He has always been captain material,” Lamsa said.
The rest of the playoffs never matched that suspense.
“The first round was the toughest one,” Honkanen said. “Mikko basically did everything he wanted on the ice. It was quite unfair.”
It all led to the moment that resonates most for Rantanen: the clinching game that gave him his first taste of a championship. TPS led 2-0 in the best-of-five finals with Game 3 on home ice. Turku is a hockey-crazed city, but the TPS pro team was a decade-long loser. Hungry for success, the town rallied around the junior team.
Players caught wind a day early that ticket sales were in the thousands. Most of the team, including Rantanen, had never played in front of a crowd that big. The average U-20 audience was about 500.
“I was playing men’s league (three) years in a row, but I had never played in front of that big of a crowd,” Rantanen said. “And now I was junior again, and there were 11,000 people there. Going out there for warmups was pretty cool.”
It was a victory lap for TPS, a 5-3 win that ended with an on-ice celebration that felt “like winning liiga championship,” Lamsa remembers. Then the party continued in a Turku bar, where Rantanen took over deejaying responsibilities and played his unrecognizable rap.
The risk had paid off. He was drafted No. 10 overall by the Avalanche.
The most important moment of the championship run is easy to forget amid the pageantry of the clincher. But in the first game Rantanen played, when TPS desperately needed a goal, he collected the puck in the defensive zone and skated coast-to-coast for an assist on the odd-man rush.
“Really beautiful pass,” Lamsa recalls.
Rantanen dangled defenders on his quest across the ice, stick-handling with control and confidence. His friends watched in awe. What happened to Bambi on the ice?