I recently found myself re-watching some Flyers highlights from years old. Thanks to YouTube, I was able to find games from 1994-95, 1996-97, 2001-02, and 2003-04. These games are mostly against the Rangers during their Mark Messier, Wayne Gretzky (briefly), and Brian Leetch era, and they bring back waves of nostalgia. In the earliest games, you can still see the glow from the lights inside the Spectrum as Eric Lindros and company defeat Dominik Hasek and the Buffalo Sabres. Action then moves to the “Core States” Center, where Lindros and company face the New York Rangers in the Conference Finals. However, both of those series were before my time, as I was born shortly after the Flyers were swept by the Red Wings. The games then move into my time growing up, around when I was solidified in my fandom. Everybody knows the big names of those Flyers teams; Jeremy Roenick, Mark Recchi, Simon Gagne, and Keith Primeau were all faces of the franchise. However, looking back on those teams, there are a lot of forgotten players. Branko Radivojevic (7 NHL seasons), Radovan Somik (2 NHL seasons), and Stefan Ruzicka (3 NHL seasons) all played for the Flyers, having made the team coming from Europe. This got me thinking about NHL players coming to North America from Europe, and about the different paths they take to get there.
I recently had the chance to interview one of the finest European players to lace up for the Orange and Black: Kimmo Timonen. In this interview, Kimmo discusses his hockey roots in Finland, playing in the Finnish Liiga and adjusting to the NHL, and much more.
What team did you support growing up?
KT: Well when I was young I did not really watch TV so did not really follow any sports but later on obviously my hometown team Kalpa,Kuopio was my favorite and then from NHL Edmonton Oilers because Jari Kurri and Esa Tikkanen played there.
Drew Meyer: Where did you first start playing hockey, and when did you realize you were going to play professionally?
Kimmo Timonen: I started playing when I was about 7 years old. My brother took me to a first hockey practice and it was outdoors. Probably when I was around 12-13 I realized I am pretty good with this sport and I had lots of friends playing hockey too but probably age of 15 I realize I could play hockey and make some money doing it.
DM: Describe your process of being drafted by an NHL team. Did you believe you were going to get drafted?
KT: I got drafted in ‘93 to LA Kings and because that time I was a smaller defenseman than NHL normal or typical defenseman so I did not know if I will be drafted at all. I played tons of Finnish national team tournaments which helped me to get drafted for sure.
DM: How is European hockey perceived in the US and Canada?
KT: Back when I was younger it was much harder to make here, probably reason was that here teams thought Europeans are soft and can’t make it here. Nowadays most of the players comes from Europe so it has changed a lot for sure.
DM: How was the transition from playing in Finland to playing in the NHL? Are there many differences between NHL hockey and the Finnish league?
KT: Obviously when I came into the league in ’98, NHL was still all about being big, being tough, no player under 6 feet can play here but I never thought I wouldn’t be able to play here. Just needed a chance to show I can play so I did not change the way I played at all. The ice surface is bigger in Finland than here so that brings different kinds of elements to a game here so getting used to that took me little bit of time.
DM: What would you say is your proudest accomplishment in your career? (Besides the obvious winning the Stanley Cup!)
KT: Playing 5 Olympics for sure and winning 4 medals out of those. Last weekend my Finland national team jersey got raised to the rafters in Finland so there is no bigger honor for Finnish hockey player than that.
DM: What prospects in Finland are set to really stand out in the next few years?
KT: Lots of good young players have risen. Obviously Laine, Barkov, Aho and Rantanen are on the top of the list but most proud I am about young Finnish defensemen playing in the league now. Example: Dallas stars might have 3 Finnish D playing at the same time and that’s a big deal.
DM: What do you think of the Flyers this year?
KT: Playoff team for sure. If they can find consistency for their game they will be a good team this year. So far too much up and down game by game basis.
DM: What do you do currently?
KT: Pretty much nothing. Lots of family time and lots of stuff with the kids. Missed some much time when I was playing so now it is time for the family and especially for the kids.
DM: Do you have any interest in coaching?
KT: Yes, some day. Coaching the D man would be great challenge and would like to teach and bring my expertise and opinions for these younger D man. maybe some day it’s time for that.