Finnish defenseman Ilkka Heikkinen has signed a one year contract with HC Sibir Novosibirsk of the KHL. The 25-year old blueliner, who joined the Rangers as a free agent last summer and appeared in seven games for the club, chose to continue his career in the KHL after the Rangers refused to offer him a one-way contract.
Heikkinen played 72 games in the AHL for the Hartford Wolf Pack last season, picking up eight goals and 30 assists to tie defense partner Bobby Sanguinetti (who played 11 fewer games) for the Wolf Pack lead in scoring on defense. He saw limited playing time in his seven games in the NHL, and failed to register a point.
Heikkinen’s departure from North America comes as no surprise, since he made his displeasure with spending the season in Hartford known in an interview with Newsday’s Steve Zipay during the Olympic break in February. While he played well for the Wolf Pack, he was largely overrated by Rangers fans desperate for anyone to replace dead weight Wade Redden on defense, and ultimately failed to show enough to earn the guaranteed position in the NHL that he was looking for.
After signing with Sibir, Heikkinen spoke with Maria Levinskaya for an interview on the team’s web site which is translated below. While it reveals nothing earth shattering, it provides a better introduction to Heikkinen than we ever got during his one season in North America, and contains a few interesting anecdotes about his time on the Wolf Pack.
This season for the first time in the history of Sibir there will be a foreigner from Finland on the team: defenseman Ilkka Heikkinen. The first thing that Ilkka did after signing the contract with Sibir was to give an introductory interview for the official site of his new team:
- Ilkka, how did the choice of continuing your career with Sibir come about?
- I had before me the choice of playing in the NHL or KHL, but the Rangers only offered me a two-way contract, which means they can send me to play in the AHL at any moment. I decided that the KHL is the best league for me, and Sibir offered the best terms from the KHL.
- What other offers did you have?
- A few teams in the KHL were interested in me, as well as [teams] from Finland and Sweden.
- How did you get started playing hockey? How old were you and why did you become a defenseman?
- I don’t remember exactly how old I was, but I was very small. I started playing hockey because all the men from my mother’s family played hockey. From the first practice it was clear that hockey was really for me. One of the reasons why I became a defenseman is that my mother’s brother was a defenseman in the SM-liiga — Vesa Salo. I always watched how he played. So I wanted to become a defenseman like him.
- Tell us how your career developed in Finland. Did you win any titles?
- I played all my youth and four adult seasons in the SM-liiga in my home city of Rauma. After that I went to Helsinki with the team HIFK, and I think that moving to Helsinki was the best choice in my career at that moment; I moved up to a qualitatively higher higher level. The quality of my game grew by great strides there, I worked hard on becoming a really good offensive defenseman [while] on that team. I didn’t win any medals in Finland. I think, that at the moment the best personal achievement that I can name is that I got in the top five in scoring among defensemen twice.
- You played one season in North America, what interesting [things] happened to you there game-wise and hockey-wise?
- Living in the USA was very good, and in the hockey-wise I had a good season. The hockey there is different from European [hockey], so now I also know the North American style of game. It’s more simple and faster hockey. And somewhat tougher, and also demands that you be more powerful physically.
- You played seven games in the NHL — what can you tell us about them?
- Playing in the NHL was a dream my whole life, and I’m very happy even though I only played seven games there. I didn’t get as much playing time as I usually get in those games, and my role in each game was different. I tried to play the best possible defensively.
- On last year’s team in Hartford there was a young forward, Dale Weise, who gave you high marks. What can you say about him?
- He’s really a very good hockey player. I think he can do everything on the ice. He’s fast, skilled, with a good shot and he’s very well developed physically. He’ll be a really good player in the NHL someday.
- What do you like to do most on the ice?
- I’m more of an attacking player than defensive, so I really like playing with the puck and also like playing on the power play. And I also like taking good hits as well.
- What do you know about the KHL?
- I watched some games on TV, and I talked with players who played in the KHL. I know that it is the best league in Europe, and perhaps better than the NHL… in skill level, at least, the KHL is in no way inferior to the NHL.
- What do you know about Novosibirsk and the team Sibir?
- I know that it is the third city in Russia, and that it is very cold there in the winter (laughs). And I know that the team’s coaching staff has a lot of hockey experience. Dmitry Yushkevich has played more than 800 games in the NHL, and last season he played in Finland — that’s also one of the reasons why I chose Sibir in the KHL. I’m sure that Dmitry can help me become the best player!
- What are your personal goals for next season. What would you like to achieve in Russia?
- I would like to help the team win each game and will always try to play my best game.
- And what number will you wear on Sibir and why?
- Number 49. I always wear this number. There’s no special explanation as to why I chose this number, I just liked it when I decided which number to wear.
- When we signed the contract with you, the fans, having seen your last name, immediately noticed that it is similar to the name of a beer. I saw in your photo album a label from a Heineken beer. Does that mean that you’re a cheerful person who can laugh at himself?
- (Laughs) Yes, in the USA the pronunciation of my last name is very similar to “Heineken”. I’m at times a very cheerful guy, I hope to learn a little Russian, or that the guys on Sibir speak English, so I can laugh and joke with them.
- Usually teams have a few people who try to claim the title of funny-guy, who are famous for their jokes. Are you such a person? Were there any jokes on your teammates which you remember?
- No, I wouldn’t say that I’m a joker, I prefer to listen to the guys more (smiles). But last season there was one funny thing. My partner on defense [Bobby Sanguinetti] sewed up the pockets of our coach’s pants, but he only noticed it when he tried to get his mobile phone. It was very funny (laughs).
- Do you have a lot of fans? I noticed that you communicate actively on the Internet.
- I think that I have more friends than fans.
- What do you prefer to do in your free time away from hockey? Do you have a hobby?
- I like to play Xbox with my friends. I hope that the guys on Sibir like to play video games.
- How do you like to spend a holiday?
- I prefer to simply relax. I love fishing and boating as well.
- In your previous teams did you have any kind of nickname?
- In Finland everyone called me Bono. It came from the time of a joke, after which everyone began to call me Bono. I’ve had this nickname for 10 years.
- What do you prefer to eat? Do you have a favorite drink?
- I love fish or meat prepared on a grill. For drinks I prefer milk or diet cola.
- In your childhood, did you have an idol among defensemen?
- I always liked to watch how Russian players play on TV, because they’re very technically skilled and fast. When I was young, I always watched how Pavel Bure played. If we’re talking specifically about defense, I liked Chris Chelios.
- How do you get on with languages, are you going to learn Russian?
- I hope there are guys who know English, but I also need to start studying Russian. I think it will be easier to do in Novosibirk when I get there, than it is now.
- Do you like Heineken beer?
- (Laughs). Actually, I don’t like Heineken, I love Finnish beer more.
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