Photo By Dan Hickling/Hickling Images
In conjunction with USA Hockey’s National Junior Evaluation Camp, teams from Canada, Sweden and Finland traveled for international competition to Plymouth, MI. Two familiar USHL import names skating this week are Team Finland teammates Eeli Tolvanen and Aapeli Räsänen.
Last season Tolvanen and Räsänen led Team Finland in scoring with nine points each in seven games en route to winning a gold medal at the U18 World Junior Championship. For Tolvanen, one of the youngest players on the team, it was an exclamation point after an already impressive rookie season with the Sioux City Musketeers.
Räsänen had to quickly turn his attention after the U18s to the NHL Draft in Buffalo. He watched from his seat inside the First Niagara Center as NHL teams selected five of his Finnish U18 teammates. Shortly after, the Tampere, Finland native joined them as the Edmonton Oilers called his name in the sixth round.
“It was a great, amazing feeling. The whole week in Buffalo, the weekend of the draft was great,” said Räsänen. “Hearing your name called, it was a really nice feeling.”
During Edmonton Oilers Development Camp, Räsänen repeated his intentions of playing with the Sioux City Musketeers during the 2016-17 season. As the season approaches, the reunion with his Team Finland winger is becoming more of a reality and less of a dream.
Tolvanen, listed on NHL Central Scouting Future List this summer, will draw attention from many NHL scouts this season. More than just having a familiar face in the locker room, Räsänen could provide instant chemistry and comfort on the ice during a pivotal season for the young winger.
“I think we’re similar players,” said Tolvanen. “He’s like a playmaker, and I like shooting pucks, so I mean, we just know where each other’s going. It’s easy to play with Aapeli.”
The process for playing together in Sioux City was long and a bit uncertain, but both players hoped they could make it work. In order to acquire rights to Räsänen, the Musketeers had to first select him in the USHL Phase II Draft. He would then have the rest of summer to decide his future.
“I was in contact with them a lot before the draft and I heard they had interest in me,” said Räsänen. “I spoke with Eeli, who played in Sioux City before, and he convinced me to come to Sioux City. It seemed like a good opportunity and a good place for me.
“It’s kind of the whole package. Their facilities, good fans, good coaches, nice town, it’s a good place for everything.”
Both players are optimistic about the season ahead. They will have opportunities to play together with both the Musketeers and Team Finland, and want to win at every level. Tolvanen spent time with his brother, Northern Michigan University goaltender Atte Tolvanen, training in the offseason and feels ready for a big step forward this year. He intends to step back into the locker room and follow the leadership of their captains.
“If you want to learn something, just ask, all that stuff,” said Tolvanen. “It was a big jump last year, but there were leaders like (Ryan) Zuhlsdorf and (Jacob) Wilson, just ask what to do and they just help me.”
Räsänen had the benefit of training with the Edmonton Oilers this summer, an experience he wasn’t going to take for granted. Spending time with former NHL players and more experienced players helped him improve his game.
He also mentioned that he has been watching the projected Musketeers roster for next year and is excited for the potential role he can play.
“Of course I’m going to have to adapt to the North American style of hockey and the small rink as quick as possible,” said Räsänen. “I want to be a leader of the team. As a team, I think we have a good team out there, so anything is possible. I think we’re going for the title.”
Headquartered in Chicago, Illinois, the USHL celebrates its 14th season as the nation's only Tier I junior hockey league in 2015-16. A record 37 players were chosen in the 2015 NHL Draft and more than 375 players on team rosters last season committed to NCAA Division I schools, further establishing the USHL as the world’s foremost producer of junior hockey talent.
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