It appears that defenceman Tommi Kivisto might be ‘Finnish-ed’ with the Red Deer Rebels.
The 17-year-old rearguard from Vantaa, Finland, has signed a professional contract with Jokerit Helsinki in his home country, making it unlikely that he’ll be returning to Red Deer for a second Western Hockey League season.
Unlikely, not impossible.
“He signed a contract with (Jokerit) but he has an out clause if he decides he wants to come back to Red Deer,” Rebels owner and president Brent Sutter said Wednesday.
“From what I understand, he had to sign the contract to be allowed to train there and make a bit of money through the summer working with the team and the organization.
“Is it alarming? Sure it is, but it’s not something that I’m surprised about because we’ve known for a couple to three weeks that he was thinking about maybe not coming back, although we were hoping that he would.
“Now, he seems to be leaning towards staying in Finland. I’d say the odds of him returning are maybe 50-50.”
Kivisto was the Rebels’ lone pick — sixth overall — in the 2008 Canadian Hockey League import draft and arrived in Red Deer in late August with much fanfare.
The six-foot-one, 195-pound defenceman was projected as a first-pick in this year’s NHL entry draft and certainly looked the part through the first few months of the season, but his play dropped off considerably down the stretch as did his Central Scouting ranking.
“The unfortunate thing is that you have a 17-year-old player who probably didn’t progress at the level he wishes he could have last season, and yet to some degree part of that is he under-estimated the level of the league he was coming to,” said Sutter.
“He probably expected to come over here and be a stud of a player like he was playing junior over in Finland.
“It seldom happens that any 17-year-old becomes an instant star at the major junior level, let alone a European who’s never played here before. There’s a process these players have to go through and usually it takes a year or more to adjust, not to just the hockey side of it, but the lifestyle.
“His agent and some scouts have talked to him and they all feel he should come back (to Red Deer) if he wants to be a (North American) pro player.”
Sutter conceded that Kivisto likely missed his family and friends to a great extent over the winter, an emotional malady that might have been remedied somewhat if he had returned to Finland during the Christmas break.
“I think homesickness had something to do with it,” he said. “Instead of staying in Canada and playing (for Finland) in the world juniors (in Ottawa) at Christmas, he probably should have gone home and spent time with his family.”
Clearly, Kivisto’s absence will leave a gaping hole on the Rebels’ blueline.
“It’s disappointing because we had six returning defencemen and five of them were eligible to be back the following year, as well,” said Sutter. “So your defence is set up nicely moving forward and all of a sudden you’re losing one of the pieces of the puzzle and you have to try and replace that either from within or from the outside (via a trade).”
The news is also disheartening from the standpoint that the Rebels made rather large commitments in time and money in drafting and then playing Kivisto through the season.
“We certainly did and that’s what can be disappointing about European players — they come over and then they can just turn around and go back home a year later and sign a pro contract. But all you can do is deal with it, and that’s what we’re going to do.”
Unfortunately, Kivisto’s status for the 2009-10 season won’t be known for certain when the CHL import draft is conducted June 30. In order for the Rebels to draft two imports, the team will have to delete Kivisto from its players list.
Not that Sutter is a huge fan of the import draft.
“It’s such a crapshoot because you never get to see the kids play. You’re relying on the word of agents and scouts and everyone has a different opinion,” he said. “Some of the better European players we’ve had in recent years, like (Martin) Hanzal and (Mikhail) Yakubov, were older, more mature players when they came to us, and it’s really hard to get the older players now because the best ones stay home and sign contracts for good money.
“So you have to try and identify and then draft the top 17-year-olds, and that’s difficult to do.”
Sutter, speaking via cellphone Wednesday, is still feeling the pain of the New Jersey Devils’ sudden demise in this year’s NHL playoffs. Leading the Carolina Hurricanes 3-2 with less than two minutes remaining in Game 7 of their Eastern Conference quarter-final, the Devils and head coach Sutter watched the visitors strike twice to emerge victorious.
“It’s such a shock and so disappointing, especially when you take so much friggin pride in being a good defensive team,” he said. “We were 33-1 during the season when holding a lead after two periods and were playing well in the third period (of the Game 7 loss), and then, bang, that happens. We have a lead with a minute and 20 seconds left and then lose it because we don’t execute properly.”
Sutter will return to Red Deer Friday and will contemplate his future over the next several weeks. He hasn’t committed to returning to the Devils although he still has one season remaining on his contract.
“I’m going to spend some time in the (Rebels) office and with my family and figure out what I’m going to do moving forward,” he said.
• Former Regina Pats head coach Curtis Hunt is open to the notion of returning to the WHL team.
“There’s obviously unfinished business (in Regina), at least from my perspective,” Hunt, speaking from his home in Ottawa, told Greg Harder of the Regina Leader-Post Wednesday, one day after Pats GM Brent Parker fired head coach Dale Derkatch and assistant Terry Perkins.
“I think we did some real good things in the time I was there. It’s obviously unfortunate the way things went this year. I’m interested in talking to (GM) Brent (Parker) to find out what he and (owner) Russ (Parker) are thinking. I wouldn’t be averse to that.”
Hunt left the Pats last summer to become an assistant with the Ottawa Senators under new head coach Craig Hartsburg. But Hartsburg was canned in February and Hunt was re-assigned to the head-coaching post with the Senators’ AHL affiliate in Binghamton.
Contact Greg Meachem at firstname.lastname@example.org