The end of a sports career can be small. Dreams and goals can be crushed in a fraction of a second. This is what happened to Joni Pitkänen - literally.
Pitkänen, one of the most promising defenders in Finnish hockey history, turned his head almost exactly seven years ago.
The match between Washington Capitals and Carolina Hurricanes played on April 2, 2013, was Pitkänen’s, then 29, career 535th NHL regular season game. It also remained the last NHL match in Pitkänen’s career when the usual long-puck aspiration situation became fatal.
Known as a great skater, Hurricanes ’number one defender would shoot the Capitals behind the demolition puck, as he had done hundreds of times during his career.
Pitkänen effortlessly won the skating race against Capitals striker Troy Brouwer and was the first to get on the puck to get the start back to the Hurricanes attacking end.
At the same time, there was a heated debate in the NHL about the old long-puck rule, which constantly exposed defenders to similar dangerous end situations on the attacker’s neck.
Pitkänen did his basic job and had time to touch the puck just before Brouwer, but something unexpected happened after that. Pitkänen's legs went from below and he collapsed with force to the side.
As a result of a violent but unfortunate collision, Pitkänen's left ankle and heel shattered. At that moment, one of the most undervalued Finnish NHL careers also ended.
Carolina’s Joni Pitkänen’s NHL career ended in injury in the spring of 2013. He was taken on a stretcher in an ice match against Washington.
Photo: Chris Seward / Zuma / MVPhotos
For the next season, the NHL changed the long hockey rule, but from Long it no longer saved.
Pitkänen, 36, doesn't want to mess up. It quickly becomes clear when you listen to him. Although the career ended much earlier than expected at the top, the relaxed and modest Oulu resident remembers his years of play with warmth.
- I have received a lot of hockey. This way, it is nice to remember different stuff and individual games in retrospect. Quickly, that time passed. Actually, it's a pretty awful pace, Pitkänen laughs.
The rise from junior star to one of the best general defenders of his time was melting fast. Just like Pitkänen's familiar style of play.
Pitkänen made his debut in the Finnish Championship League at the age of 17 in the early 2000s. Cage-headed players, ie players under the age of 18, did not show up worse on league ice at the time. In addition to Pitkänen, only Tuomo Ruutu, who moved to the Jokers, and TPS's Mikko Koivu collected regular league minutes in the “season three” in the same season.
- I remember my first league game very well. It was in Oulu against Ace. In the morning, “Tami” (Juhani Tamminen) announced that now the boy was up and running. The lattice was changed to a visor and not when going. It was a great time and full of great memories, because there was a terrible boom in Oulu, Pitkänen says.
Under the age of 20 in the national team ranks in December 2002.
Photo: Heikki Saukkomaa / Lehtikuva
Pitkänen belonged to the city's new generation of players, which raised Flies to a new boom.
Also at the national level, Pitkänen represented the hope for better, as he belonged to the renowned age group born in 1983, which is considered one of the highest quality in Finnish hockey ever.
As many as four Finnish players from the same age group were booked for the NHL at the beginning of the first round, among the top ten: Kari Lehtonen (2nd reservation), Pitkänen (4th), Mikko Koivu (6th) and Tuomo Ruutu (9th).
- Tough competition kicked forward. Yes, the hustle and bustle around the age group and in the youth national team tournaments, of course, was realized, but then it was just played. Nothing interested but playing. The world was also different at that time because there was no social media, Pitkänen says.
The rocket-like career development continued when Pitkänen moved to the ranks of the Philadelphia Flyers, who had reserved him for the period 2003–04. At the end of the opening season, the northern boy, who had performed coldly and confidently on the ice ice from the beginning, was selected to the constellation field of NHL newcomers.
- I couldn't even get excited about going to the NHL. The attitude was that to go but. I didn’t think in vain because the NHL was such an unfamiliar world to myself. Back then, I had only seen a few individual games, which was a pretty good thing.
The Philadelphia Flyers booked Joni Pitkänen for the NHL summer 2002 booking ceremony.
Photo: Mike Cassese / Reuters
The NHL was different then than it is now.
- It was a very different world than it is today. Now that you look at the NHL games of the early and mid-2000s, it's been quite a racket jungle and grating, Pitkänen is amazed.
In the middle of fridge-sized meatballs, Pitkänen stood out with his playing and care. Pitkänen, who played smoothly with the puck, took the fast pace of Flyers' credit defender's plot.
The formula was later repeated at the Edmonton Oilers and Carolina Hurricanes, where he spent the longest stretch of his NHL career, five seasons. On the back lines of the Hurricanes, Pitkänen was the undisputed number one defender for his team, as evidenced by the fact that in the 2009–10 season, he clocked the NHL's biggest playing time, 27.22 minutes, in the match.
During his most effective seasons, Pitkänen rushed to the 50-point mark, but frustrating injuries marked especially the years 2006–10, when Pitkänen was just beginning to approach the best years of the defender.
- There were a lot of knee problems. Every year there were one to two endoscopies that, of course, ate a lot of men and weighed the mind, but they are part of the sport and just didn’t hold anything for them.
Despite the tattered periods, the most memorable moments of Pitkänen's career date back to the turn of the 2010s.
The most recent of the career's three NHL playoff springs, spring 2009, is best remembered when Hurricanes, represented by Pitkänen, Jussi Jokinen and Tuomo Ruudu, made sensational progress to the finals of the Eastern Conference.
Barbecue party in Carolina together with Tuomo Ruutu and Jussi Jokinen in 2009.
Photo: Gregg Forwerck
- It was an amazing spring. First, we had to fight our way to the playoffs to the end. After that, we went as underdogers to every match series. We first won the New Jersey Sevens game and the next round the second extra time in the Boston Sevens game. It was a tough day in Raleigh that spring, Pitkänen describes.
The new puck boom in Raleigh had to wait exactly ten years, until last spring the Hurricanes, starring a new generation of Finland puck star players Sebastian Aho and Teuvo Teräväinen, advanced to the finals of the Eastern Conference to the surprise of many.
The hot North Carolina disc spring then warmed the old gambler’s heart.
- I watched Carolina play closely. The sympathies were completely on their side. There was a lot of the same thing in these stories when I talked about this with “Sepe” last summer. Unfortunately, the bangs seem to end in the middle of both teams, Pitkänen estimates.
Pitkänen was once able to experience the fulfillment of the championship in his career when he won the AHL championship in the 2004-05 season in Philadelphia Phantoms.
In the national team shirt, rare precious metal entered the prize cabinet at the 2010 Vancouver “Best vs. Best” Olympics.
The tournament accommodated turbulence and the team's internal cross-pull, but it ended with a cheerful note when Pitkänen showed his passing repertoire at the moment of the decision and started Olli Jokinen's winning goal in a bronze match against Slovakia.
- Great that I was able to experience a great tournament at least once. There was a lot of hard puck left behind, although one weak lot (the opening round of the semi-finals against the US) was to water down the entire tournament. It was a memorable tournament in every way, Pitkänen says.
After Vancouver, Pitkä was not seen in a national team shirt, which contributed to the fact that he remained in the eyes of the general Finnish audience as a rather unknown top player until the end of his career. The national team representations did not get caught up in the game.
- Many times I was coming to the race, but my health situation prevented me from traveling. In Halifax in 2008, I even played one practice game before a knee injury ruined the race. It felt like during those five or six years, the knees were constantly staring after the season, Pitkänen sighs.
- Physically, they recovered relatively quickly, but of course they took a lot of practice time and also had a mental effect. There began to be such a fear that when the knee would go again, even if it just wanted to look ahead and recover to the game as quickly as possible.
Joni Pitkänen and Lasse Kukkonen liked the Olympic bronze.
Photo: Martti Kainulainen / Lehtikuva
The bad foot injury that came in April 2013 forcibly put things in a new perspective.
The beloved sport that had dominated life until then and the carefully framed calendar life of a top athlete became secondary as the balance weighed on one’s own health and genuine concern for the future after a gaming career.
The injury created a dark and uncertain shadow on Pitkänen's everyday life, as a year of foot rehabilitation in the United States was a painful and mentally difficult process.
- It was such a serious injury that the hockey didn't run in my mind then. Just walking for a long time was really hard and made it hurt. I just wanted to get in such a shape that I could live a normal family life.
In February 2016, we heard from Oulu. Pitkänen, who had already finished his career once, played his first professional match after a break of almost three years, when he unexpectedly returned to the ranks of his breeders' club Kärppi in the middle of the season.
The return was amazing, as Pitkänen had not been on the ice for 2.5 years after his serious injury. Blood pulled back into the trough when Harri Aho, Kärppi's sports director, asked about Pitkänen's future plans in autumn 2015.
- Gradually things progressed from it. I also started to have a whim to try when my foot seemed to heal, Pitkänen explains.
In December, he joined the Kärppi League team coaches coached by Lauri Marjamäki. After a couple of months of training and getting used to it, Pitkänen was seen in real action on February 6 in Kuopio against KalPaa.
- It was great to still be able to play, because a few years earlier it seemed that the hockey jobs were finally over and there was no guarantee of normal movement. The starting point at first was just to return to normal everyday life. The hunger increased while eating, but it was a pity that the return was about short.
After the return match in Kuopio, Pitkänen tried to play in two more league matches, but his leg could not last. His career as a hockey player was finally over at the age of 32.
- I had to digest it for a while, but I was also mentally prepared for the end of my career. There is no bitterness or anything left of it, Pitkänen emphasizes.
Former NHL pro Joni Pitkänen returned to the Finnish Champions League ice for a moment in 2016.
Photo: Timo Hartikainen / Lehtikuva
The fact that his phone rings immediately after the return match says a lot about Pitkänen's playing skills and appreciation behind the rake. Although there was a break of almost three years in between, the three NHL clubs were ready to offer a contract immediately if Pitkänen had been able to continue his career.
- Sometimes you have to think that it would be nice to play yet. The flies have Jussi Jokinen, who is the same age, and other old playmates who are still playing. If health would allow, probably I would play myself yet, but the end of career is already so much time that I am with you in the matter.
After a brief trial of the game, Pitkänen returned to the payrolls of the NHL club when he accepted Carolina's job offer and started doing the job of a talent scout.
Pitkänen worked for a short time as Carolina's talent scout in Europe, where her duties included monitoring and reporting on unreserved players and free agents.
Although the career of the talent scout was short, Pitkänen had time to screen Hurricanes with a few young Finnish players who had an impact in Oulu. Pitkänen had his fingers playing in the recruitment of Janne Kuokkanen and Saku Mäenalanen to the organization.
- GM Ron Francis was in Carolina as an assistant coach when I played, so there were familiar people in the company who wanted me to continue there. I really liked the job of a talent scout, but it involves a lot of travel and it is not possible in the current life situation, Pitkänen explains.
The Hurricanes pest was more about the right timing than a longer-term career plan.
- I left that job a year ago, because my wife specialized in pediatrics and she worked in another place for a year. We have three children, 5-, 7- and 9-year-olds, so someone had to stay to run everyday life. I need more at home now, and I want to spend as much time as possible with children when they are small.
Pitkänen does not rule out the possibility of returning to puck at some point.
We have three children, 5-, 7- and 9-year-olds, so someone had to stay to run everyday life.
What is certain is that the former top defender, who avoids publicity, is not pushing himself to the forefront, for example in his breeders' club in Kärpi, where Pitkänen's former teammates Lasse Kukkonen, Mika Pyörälä and Jokinen are still important leaders and exemplary implementers of club culture.
- Junior coaching could be of interest to some extent, but professional coaching is not. At least for now, Pitkänen says.
At the moment, Pitkänen is not involved in hockey in any way, but has focused on the full role of his family in his home communities.
- The whole family is entertained in Oulu and there is no whining here. This is home. Both boys play hockey and become drunk and watch games. That's good enough for me.
The article was published in Urheilulehti in April 2020. Subscribe to Urheilulehti for your home here.
Joni Pitkänen played in the NHL in 2003–2013. Photo from Pittsburgh as of March 2010.
Photo: Gregory Shamus / NHLI / Getty Images