Newer Canes fans who are Finnish-inclined have fond memories of the trio of Joni Pitkanen, Jussi Jokinen and Tuomo Ruutu who were part of the thrilling and fun 2009 playoff run. But Canes heritage as far as Finnish players go actually dates back ten years earlier to a Sami Kapanen. He was an original Hurricane having made the trek from Hartford for the 1997-98 season and stayed with the team during the time when it built a foundation in North Carolina.
The majority of Kapanen’s time was spent on the top line as a consistent scorer. He played in 440 games for the Hurricanes and posted five consecutive 20-goal seasons from 1997-98 to 2001-02 and finished with 314 points in the six seasons that he wore a Hurricanes uniform. He was a key part of both the heroic uprising in the 2001 playoffs and the magical run of 2002 when he played left wing on a top line centered by Ron Francis.
His greatest time as a Carolina Hurricane came out of adversity in the 2001 playoffs. With the Canes down 3-0 and on their way to a fast, humiliating and physically brutal (Shane Willis and Ron Francis concussions) exit from their first playoff series in Raleigh, Kapanen supplied the offense for a couple statement wins. The team basically swiped a taste of NHL playoff goodness from the jaws of what looked like a miserable first round sweep. In a “push back” game four in Raleigh, Kapanen led an undermanned Canes team with one goal and two assists in a thrilling 3-2 overtime home win. He followed that up by scoring again in the game 5 win in New Jersey. The Canes ultimately fell to New Jersey in six games, but the response and rebound from being down 3-0 gave the fans a taste of positive playoff excitement, became a pillar of the unique relationship between the fans and the team and set the stage for even bigger things just one year later.
In the 2001-02 season, Kapanen scored 27 goals and had 69 points, both career highs and instrumental the Hurricanes winning its second Southeast Division title. He again brought speed, two-way play and some scoring from his regular slot on the left wing of Francis’ top line.
In addition to his role in the team accomplishments during his run with the team, the visual memory of Kapanen from long-time Canes fans is that of raw speed and skating. When I think of Sami Kapanen, I picture one of his signature 360 moves with the puck followed by an immediate burst of straight line speed up the ice. He had a bit of Jeff Skinner in him with more than his share of “how did he do that?” moves that led to scoring chances and goals. It was this speed that made him two for two in winning the fastest skater in NHL all-star skills competition in both of the years (2000 and 2002) that he was selected as an all-star.
Visually, Sami Kapanen was a fun player to watch with his speed and quickness with a bit of flashiness. Longevity-wise, he was a fixture on the team for roughly the full first half of its existence in North Carolina. And he played a key role in the team’s earliest playoff successes. All in all, he is an easy choice to be included amongst Hurricane hockey greats.