Love, Hate, And An Original Baron: Farewell Teemu Hartikainen

Farewell, Teemu Hartikainen

Teemu Hartikainen has officially signed a two-year deal to leave the Edmonton Oilers organization to play for Ufa in the KHL. Details on how much have not been released, but know that he’s being paid well. Likely moreso than a re-up with the Oilers. However, there’s such a deep well of story telling that is tied to the three year AHL/NHL run of Hartikainen, and for some reason many are willing to discount the journey.

At just barely twenty years old, speaking virtually no English, Hartikainen or Harski for short, was thrown into a torrid relationship with the Oilers. Drafted in round six of the 2008 NHL entry draft, all eyes were laser focused on the Jordan Eberle pick in round one. He was a Finnish player with good hands, good presence on the ice, and a tenacity around the edges of the ice. His feisty nature is likely what sparked the drafting of him to begin with. He was disappointed from the get-go about not making an NHL roster, but those in Edmonton wanted to watch him closely to see how he translated to North American hockey. He eventually took it in stride, and he’ll go down in history as the first Oklahoma City Barons player to score a goal. He did so in the first game ever in OKC, and in the middle of a 6-1 undressing care of the Houston Aeros. 65 AHL games later, he’d have 47 points alongside 12 NHL games with 5 points. However, Hartikainen was a grinder, something the Oilers needed, yet the powers-that-be in Edmonton were unsure how to use.

In his second pro year he continued his solid pace through the American League. This time he’d play more at the NHL level than he had in the previous season, and with some offseason tutelage from Oilers scouts, Hartikainen learned to exist in a world where he didn’t have to score goals, and where puck responsibility and tenacious board play was enough. 51 games played in the AHL yielded 32 points, and a boost in NHL games allowed him to play 17 games and score 5 points. It was a transition year, in terms of what he was doing on the NHL level, and everyone gave him a pass. After all, he was just a second year N. American pro player. He had time.

In the final season of his entry level deal he seemed poised to get the roster spot it felt like he’d earned, and with a new coach that clearly wanted to move things in a positive direction, Hartikainen felt like a solid answer to the baby soft tendencies of the Oilers strength game. The lockout happened, and the great in team gave us a half-season of amazing All-Star Game like play from Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, and Justin Schultz but seemingly buried some into the lineup. Time on ice changed, went towards the NHL guys, and even caused some chemistry issues team-wide that only a handful could have predicted would occur. Yet Harski played well. Shoulder issues aside, he was a guy built for tough hockey play. Shoulder healed, he’d slightly tweak it while playing 23 games with the Oilers, but he’d post some really brutal numbers. Ralph Krueger was a man that knew a thing or two about coaching, but he had blemishes that went unchallenged. Even Yakupov felt the force of this as he’d get weird placements in the roster while still producing. Hartikainen did the things he did well – movement in front of the net, puck possession, great hands – but it was another really awful year for the Oilers, and the addition of Mike Brown felt like a stamp of disapproval on any prospect grinding out minutes looking for NHL time.

As Hartikainen now finishes his three year run with the Oilers, his RFA status dictates that the Oilers have his rights despite his ability to play for a reasonably good team in Ufa where he’ll be watched for production.

The story of Hartikainen is an interesting one. Circumstance dicatated a lot of his direction in his first years as a pro, and that’s a real shame. Imagine if the young Finn played in an organization that wasn’t as desperate. Would he felt less pressure to perform? Would he have had a bit more time to come up for air? Would it be a no-brainer to sign him at least another season? You bet. The Oilers need a lot of things – leadership, increasingly better goaltending, defenders than can defend, back-end strength on the third and fourth lines – and I believe that Hartikainen could have owned that final section of need. We all watched, expected him to churn out goals with rapid pace, but he’s just not that type of player. When he spent time on the back-end of the lineup, he was rarely assisted by anyone who didn’t themselves need assistance.

Steve Tambelinni was a difficult man to understand, and with a few interesting pieces to his credit, the bulk of his successes were found in crafting beautiful minor league hockey teams. Managing those highly skilled, highly motivated, well sought after players wasn’t a success, and that leaves an impression.

The final demotion of Hartikainen in 2013 felt like the end of an era for the Finn. With Craig MacTavish into the arena, many will be left without a ticket to watch the lions devour the innocent. Sure Hartikainen could have rolled with the punches, signed an extended year (as CVV and Plante did a year ago), but he wouldn’t earn guaranteed money because it was still unclear where he fit in to the Oilers grand jigsaw puzzle. Instead he did the right thing, and that’s honing his game where he gets the highest paycheck, wins the best minutes, and finds ways to maybe increase his value in N. America while not playing inside its borders.

Hartikainen existed in Oklahoma City as a fine example of what hockey is meant to be. He was a foreign entity with great promise, tough gamesmanship, highly energized skill, and value beyond what you immediately see on paper. He was an original Baron. Easy to cheer for. Cordial in conversation. Delightfully awkward with English. Always fun. Light-hearted. Warm. And most importantly, an honest to goodness human being. As my fellow Oklahomans and I adjusted to the new AHL game, it was as if Teemu was living out our understandings on the ice. He was learning the game of AHL hockey right along with us.

On a semi-warm December afternoon several years ago, the Barons held an outdoor fan skate. This wasn’t anything different for this group of guys, because they loved the community they were in despite it not being their desired destination. Me, my wife, and my daughter headed to the rink, laced ’em up, and hit the ice. As we skated circles around Paajarvi and many others, there sat Hartikainen with a bundle of children on his lap. Like Santa, he had a grim permanently plastered on his face, smiled for each photo, and won the hearts of mom’s for a lifetime. There stood my daughter, who’d channeled her father’s inner-love of a Finnish forward, waiting to have her photo taken with Teemu. She crawled into his lap. He wrapped his arms around her. She smiled. He smiled. It was perfect. As she scooted off his lap he turned, and in the most Finnish of accents simply said, “Thank You”. She, without missing a beat, said “You’re Welcome”.

In that brief but heart tugging moment, I found a bit of real life in a prospect that had been talked, blogged, podcasted, interviewed, and critiqued since he was a youngster. As he melded his profession within the Oilers organization, the great and powerful Oz watched with even more anticipation. Yet he was as human as they come.

With a life ahead of him that is bound to be successful, I’m slow to give a verdict on his worth ethic, chances of making it, or promise to one day return to N. America to play hockey. How great were you at your job after three years? He’s always functioned as someone that did more than just play hockey, he lived it. Passion, and passion alone, can’t be measured on a scale that a newspaper writers have thrown together.

You take the pieces of Hartikainen’s game, throw in the human element, realize he has the rest of his life before him, and suddenly you understand why he’d choose to play KHL hockey. Not because he gave up on the Oilers, didn’t work hard, or even prove he had things that people want – it’s because he lives life by his standards. Rather than allow his NHL club to throw him to the waiver wire in the upcoming season, he’ll choose his own path. At least for now. That’s admirable, and chances are, you’d do the same thing.

I love Teemu Hartikainen, rough hockey playing edges and all. I hate that he’s leaving Oklahoma City, Edmonton, and the NHL. I bid a found farewell to one of the original Barons. Go get ’em Harski.