When most people think of Miikka Salomäki they think of a Finnish wrecking ball on skates. I can’t really refute that. Salomäki was second to only Shea Weber on the Nashville Predators last season in hits. The Finn is a relentless force on the ice. Yet, while he spends time back in Milwaukee on long-term injury loan, I am reminded of what I think of Salomäki. He has come a long way off the ice.
What most people get to see with hockey players is their on-ice work. In fact, where I assume the majority of those reading and listening to this will come from is the Nashville fan base who get to see a more finished product. Lost in that is the developmental process that has come along the way in either the AHL, ECHL, or even professional leagues. Not only that, but in a player such as Salomäki’s case, the adaptation of more than just a smaller rink in the North American pro game – but North America on a day-to-day basis.
When I first met Salomäki he was 21-years old and about to embark on his first professional playing season outside of his native Finland. His tenure with Kärpät, a Finnish organization which brought in the likes of Pekka Rinne, did him well enough to be selected in the second round of the 2011 NHL Draft by the Predators. His first season away from home was the 2013-14 campaign. Unlike his Scandinavian teammates from Sweden the language barrier was a very real test for Salomäki. It was something that once prompted this gem from his Milwaukee Admirals head coach Dean Evason in our first ever edition of Chatterbox.
“When he turns purple when you say “Good Morning” to him it’s probably an indication that he’s shy. Off the ice he is shy. There is a bit of a language barrier. Not tremendous. He understands. He speaks, but he is a shy guy. But he pulls a sweater over his head and he’s a different man. He just goes out and he plays the same way every single night. And he’ll mature, obviously, and get to know how to conduct himself off the ice and be more comfortable. But, on the ice? No issues.” ~Dean Evason
That debut season for Salomäki was always going to be a stiff test as he was introduced to a new style of hockey and a new style of living. Fortunately, the language barrier that could have trouble him was lessened by having a contingent from home with the likes of Joonas Järvinen and Joonas Rask on the roster. There are always niche groups within a locker room as it is such a diverse game and having that ability to communicate in your native language can offer homely comforts that make a long and grinding season in the AHL or ECHL as a first-year player can go a long way.
If you view those three Finnish players from the Admirals that 2013014 season you also got to view the ups-and-downs of how the translation from the European to North American game can go. Järvinen appeared to find a groove that season but perhaps didn’t have the all-around abilities or skating prowess that the Predators would have wanted in their ranks. Rask, who has great skating ability, just wasn’t able to wire all of his tools together as effectively as he may have been able to as the smaller ice surface meant getting closed down quicker and grinded up along the boards. As for Salomäki? A smaller surface area in which to play perhaps only enhances his style of hockey.
Salomäki, from as early as that first season with the Admirals, earned a reputation as being a “Bull in a China Shop” from Evason. He never switches off ever, every shift he brings it, and every shift is met with high level effort, grit, and tenacity. A smaller rink only means that Salomäki has less distance to go from hit-to-hit or switching from defense to offense. In his first season in North America he was the Admirals leading scorer with 50 points (20 goals, 30 assists) from 75 games of work which saw him tied for fifth overall in the AHL’s rookie scoring race.
The next season Salomäki might not have been on the scoring rush that he had prior but his all-around play was taking flight. He was incredibly sound defensively and was doing such consistent work that he earned his first career NHL recall. On 1/8/15 he would make his NHL debut with the Predators in front of a packed Bridgestone Arena. He would score on a breakaway against Kari Lehtonen of the Dallas Stars for his first career NHL goal and also contribute a game best seven hits. It was the perfect debut showcasing Salomäki’s résumé on the NHL stage.
Unfortunately, right after his NHL debut he would end up being sidelined for the rest of the 2014-15 season due to shoulder surgery to take care repeated dislocation. The next season he would be with the Admirals on opening night but Salomäki’s main calling was to be in the NHL. He played 61 games for the Predators in the 2015-16 season, scored 10 points (5 goals, 5 assists), and amass 164 hits. Weber collected five more hits than Salomäki on the season but Weber had also played far more games. At 2.7 hits per game Salomäki wasn’t just atop the Predators in that respect but near the top ten of a powerhouse Central Division.
The word unfortunate turned up again this season for Salomäki. In fact, it has come up far too often. In the second game of the Predators season he broke his hand blocking a shot. He was sidelined until 12/2/16 when he made his return to game action on conditioning assignment with the Admirals. He participated in one period of play and never returned to the game. The reason for that was he suffered a significant leg injury while delivering a check. One that some thought could have held him out for the rest of this season. Thankfully, that isn’t the case and he is close to returning to where he belongs – on NHL ice.
Seeing Salomäki, whether it was in Nashville two weeks ago or here in Milwaukee this past week, reminds me of the journey he has been on off the ice. The man who would turn purple if you said “Good Morning” to him is far more comfortable in his own skin now in this country and when it comes to the English language. When he first arrived? I wanted interviews with him to be short and sweet because I relate to the social anxiety factor and just how unsettling it must be communicating in a different language with a microphone in front of you. Today? He is the goofball prankster that he very much is. Sure, it isn’t easy communicating in a different language -but- he does it now with a big laugh.
A massive thanks to Miikka Salomäki for providing the time to do such a lengthy interview and -Happy Birthday- as he turns 25-years old today. In the next two installments of Fifteen we will hear from Mike Liambas as well as Derek Army. Those will likely be released at the start of next week on Monday and Wednesday respectively.
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