Most of Wild prospect Kaapo Kahkonen’s hockey career has had the same backdrop — his native Finland.
It’s where he honed the craft, progressing as a player after first strapping on skates on outdoor ice and zeroing in on the goaltending position when he was 10. And aside from a few international appearances, it’s where Kahkonen has continued his development after getting drafted in the fourth round, 109th overall by the Wild, in 2014.
To keep evolving, though, Kahkonen will have to ditch the familiarity of home and get accustomed to a completely new environment.
The smaller rinks in the United States and Canada.
After spending the past three seasons in Finland’s top league, Kahkonen will make his pro debut in North America this fall in the Wild’s pipeline — a challenge he’s excited to tackle as he moves closer to his dream of playing in the NHL.
“It’s a step forward, for sure,” Kahkonen said. “Pretty much no one goes straight from Europe to the NHL. There’s a couple of them, obviously. But the reality is you go to the [American Hockey League] to the NHL, and the reality is that there’s 62 goalie spots in the NHL for every goalie in the world. So that’s a pretty small percentage that actually makes it.
“But you just gotta do your thing every day and just do your best and do the things that you can affect on and not think about the other stuff that you can’t do anything about.”
Kahkonen is poised to begin next season with Iowa in the AHL. Who his running mate in net will be is unclear; the Wild expects recent signee Andrew Hammond to vie with incumbent Alex Stalock for the backup job in the NHL.
How many starts get assigned his way is also up in the air, but the team wants Kahkonen to soak up as many minutes as he can to get acclimated to the narrower rink size — even if that means getting placed in the ECHL.
“We just need to make sure he’s getting his games,” Wild director of player development Brad Bombardir said.
The 21-year-old was confronted with the different look of the ice this week during the Wild’s development camp at Xcel Energy Center, a primer to the organization that included a Thursday scrimmage. Prospects will also square off against each other at 5 p.m. Sunday, with the action free and open to the public.
Aside from a quicker pace of play, Kahkonen said: “The shots come from everywhere because the players don’t have time to pass the puck laterally and dangle that much. But I’ll get used to that.”
What could help Kahkonen adjust is the experience he has from his junior days in Finland when he skated on “probably the smallest rink in the world” — a setup that had one offensive zone shorter than the other.
His journey the past few years also looks to have stoked his readiness for this opportunity. He nabbed gold with Finland at the 2016 World Junior Championship, going 4-0 with a 2.52 goals-against average after being the third-string goalie the previous year.
In 56 games last season with Lukko Rauma, the 6-2, 222-pound Helsinki native posted a .920 save percentage, 2.20 goals-against average and six shutouts.
Before that season, Kahkonen participated in mandatory Finnish military training — an experience that enhanced his perspective.
“Hockey players are living their dreams pretty much,” he said.
So while he’s unsure how he will adapt to the changes facing him, Kahkonen is eager for the transition.
“I don’t take too much pressure on playing hockey,” he said, “because that’s the thing I love to do. I just try to do my best every day and be successful.”