Finnish defenseman Ilkka Heikkinen has signed a one year contract with HC Sibir Novosibirsk of the KHL. The 25-year old blueliner, who joined the Rangers as a free agent last summer and appeared in seven games for the Blueshirts, chose to continue his career in the KHL after the Rangers refused to offer him a one-way contract.
Heikkinen played 72 games in the AHL for the Hartford Wolf Pack last season, picking up eight goals and 30 assists to tie defense partner Bobby Sanguinetti (who played 11 fewer games) for the Wolf Pack lead in scoring on defense. He saw limited playing time in his seven games in the NHL, and failed to register a point.
Heikkinen's departure from North America comes as no surprise, since he made his displeasure with spending the season in Hartford known in an interview with Newsday's Steve Zipay during the Olympic break in February. While he played well for the Wolf Pack, he was largely overrated by Rangers fans desperate for anyone to replace dead weight Wade Redden on defense. In the end, he failed to show enough to earn the guaranteed NHL job that he was looking for.
After signing with Sibir, Heikkinen spoke with Maria Levinskaya for an interview on the team's web site. While it reveals nothing earth shattering, it provides a better introduction to Heikkinen than we ever got during his season in North America, and contains a few interesting anecdotes about his time with the Wolf Pack. The highlights are included after the jump. For the full translation, visit Beyond the Blueshirts.
- Ilkka, how did the choice of continuing your career with Sibir come about?
- I had before me the choice of playing in the NHL or KHL, but the Rangers only offered me a two-way contract, which means they can send me to play in the AHL at any moment. I decided that the KHL is the best league for me, and Sibir offered the best terms from the KHL.
- What other offers did you have?
- A few teams in the KHL were interested in me, as well as [teams] from Finland and Sweden.
- How did you get started playing hockey? How old were you and why did you become a defenseman?
- I don’t remember exactly how old I was, but I was very small. I started playing hockey because all the men from my mother’s family played hockey. From the first practice it was clear that hockey was really for me. One of the reasons why I became a defenseman is that my mother’s brother was a defenseman in the SM-liiga — Vesa Salo. I always watched how he played. So I wanted to become a defenseman like him.
- On last year's team in Hartford there was a young forward, Dale Weise, who gave you high marks. What can you say about him?
- He's really a very good hockey player. I think he can do everything on the ice. He's fast, skilled, with a good shot and he's very well developed physically. He'll be a really good player in the NHL someday.
- When we signed the contract with you, the fans, having seen your last name, at once noticed that it is similar to the name of a beer. I saw in your photo album a label from a Heineken beer. Does that mean that you're a cheerful person who can laugh at himself?
- (Laughs) Yes, in the USA the pronunciation of my last name is very similar to "Heineken". I'm at times a very cheerful guy, I hope to learn a little Russian, or that the guys on Sibir speak English, so I can laugh and joke with them.
- Usually teams have a few people who try to claim the title of funny-guy, who are famous for their jokes. Are you such a person? Were there any jokes on your teammates which you remember?
- No, I wouldn't say that I'm a joker, I prefer to listen to the guys more (smiles). But last season there was one funny thing. My partner on defense [Bobby Sanguinetti] sewed up the pockets of our coach's pants, but he only noticed it when he tried to get his mobile phone. It was very funny (laughs).
- In your childhood, did you have an idol among defensemen?
- I always liked to watch how Russian players play on TV, because they’re very technically skilled and fast. When I was young, I always watched how Pavel Bure played. If we’re talking specifically about defense, I liked Chris Chelios.