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Face to face with Oskar Osala

08.11.2012

- It seems a little strange to see a high-class professional hockey player coming from Vaasa. It’s a small town not really known for hockey. However, local soccer team plays in the top Finnish league. How come you turned out to be a hockey player and not a soccer player?
- Actually, I played soccer up until I was 13. I think I could have made it as a pro in soccer too. I’m a fast runner. I was also good defensively because of my running. I don’t know, I just always loved hockey more. I never thought twice what is going to be my sport. So at 13 I decided to quit soccer and just play hockey.

- While we’re still talking about weird stuff, it’s amazing to see you in Neftekhimik’s jersey for a second year. Why did you stick around for so long?
- I spent five years in North America and things didn’t work out for me the way I imagined they would. I gave myself 3 years to make it to the NHL. I improved a lot over these years but never really cracked NHL lineup. I knew I needed something new. I’ve seen the AHL. I know what that is. I needed something new to get better. Then I had this opportunity to come to Nizhnekamsk. I’ve looked up about Nizhnekamsk when they offered me a contract and talked to a few guys – Petri Vehanen and Tero Lehterä - who played there before. All I’ve heard from them was positive. They said nice things about the organization and the city. So I decided to sign the deal and jump onto something new. Three years in one place is a lot. I mean, I may have cracked the NHL had I stayed in the AHL for a few more years but I improved so quickly after I came here. These 1,5 years really gave me a lot.

- Having spent two years with the Mississauga IceDogs, you moved back to Finland for a year where you signed with the Blues. What was that all about?
- In my second year in the OHL I played at the World Juniors. I had a very good tournament. I led the tournament in goals. Actually, I was tied with Alexei Cherepanov. My coach was Petri Matikainen, who is now the coach of Avangard Omsk. At the time he was the coach of Blues. He made it very clear to me after the World Juniors that he wanted me to play for his team next season. It was a big thing for me because I always admired Finnish elite league. So when I had an opportunity to play there for a coach who I knew was good, it was a pretty easy decision for me. I didn’t mean to leave North America for good. I wanted to go to Finland to sort of get SM-liiga out of the way, you know? It was good for my development, too. But I was more attracted to the fact that I could say I played in SM-liiga. I have a great respect for the league. I thought it was a great move for my development. I don’t want to say that I took a ‘soft’ route either. I probably could have made a jump straight from the OHL to the AHL. However, playing 18 minutes a night in SM-liiga as 19-years-old, it was a great, great thing for me.

- And your numbers from that season prove your point exactly. In 53 regular season games you had 35 points to which you added another 10 points in 17 playoff games. This doesn’t happen every day in SM-liiga for teenagers.
- I know. Everything just went so well. I started on the third line. But shortly after the season started I was moved to the first line to my friend Mikko Lehtonen, who now plays for Severstal and whom I played with at the World Juniors. Everything just clicked that year – good linemates, good teammates, good coach, good city… It was a great year on and off the ice. I have so many great memories from that time. I think that year was one of the kind.

- Then you moved back to North America and won Calder cup. Who initiated your trade from the Caps to Hurricanes? Did you ask for a trade?
- I didn’t actually ask for a trade but my agent and I made it clear that we weren’t quite satisfied with the situation.So I didn’t ask them directly but I wasn’t very happy in Hershey in my second year.

- They say that your first NHL game is going to stick with you forever. Is this something you can relate to? Do you remember you first NHL game vividly?
- Oh, yes, I do! I only had 3 NHL games so I remember every each one of them vividly. My first NHL game was against Boston in Washington. I played with Matt Bradley and I think Boyd Gordon. We played some good minutes. I had a scoring chance, too bad I didn’t score… I have the same problem in every league. It takes me 5 to 15 games to feel comfortable. I guess, I was star-struck in the game against the Boston Bruins. I always get star-struck. It happened to me last year in the KHL too when I was playing against all those stars. I wasn’t quite myself in the NHL. It was such a big thing for me. I was just looking around, looking at the players that I’ve admired on TV… It always takes me awhile to understand that this is where I belong.

- Your point is clear. Nevertheless, you had stars like Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom on your side. Didn’t they come up to you said ‘Hey, kid, relax, we got it’?
- Yeah, they actually did just that. Both of them were nice to me. Backstrom obviously can speak Swedish, and they’re great friends with Ovi, so that helped. They made me feel comfortable in the dressing-room. But at the same time it takes me a while to get adjusted.

- Fair enough. Could you talk about the biggest difference you noticed after coming over to Russia?
- Hmm. You have to be a better skater in the KHL. It’s a bigger ice surface here, so you have to be a really good skater. I noticed that right away and I started working on my skating really hard. This is why I had a slow start last year.

- You played on both sides of the ocean, so you must have heard that in North America the majority of fans don’t consider the KHL a legitimate league because they think the league’s defense and goaltending are bad.
- Huh! Well, I think that the AHL may not be an easier league but it is an easier league to score in. So I don’t think that’s true at all. I totally disagree with that.

- Why do you think it’s easier to score in the AHL? Smaller ice surface?
- I don’t know what might be the reason. Smaller ice surface may be one of them but the game is just more aggressive too, so there’s more room. The game over here is a lot less passive. The aggressive style creates a lot of openings. I really can’t tell you why but for sure there are more scoring chances in the AHL than in the KHL and it’s a lot easier to score in the AHL than in the KHL.

- What is it like for you being in Nizhnekamsk now with no other Finnish players?
- Actually, it’s pretty good. I was worried about that before the season but I got very well along with Petr Koukal and Matt Dalton. Also with Martin Cibak because he was here last season too. These are all great guys so we had a lot of fun this year of the ice. They just had their families here visiting recently… so I was bored since I had nobody to hang out with. Other than that, we get along great.

- What about Nail Yakupov? Surely, he has his own life going on for him in Nizhnekamsk given the fact he was born there, but he’s also fresh out from the OHL. You guys must have a lot in common.
- When he practiced with us last summer, we started talking about the OHL because we had a lot of similar experiences to share. We picked up very easily. We talk a lot. Nail wants to learn English so he comes to talk to me all the time.

- You were once teammates with Nicklas Backstrom and Alex Ovechkin. You now play in the same league with them but in Russia. You have the most recent #1 overall pick Nail Yakupov on your team. All of this happened because of the NHL lockout. What’s your take on that? Must feel surreal for you.
- First of all, if you would have told me 3 years ago I would play with Ovi and Nicklas in the KHL in a couple of years, I’d be like ‘No way!’ So it is surreal just like you said. As for the lockout, I haven’t followed it that closely, but I do follow Bob McKenzie on twitter and he gives me a little insight. To me it really seems unfair. I understand it’s business. I understand it’s a profitable business. It’s a good product right now and I don’t understand why the owners have the urgent need to make it more profitable. I’m upset about it. Again, I haven’t followed it that closely, but what I’ve heard depresses me. I can’t understand why they need to do this. Everybody is winning right now. The business is profitable. Players want to keep it this way and it’s working this way. The players are even willing to cut back and the owners are still not happy. Obviously, as a player I’m biased, yet I still can’t understand the owners’ greediness in this situation. I put myself in the owners’ shoes and I still can’t understand it. I mean, of course they want to make the league as profitable for them as possible but the players are still they guys who make their [darn] money. I’m a little bit upset with it.

- The lockout must be beneficial for you, though. With all the NHLers coming to Russia, KHL has become a much better league.
- That’s true. Playing against superstars? That’s something I like. It’s fun to see how good they are and compare yourself to them. You can see how much better you have to get to reach the NHL level. It’s a fun challenge, it’s a great experience and great memories too. Even if I never play in the NHL, it’s still great memories for me as I get to play against the best players in the world.

Andrey Osadchenko, in Toronto, special to khl.ru

See also

12.04.2013 Golubovich departs Nizhnekamsk; Skudra to guide Torpedo