Saturday, January 29, 2011

The Story of Mikko Leinonen

A few days ago I noted that one of Wayne Gretzky's 60 existing NHL records is shared by a fairly obscure player, Mikko Leinonen. In April, 1982 Leinonen set the NHL record for assists in a playoff game with six.

Mikko Leinonen began playing for his hometown team Tappara Tampere in the Finnish professional league as an 18 year old. He played four seasons finishing in top six of league scoring the last two seasons. As a 22 year old he transfered to Modo in the Swedish league and finished fourth in scoring with 44 points in 36 games, one behind future Canuck Tomas Gradin.

After one more year in Sweden, he went back to Finland with Karpat Oulu where he put up back-to-back 52 point in 36 games seasons.

During the 79/80 season Leinonen suited up for Finland in the 1980 Lake Placid Olympics and scored 6 goals and 10 points in the 7 matches. He also played in the 1981 Canada Cup were he scored only 1 assist in 5 games. It was at this tournament that he and fellow Finn Reijo Ruotsalainen were signed by the New York Rangers.

Upon joining the Rangers training camp, Leinonen played on a line with Anders Hedberg and the comback attempting, 42 year old Bobby Hull. Neither Hull nor Leinonen made a big enough impact as Hull, (who hadn't skated in 18 months) hung up the blades for good and Leinonen was sent to Springfield of the AHL. He would score 4 goals and 6 points in 6 games before being recalled to the Rangers.

Leinonen ended up spending most of the first half of the season in the press box. He was quoted,"You learn nothing when you watch. The game looks easy from the outside but you don't see the speed of it." When he finally drew into the line-up, he started to produce. After a game in early March in which Leinonen scored two goals and added an assist, his coach Herb Brooks said, "We finally said, 'Let's find out about him, let's give him a certain number of games, give him a job and see how he does' ".

Leinonen finished his rookie NHL year playing 53 games, scoring 11 goals and 31 points. On April 8, 1982 in the Rangers second playoff game against the Flyers, Leinonen erupted for his record breaking night. He notched his first helper on a Carol Vadnais goal less than two minutes into the match, then had assists on second period powerplay markers by Don Maloney and Robbie Ftorek in the second period. With 1:10 left in the second he assisted on Dave Silk's goal to make it 5-2 New York. 4:31 into the third period Leinonen assisted on Rob McClanahan goal then finished up assisting on Eddie Johnstone's late powerplay goal.

According to the Pittsburgh Press newspaper Leinonen "constantly skated from one side of the rink to the other" on the powerplay. Brooks compared him to a "center fielder in baseball. 'He's got good broken field running instincts'", changing his metaphor mid-stream to football.

After the game Leinonen said, "I heard them announce some records. I didn't know anything about them before, but it's nice to know afterward that I received some records. But it's no big difference if I score a record. If the team is winning, I am satisfied." Well, the Rangers would beat the Flyers three games to one, but were taken down by the Islanders in the next round four games to two. Other than a late goal to make it 7-2 for the Islanders in a game two loss, Leinonen was pointless in round two and he would miss three of the six games in the second round. He finished the playoffs with 1 goal and 6 assists in 7 games played.
The next season, 1982/83, Leinonen played full-time with the Rangers and tallied 17 goals, 51 points in 78 games. He played 7 of the 9 playoff games scoring 4 points as the Rangers lost once again to the Isles in the second round. In 83/84 Leinonen played more than half the season in the CHL with the Tulsa Oilers gaining 38 points in 33 games. Upon returning to New York he scored points at an NHL career best rate with 3 goals, 23 assists and 26 points in 28 games. His success did not carry over into the playoffs with a mere 2 assists in a five game first round loss to, yes, the Islanders.
Leinonen returned home to Finland as a free agent to once again play for Karpat Oulu where he
scored 19 goals, 34 points in 35 games. The Washington Capitals signed him for the stretch run on March 13, 1985 but inadvertantly violated league rules when they lent Leinonen to Karpat for their playoffs before bringing him back to the NHL.
He played only three regular season games with Washington before being suspended for the Caps first playoff match by John Ziegler. Washington was also fined $7000 for the violation. He played only one playoff game in the Capitals first round ouster at the hands of....the Islanders.
In 1985/86, at the age of 30 he played his last full season with Karpat Oulu dropping off to 23 points in 36 games. He retired after the following season.
Mikko Leinonen played a total of 162 NHL games, tallying 78 assists and 109 points, and one NHL record shared with Wayne Gretzky.


Anonymous said...

Mikko is currently President of Tappara.

Robert Carey said...

He would have been a Rangers legend like Stephane Matteau if he buried the puck on a two-on-one in OT of game 5 vs the Isles in the 1984 playoffs. But he fanned.

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