Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen says his decision to leave Finland and come to Sudbury to play in the OHL this year paid huge dividends, and credits his time here with helping him grow as a goalie.
Speaking with Buffalo Sabres TV host Brian Duff, the Sudbury Wolves goalie looked back on a season that saw him earn the title of the OHL's most outstanding player. He said it was hard leaving home.
“Of course it was a tough, tough decision to make — do you want to play in Finland and stay with your family or come here and play in new environment and a new country?” Luukkonen said. “So there was a lot of thought put into that, but in the end, I think it was the right decision to come here.
“I didn't think it would be as great as it has been. It has been something else.”
Luukkonen is just the sixth goaltender to be named the OHL's most outstanding player and the first member of the Wolves to be honoured since Mike Foligno back in 1979.
The Finnish netminder is also the first European player to earn the honour.
In 53 games, he had 38 wins and six shutouts, tied for the OHL lead. His 2.50 GAA was third-best and his 0.920 save percentage topped the league, backstopping the Wolves to their most successful regular season since 1994-95.
When asked the key to his success this year, Luukkonen said the fact he was able to feel comfortable so quickly was key.
“Well, I have said it many times, they had a really great owner (Dario Zulich) and GM (Rob Papineau) there and I was with a really good billet family,” he said. “So those things made it easier for me to adjust to the country and to that culture. So it was actually quite a quick settling in for me.”
Life in Sudbury is a lot like Finland, he said, with lots of green areas and wide open spaces.
“So it didn't feel too different from home,” Luukkonen said. “We had a great team and I had really, really nice coaches and really nice teammates, so that of course helped me.”
His primary goal was to play a lot of games and get used to the smaller ice surface in North America, but he exceeded those expectation.
“The trophies and the awards that I have been getting now, it's something I didn't think was going to happen,” he said. “But yeah, it was a all-around great season.”
Luukkonen is recovering well from off-season hip surgery, something he was able to play through during the year.
“I could still play with it, and we had a good training staff in Sudbury, too, which helped me a lot,” he said. “Especially in the playoffs, you don't want to think about it too much and you can just really play through it. And so it wasn't too big of a pain for me.”
His recovery is going well, he said, and he'll be back on the ice “as soon as I can.” It's a challenge he's ready to face after a season that exceeded his wildest dreams.
“I never thought I would be, first of all, be in the OHL. It's been different road than I expected, but no question, it has been a good road for me, and it has worked out well.”