While names like Jari Kurri and Teemu Selanne are household names in North America, Finnish hockey fans are quick to point out Matti Hagman as one of the best players the small Scandanavian country has produced.
Hagman was a scoring superstar in Finland, playing in Finland's highest league with HIFK Helsinki when he was just 17 years old. In his first 4 seasons with his hometown team he scored 95 goals in 119 games. He also participated in the 1975 World Junior Championships, the 1975 and 1976 World Championships and the 1976 Olympics in Innisbruck, Austria.
Hagman was a 6th round draft pick of the Boston Bruins in 1975. After representing Finland in the first ever Canada Cup tournament in the fall of 1976, Hagman joined the Bruins and had moderate success, scoring 11 goals and 17 assists. Only 15 games into his second NHL season, the Bruins traded away the Finnish wonderboy to the WHA's Quebec Nordiques, where he finished the season.
Big Influence On Kurri
Hagman returned to HIFK Helsinki for two seasons after his North American try-out. He also started working as a fireman while continuing to play on the ice. However he refused to believe he wasn't good enough to play in the NHL, and on September 11, 1980, he got his chance to return to the league. This time it was a much better fit as his high flying style would fit in nicely with a very young Edmonton Oilers team.
It proved to be a tremendous move by Oilers GM Glen "Slats" Sather. Hagman would play 2 full seasons with the Oilers, scoring 41 goals and 112 points, modest numbers on a team known for incredible output. But Hagman's presence (along with Risto Siltanen's) helped a young Jari Kurri adjust to North American life. Kurri couldn't speak a word of English at the time but due to their presence Kurri, unlike many Europeans especially in those days, became very comfortable with life in North America went on to become one of the greatest right wingers ever.
"I thought I'd need more experience back home, but Matti was a big reason I decided to come the first year,'' recalled Kurri. One would have to wonder how Hagman would have done had he had a mentor like that a few seasons earlier while in Boston.
Matti also helped Kurri score the first of his more than 600 goals.
"Matti passed and I one-timed it from the high slot,'' remembers Kurri. "It went in and out, play went on, but the referee (veteran Ron Wicks) saw that it was in.''
Back To Finland
Hagman returned to Finland permanently in 1982, although he did play the 1985-86 season in Germany. Hagman's career ended in 1992 as one of the greatest players in Finnish history. In 513 Finnish League games he scored 288 goals and 462 assists for 750 points. He also played in 104 international competitions for the Finnish National Team, scoring 21 goals and 42 assists for 63 points. Those games include 4 World Championships, 3 Canada Cups and the aforementioned 1976 Olympic Games.