May 10, 2012
Kurri or Selanne — Who's better?
By TERRY JONES, QMI Agency
HELSINKI - The other day in the media centre between games at the world hockey championship, a debate got going.
Best Finn ever?
Kevin Lowe happened to be in the room.
"That’s ridiculous,” he said.
"Selanne has had a great career, but he pales compared to Jari. To hear somebody say Selanne is the best Finn ever ... it’s not even close,” he said of the first Finn to be inducted to the Hockey Hall of Fame and the 19th place NHL scorer all-time with 1,398 points whose number has been retired by the Edmonton Oilers, Finnish national team and SM-liiga’s Jokerit.
"Selanne is getting recognized now for his longevity. But Kurri was in his own league. How many players in the NHL were the best offensively and defensively?”
Friday it’s Kurri vs Lowe here as the two Oiler greats take their national teams against each other in the highlight game of the round-robin here – Canada vs Finland.
Kurri is the general manager of Finland and Lowe is working his first Worlds as general manager of Canada.
"It’s kind of interesting with this Finland team,” said Lowe. “Jari didn’t want anybody who isn’t a two-way player.”
Lowe said his players have been all over him to get out there on the ice with Team Canada to match what Kurri did here the other day.
"Jari went out on the ice at practice with the Finns. With an old wood stick. I guess it was great.
"Our guys have been giving me the gears. ‘The Finnish G.M. went out there,’ they say.”
Kurri became an assistant coach of Finland for the Salt Lake 2002 Olympic Winter Games then was named general manager for the national team for 2006 in Torino and 2010 in Vancouver and serves in the same capacity for all the world championships and other major tournaments.
"It’s a fun way to be involved with hockey. It’s not like a full-time every-day job,” he said.
"We have a major tournament In Finland in November, in Russia at Christmas time, in Sweden in February, in the Czech Republic in April and the world championships in May. So it’s not just for a couple of weeks either.
"There are breaks in the league schedules. We rotate some of the players and have some of the younger players coming through. And I make trips to North America scouting the Finland players. It keeps me busy, but not too busy.”
Last year, for only the second time in Finland’s history, Kurri’s national team won the gold medal at the world championships, shocking the nation and the rest of the hockey world with a 6-1 win over favored Sweden in the final.
"It was unbelievable, actually,” said the still soft-spoken Kurri.
Finland had been so close so many times.
"In 1994 we played Canada and lost in a shootout. In 2007 we were in the final against Canada in Moscow and lost again. People went crazy,” he said of the party in the streets in which some fans danced naked in the fountains.
So what’s it like being Jari Kurri here?
"I like my life. I’m more a regular guy here, not like Wayne,” he said of his old linemate Gretzky.
"I am recognized all the time and people are always coming up to say 'hi' and they still ask for autographs and everything. It’s all very nice, though. I can still have my life.”
For Kurri, it’s a new life with a new family. He married former Miss Finland Vanessa Kurri (nee Forsman) in 2004.
He was formerly married to Tiina Kurri and his twin sons Joonas and Ville were born in Edmonton in 1985. Gretzky was named the boys’ godfather.
"We were divorced in 1998 and I am remarried now with three children, Odessa, 10, Alissa, 7, and Paulus, 5. We’re expecting a newborn in July.
"I’m enjoying the family part of my life. When you’re playing, you are on the road so much. Now, I’m home so much more and can be part of the kids. I love that part.”
He said he’s had his young son on the ice.
"This winter we started him skating a little bit. I think I was three when I started. I fell down and started crying and it took a while after that. I think it wasn’t until I was about nine until I started playing.”
Long-time Finland hockey writer Tom Ratchunas goes back to when Kurri was a teenager.
"In the history of Finland hockey, the country had never won a championship until Jari led the team to the European junior championship. He scored a very important goal. He’s been big ever since. He’s still huge here.”
Ratchunas suggests that the Kurri vs Selanne debate, which has been going on in Finland for a few years now, is more about style than anything, suggesting it’s maybe like comparing Jean Beliveau to Guy Lafleur in Montreal.
Jari always has chosen to avoid the limelight. But Selanne comes along and is more like a movie star. Finland has no movie stars.
"Finland used to have fantastic skiers and athletes like Paavo Nurmi, the winner of nine Olympic gold medals. Now other than Lotus Formula One driver Kimi Raikkonen, all Finland’s sports stars are hockey players.”
Vessa Rantanen, sports editor for Ilta-Sanomat and Veikkaaja, said Kurri very much is Finland’s living legend.
"He’s really revered by every player. They all had Jari’s picture on their bedroom walls when they were kids. As long as he lives, hearing his name will bring good feelings.”
That’s true in Edmonton, of course, with all the players whose banners hang from the rafters at Rexall Place.
Kurri said, other than Esa Tikkanen, he sees Lowe most often because, like most NHL executives, he’s around the world championship most every year and Lowe has been involved in Hockey Canada’s Olympic Team management committee dating back to Salt Lake as well.
"I talk to Kevin quite often, see Glenn Anderson once in a while on scouting trips I take to look at players in the NHL in New York. It’s been a couple of years since I’ve seen Wayne or Paul Coffey.
"I am more and more happy to see some of the guys as the year’s go by. When I see the guys it’s like yesterday. We’re all in our 50s now. That’s unbelievable. We’re getting old.
"I think it’s getting time for us to have another reunion. I’d love to get that team back together in Edmonton again” he said of the team which won five Stanley Cups in a span of seven seasons, the last dynasty in the league.
"I think they should retire Kevin’s number soon so we can all get together to come back for that.”
Kurri said watching his number be raised to the roof of Rexall Place was one of the highlights of his life.
"It was unbelievable. I can’t put it into words. The whole city ... All my team-mates ... Edmonton is such a great place. Every once in a while I watch some of the old games. Watching those games brings back so many memories,” he said.
But more often, lately, he finds himself watching today’s Oilers, finding that the kids bring back memories of the beginning of the glory gang.
"They have a great future, that’s for sure. They’re building a great team again. They have many skilled players for sure,” he said, saying he’s watching Jordan Eberle and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins closely in this tournament.
Kurri said watching them makes him think of how it was when his Oilers were young.
"Edmonton was perfect for me, right from the beginning. As you can see here, there are a lot of things about Edmonton that are similar to Helsinki. They are a similar size. We are about one million people. The weather is much the same. It’s a great city in the summer time, but the summers are too short.
"I remember living with Paul Coffey in an apartment in Riverbend in my first year. Kevin and Wayne lived in an apartment one floor above us.
"There were many memories from those times. I was just learning English. Some of them were pretty funny. I treasure them now. I treasure all my memories from Edmonton. It was the best time of my life. But this time of my life has become a pretty good time, too.”