By Mick Hatten
SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — There are some hockey elements that Jami Krannila admits have been a challenge in his first season playing in North America.
But the Finnish native said that things away from the arena have been more difficult.
“It’s probably more the life things than the hockey, but you see that more in the beginning,” said Krannila, an 18-year-old who was born in Pori, a city of about 85,000 on the west coast of Finland, about a three-hour drive north and west of Helsinki. “After about a month, it’s been normal and good. The hockey had a couple tough stretches, but otherwise it’s been good.”
Krannila, a St. Cloud State recruit, continues to play in juniors this season for the Sioux Falls Stampede in the United States Hockey League. He had a goal and an assist in the Stampede’s Western Conference series-clinching 3-2 win over the Tri-City Storm on May 3.
Sioux Falls opens the Clark Cup Finals best-of-five series against the Chicago Steel at 7:05 p.m. Friday at the Stampede’s home ice, the Denny Sanford PREMIER Center.
In that win over Tri-City, the Stampede picked up the win at home in front of a crowd of 6,689. The Stampede averaged 6,563 fans during the regular season in 2017-18 when it was named the USHL Organization of the Year.
“It helps a lot to have good fans. It makes playing easier,” said Krannila, who played in an Under-18 league in Finland in 2017-18. “Last year, the maximum (crowd I played in front of) was maybe a couple hundred.”
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While the cultural differences between living in Finland vs. South Dakota were demanding early on, there were some hockey changes as well. Going from the Olympic-sized ice sheets (200 feet by 100) to NHL-sized rinks caused Krannila to make some adjustments.
“Back home, you use your speed differently and have a little more space,” Krannila said. “Not having as much space, you have to be faster.”
But he also admits that is one of his strengths as a player.
“Skating is probably my biggest strength and my hockey IQ, finding my teammates in places to score,” he said.
— x – Sioux Falls Stampede (@sfstampede) May 4, 2019
Krannila’s combination of skills were what drew Huskies assistant coach to him during a recruiting visit to Finland during the 2017-18 season.
“You’ll find terrific guys with quick hands, but they don’t always have that kind of feet,” Gibbons said. “He’s got a great combination of speed and hands.
“Finnish guys are a tough breed and he’s got some grit. He’s not afraid to stand his own ground.”
Krannila had 28 assists, 45 points, 81 penalty minutes and was a plus-12 in 60 regular season games for Sioux Falls, playing mostly center. During the playoffs, he’s been moved to wing, which has been an adjustment.
“In the beginning, it’s a little hard because you kind of have to learn when and where to go on the ice,” he said of playing wing.
Gibbons convinced Krannila to play for the Huskies during his recruiting visit to Finland … then had to help keep him.
Krannila verbally committed to the Huskies after Gibbons got impressed by him in two games. The first game, he had five goals and three assists in one game.
“That was probably the best game of my whole life and I don’t know how to explain that,” Krannila said.
Gibbons saw that game and then decided to watch a second game before making an offer.
“After I saw one half of a period, I started thinking about offering (a scholarship) to him,” said Gibbons, who has spent the last 12 seasons as a St. Cloud State assistant coach and has been a college coach for 25 seasons. “I went to his next game to make sure my eyes weren’t fooling me.
“So his team is playing a game and down a goal and he’s standing behind the opponent’s net with about 20 seconds left. The other team’s two defensemen both came at him at the same time.
“He flips the puck over the front of the net, skates around and one-times it on net. He didn’t score. But the puck came back to him and he fed the wide open guy to tie the game. I’ve never seen anything like it. Then he scores the winning goal in overtime.
“That’s one of those recruiting stories where you say, ‘Oh my gosh, he’s a terrific talent.'”
Gibbons has been instrumental in bringing the Huskies a number of Finnish players in recent years including Kalle Kossila (2012-16), Niklas Nevalainen (2013-17), Rasmus Reijola (2012-16) and Mika Ilvonen (2014-19).
Players who remain in Finland during college-age years do not typically play hockey and go to school. They either play hockey or go to school, but not both. So when Gibbons made the offer to play for St. Cloud State, Krannila was intrigued.
So were his parents. His mother is a nurse and his father works in information technology.
Then St. Cloud State head coach Bob Motzko left to become the head coach at the University of Minnesota in March 2018. Krannila made a recruiting visit to St. Cloud State shortly after Brett Larson became the head coach in April 2018.
“He wasn’t officially signed, so when he did visit, coach Larson sold him on coming,” Gibbons said. “In effect, he was his first (player to) commit.”
And Larson had not seen him play, so he was trusting Gibbons’ judgement. Krannila officially signed his national letter of intent in November as he was continuing his transition to the United States.
So what was the toughest cultural change for Krannila?
“Maybe the food,” he said. “(Americans) put a lot of cheese on everthing. That’s tough.
“I’ve started to like it now, but not so much before the season started.”