By Jess Myers
MINNEAPOLIS — According to Google Translate, the Finnish word for spark is “kipinä,” and the Finnish word for ignition is “sytytys.” For the Minnesota Gophers hockey team, the Finnish words that typify early season spark are “Sampo Ranta.”
The Gophers had already dropped the first game of their season-opening series at Colorado College last weekend, falling 3-2 on Oct. 11 in a game where they grabbed an early lead and could not, get a second goal to create some separation with the Tigers. They trailed 2-0 on the road in the second game, and were at risk of limping home with nothing to show for their efforts, when they found some high-altitude “sytytys” from their big-bodied Finnish sophomore.
In a gritty play that was more Hibbing, Minn., than Helsinki, Ranta went hard to the Tigers net with the puck and got a close-range shot on goal that was stopped, but not cleared or covered by Tigers goalie Ryan Ruck. Ranta refused to vacate the crease until the puck was on the far side of the goal line and the Gophers were on the scoreboard.
“We needed a first goal and, at that point, I kind hoping to get it in the net and drove the net and there was a rebound,” Ranta said. “It was one of those where you see the puck almost on the goal line and you say, ‘gosh, I’ve got to get it in,’ and I did.”
Filling the tank
The spark worked, and despite falling behind 3-1 later, the Gophers stormed back, winning 4-3 and ending their season-opening series on a positive note. It was a similar start to the one Gophers fans saw a year ago from Ranta, who burst onto the college hockey season with two goals in the team’s opening weekend tie and win with Minnesota Duluth.
It was a pace he would not sustain, and despite playing a regular role in the team’s offense, Ranta finished with six goals as a freshman. He was even a healthy scratch in one game late in the season, as the coaching staff looked for a way to re-light the fire they had seen in him early in the season. In Colorado Springs, the Gophers got a reminder that putting the puck in the net is the surest way to see some “kipinä” from Ranta.
“After he scored the goal, then we saw the Sampo we want to see,” Gophers coach Bob Motzko said. “He is one of those players where what fills his gas tank is the offense. Once he scored a goal, his tank was full and he had great energy the rest of the night.”
Ranta, who was picked by the Colorado Avalanche in the third round of the 2018 NHL draft, was originally committed to Wisconsin, then switched to the Gophers late in the summer before his freshman year. He was one of the final players cut from the Finnish team that went on to win the gold medal at last season’s World Junior Hockey Championships, but looks like a lock for Team Finland this winter, after notching six points in seven games during their summer camp.
He spent most of the warmer months back in Europe, training and skating in Turku, a 300,000-person metro area on the Baltic Sea, in southern Finland, with a name already familiar to Minnesota hockey fans.
“More than the game, you see them getting more comfortable skating with older guys, and the NHL guys. I think he’s grown as a person,” said Minnesota Wild captain Mikko Koivu, of his on-ice time with Ranta last summer. “For younger guys like that, a year can change a lot, with their personalities and all that, so you can see the growth that way. You have to grow up when you’re by yourself, so that’s usually the bigger difference.”
Admittedly, there were some growing up challenges for Ranta a year ago. He had spent the previous two seasons playing for the Sioux City (Iowa) Musketeers in the USHL, and had a pretty good handle on the language and the culture. Still, college life and college hockey required some adjustments. Since March 16, when Ranta scored the Gophers’ final goal last season in a 2-1 playoff overtime loss at Notre Dame, teammates can see his growth, both physically — he is listed as 6-foot-2, 205 pounds — and in the level of confidence with his game.
“He had a great summer and that obviously showed. He put his work in the weight room and on the ice. Everyone I think has noticed his start of the season and his work ethic,” said center Scott Reedy, who played on a line with Ranta in both games last weekend. “We saw how much he added weight and strength so it’s nice to have him going to the corner and digging those pucks out and using his body to take it to the net. He makes room for other guys too.”
With the Gophers set to open their home season Friday and Saturday versus Niagara in Minneapolis, Ranta is back on the rink he knows best, playing on the European-size ice sheet where he learned the game. And like his coaches and teammates, he is searching for that spark — in any language — needed to lift his game to the levels he knows he can reach.
“I’ve got to work on that,” Ranta said this week. “Some nights I feel like the goal gets me going. But I’ve got to figure out a way to get going before the goal, get excited before the goal. I’m a goal scorer, so I feel like every time I score I get a boost and that gets me into the game, battling harder.”
As they say in hockey, sometimes a little “kipinä” can be elusive.