NAANTALI, Finland — High-level athletes flying on uncrowded private jets is not a new idea. But riding on a commercial plane with just a few people aboard is not what Minnesota Gophers forward Sampo Ranta had in mind when he began his journey home to Finland last week.
“The airports were kind of empty, but it was fine. It’s a little sketch to fly right now,” Ranta said on Sunday, March 22, from his family’s home in Naantali, in the southwest part of Finland. “When I left Minneapolis there were 14 people on the plane to New York. It was crazy.”
The coronavirus pandemic is truly global, as Ranta was required to quarantine at home for 14 days upon arrival from the United States. And some of the quirks of society that we have seen on this side of the Atlantic are apparently worldwide phenomena.
“Toilet paper is crazy. I don’t know what that is about, but it’s gone,” Ranta said. “Grocery stores are basically empty. Do people freeze the meat or what do they do? I don’t know, but there’s not a lot of food in the stores right now. It’s crazy.”
Ranta scored the go-ahead goal in what turned out to be the Gophers’ last game of the season on Sunday, March 8, when his team came from behind to beat Notre Dame 3-2 in Game 3 of a playoff series. Four days later, word came down that the rest of the college hockey season was canceled.
“I couldn’t believe it. It was not the way we wanted to end,” Ranta said. “We had a good thing going, and to have it end that way was sad. The seniors didn’t know they were playing their last game on that Sunday night.”
He finished second on the team in goals with a dozen, doubling his freshman year total. And despite the warnings about handshakes and other personal contact, Ranta admits violating them in the shock of hearing that the college careers of players like Tyler Nanne and Ryan Zuhlsdorf were done so suddenly.
“It’s something that we can’t control and there are a lot of teams in the same situation, but it hit me pretty hard. I was down for a little bit and couldn’t believe it was over,” Ranta said. “I gave (the seniors) a hug. It was tough for them, for sure. The last season, ending like that. They hoped for one more shot at the tournament, but it didn’t happen. Sad.”
As for Ranta’s future, there has much speculation all season about whether this would be his final college hockey season as well. Drafted by the Colorado Avalanche in the third round in 2018, Ranta’s 6-foot-2 frame and his propensity for scoring goals make him a solid NHL prospect. He admits to some soul-searching once returning to Finland, but recently decided at least one more season of college hockey is his plan.
“I’m coming back for next year. It came down to last night, thinking about what to do and whether I’m leaving or not, but I’ve got a good thing going and I want to be a part of it,” Ranta said.
The Avalanche were just a win out of first place in the Central Division when the NHL suspended play, and there are not perceived to be many holes in their lineup where a young player could make the jump from college to the NHL, which factored into Ranta’s decision to wait.
“There’s no point to go too early, so I’m going to take one more year and do it the right way. I don’t want to spend a lot of time at the AHL level. I want to jump straight to the NHL, and when I’m ready to do that, I will,” he said. “They’re a team that’s contending for the Stanley Cup, and I need more time to make that roster. That’s my goal, and staying one more year will help me get there.”
On Sunday, Sampo’s father Esa Tweeted a video of Sampo on a turf field in Finland, working on his resistance training with sister Essi while they pass his two weeks of required distancing. He began taking his business and statistics classes online last week. For the time being, while we wait for sports and life to resume, and while Ranta waits to return to Minnesota for another season at the U of M, that will be the routine.
“I got back to training a little bit, keeping my speed and getting my legs moving,” he said. “I have nothing but time right now, so I might as well.”