Hockey History Deep Dives
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On This Day - May 18, 1960 Finnish hockey icon Jari Kurri was born.
Kurri, born and trained in Helsinki, Finland played his U16 hockey with Helsinki Jokerit’s Jr club. In the 1977-78 season as a 17 year old he graduated to the Jokerit Mens club. His rookie season in the Finnish Liiga wasn’t much of note as Kurri only scored twice as a boy playing against men, however that season did feature the first moment Kurri put the world on notice of his skill.
While representing Finland at the 1978 U18 European Championships, Kurri put up six goals and eight points in four games. More important than the stats was the timing of Kurri’s sixth goal. Coming into the final game on January 2nd in Helsinki, both Finland and the USSR had won all four previous games. Additionally, in the games that counted in the round robin final, they had both won by a combined total of eight to three. Coming into their last game, since a tie could not be settled by any rule, they would have to play overtime. It was decided that if there was a tie, they would play one full period, and then the second overtime period (if still needed) would be sudden death. This unique overtime format came into play as the score was tied 3-3 after regulation time. In the first overtime period twice the Soviets took a lead and twice the Fins tied the game refusing to go down without a fight. One minute and 42 seconds into the sudden death second overtime Kurri scored to sink the Soviets and win gold on home soil.
"The overtime stage of the game with the Soviets is still the mother of all extended playing time in Finnish hockey." - Tom Ratschunas, writing for "Total Hockey"
After his breakout at the European U18 championships Kurri took over in his next two seasons with Jokerit. As a 19 year old in ‘79-80 Kurri scored 23 goals and 40 points in 33 games, both his goal and point totals being second on the team. During the season Kurri also represented Finland at the World Jr Hockey Championships, leading the tournament in points with 11 in five games on route to a silver medal.
His performance overseas caught the attention of a blossoming Edmonton Oilers organization who drafted him in the fourth round with the 69th overall pick in the 1980 NHL amateur draft. Kurri was hesitant about playing in North America “We didn’t really have a chance to follow the NHL too much back in Finland. The only guy I’d heard of was Gretzky, I heard this guy was unbelievable”.
It wasn’t smooth sailing from the get-go with the Oilers, as the young squad was still losing more games than they won. This led to the eventual line shake up which put Kurri on a line with “The Great One”. Kurri scored a hattrick in his first game partnered with Gretzky and arguably hockeys greatest connection exploded from there. Kurri finished his rookie season with 32 goals and 75 points in 75 games. His play earned him the nickname “The Finnish Flash” a title which would later be bestowed onto Teemu Selanne. He amazed not only fans, but his own teammates.
“Gretzky and Kurri on a 2-on-1 was an automatic goal, Jari never misses. 1-on-1 with a goaltender I don’t remember Jari ever missing” described Oilers enforcer Dave Semenko. "Jari Kurri," says former teammate Kevin Lowe, "was underrated as a player. I really believe that. Sounds crazy, as much as he accomplished, but that's the truth."
He was right, as Kurri was the right hand man Gretzky needed to truly transcend the game. Kurri was known for his incredible skating, and ability to think the game as quickly as Gretzky allowing them to tear apart opposing defenders. Over their careers Gretzky assisted on 364 of Kurri’s 601 goals, Kurri too was able to set up Gretzky goals on 196 occasions.
What set Kurri aside from the other future Hockey Hall-of-Famers on the legendary Oilers teams of the 1980’s was his ability to play a 200ft game. In 1984-85 Kurri scored 71 goals, second only to Gretzkys 73, however Kurri also had teammate Mark Messier praising him as the best defensive forward in the NHL.
Kurri’s incredible goal scoring ability and elite two-way game was indispensable for the Oilers teams that won five Stanley Cups in seven seasons, as in that stretch Kurri put up five straight 100+ point seasons. Kurri was also known to explode during the playoffs, In the 1987 playoffs Kurri scored 19 goals in 18 playoff games, tying an NHL record. In those playoffs Kurri recorded 4 hat-tricks, an NHL record that stands today, as well as recording three hat-tricks in the conference finals against the Chicago Black Hawks, another feat that hasn’t been accomplished since. During the Oilers dynasty between 1983/84 and 1987/88, Kurri led the playoffs in goal scoring during all four of the Oilers cup wins, and scored the Stanley Cup winning goal in 1987.
Kurri finished his career in the NHL after the 1997/98 season. At the time no european born and trained player had been able to put up numbers quite like Kurri who finished with 601 goals and 797 assists for 1398 points. Since then Jaromir Jagr has shattered records for European players and Teemu Selanne has overtaken Kurri in most categories for Finnish hockey players. However Kurri’s Legacy lives on as his #17 has been retired by the Finnish National Team he captained on 3 occasions. As of 2020 Kurri sits 20th overall in NHL goals, 21st in points, and is still second to only Selanne in goals and points by a Finnish player. 40 Years after his NHL debut with the Oilers Kurri's 474 goals and 1043 points are still second all-time on the Oilers franchise scoring list, behind only Gretzky.
Kurri was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2001, and in 2017 the NHL named Kurri one of the 100 greatest players in NHL History. Today Kurri owns and manages his old club Helsinki Jokerit, who became the first team from Finland to join Russia's Kontinental Hockey League.
“I was lucky to get drafted by the Oilers, to get the chance to play like Gretzky and Messier. We had more freedom to play on the ice and we like to go enjoy the game. I think we changed hockey”. Yes you did Jari, yes you did. Happy Birthday!