Where Are They Now: Ilkka Sinisalo
The moment is still frozen in my mind.
There I was, 13, sporting an Aqua Net supported spiked-fro, decked out in my Eagle-made Flyers jersey with the crude, No. 31 stitched on the shoulder in felt by my mom memorializing the late Pelle Lindbergh.
I had a seat right along the goal line in the lower bowl of the Spectrum. It was the strangest of situations. Every hockey game I had ever been to up until this point in my life had always been with my dad.
Not this time. No, while I was nervously fidgeting on the edge of my seat, my aunt, just 28 herself, was next to me, grabbing my right arm every time she was overcome with nervous anxiety, which, for the most part, was every time the Montreal Canadiens had touched the puck.
Sinisalo spent nine seasons with the Flyers, posting 199 goals and 209 assists for 408 points in 526 regular season games.
It was Game 1 of the 1987 Eastern Conference Finals. My aunt had procured tickets through work and of all the people she could have chosen to go with, she picked her teenage nephew.
I’m not someone who buys into the belief in fate, but if there was ever a time that made me think twice, it was that May 4th evening, 25 years ago.
I mentioned the jersey I was wearing, but I didn’t tell you whose name was on the back. It was lkka Sinisalo. He was my favorite Flyer as a kid.
My aunt was a Derek Smith fan. So there we sat, No. 23 and No. 24, in sequential order, hoping and praying that the Flyers would hold off a tough Montreal squad.
The Canadiens built a 2-1 lead before Sinisalo scored to tie it early in the third period, sending me to my feet euphorically.
However, Montreal regained the lead, and then went into shutdown mode, trying to milk the last 13 minutes off the clock and steal a victory in Philly to open the series.
And it looked for a while like that was going to be the case. The Flyers struggled to generate much offense for a stretch, and a one-goal defeat appeared to be the destiny.
Then, with just under four minutes to go, Smith tied it. I mean, really? Two tying goals by our two favorite players, in the third period of a playoff game? Not to mention with an unlikely pair of aunt and nephew at the game?
Then came overtime.
A scrum of bodies in front of the net right in front of us. Sticks poking at Montreal goalie Brian Heyward who appeared to have the puck covered. Referee Terry Gregson’s whistle had to be coming any millisecond, right? I mean, nobody could see anything.
That is, except for those of us perfectly positioned on that goal line. What we saw, in what seemed like super-slow motion, was the blade of a stick poking through Heyward’s pads and just dislodging the puck enough for it to start trickling behind Heyward and do a little sashay across the goal line.
Our section erupted a good two seconds before the rest of the building. The stick that poked the puck loose? Sinisalo’s.
Sign Man whipped out one of his classics: “Ilkka Score-a Goal-a,” it read.
In his nine year career with the Flyers Sinisalo scored 199 regular season goals and 21 more in the playoffs, but none were bigger than that night against Montreal.
It was one of my aunt’s favorite stories. She told it repeatedly for the next six years before she died from complications with treatment for non-Hodgkins lymphoma.
Since she can’t tell it anymore, I do. And I couldn’t think of a better time to revisit it then today – when we catch up with Sinisalo as part of our ‘Where Are They Now” features on Flyers alumni.
The first time I told Sinisalo that story directly, he said, “Looking at you, I feel really old.”
Fair enough. I can see how a slightly overweight, balding guy telling you he owned your jersey as a kid can make your age awareness a stark reality.
But he followed up by calling the goal, “lucky,” and crediting Peter Zezel for doing most of the work to make the goal happen, saying he was just “in the right place at the right time.”
Well, if timing is everything, then Sinisalo has it in spades.
A bit of a late bloomer, Sinisalo, a native of Valkeakoski, Finland was undrafted and spent the first four years of his professional career playing for HIFG Helsinki in the Finnish Elite League.
During the 1980-81 season, the Flyers saw that Sinisalo, then 23, was averaging more than a point per game for Helsinki, and decided to take a chance and sign him as an undrafted free agent.
It was a gamble well worth the risk.
Sinisalo proved to be a solid second line winger who was also adept on the power play. And although he constantly battled injuries in his career, he did break the 30-goal and 75-point plateaus twice.
He ranks 17th all-time in franchise points with 408 and his 199 goals are 14th most in Flyers history.
With the Flyers in flux after the 1989-90 season, missing the playoffs for just the third time in franchise history, The Flyers let Sinisalo walk as a free agent at age 32.
He played 46 games for the Minnesota North Stars and then 10 more with the Los Angeles Kings before deciding to finish his career back in the Finnish league playing parts of three seasons with Ilves Tampere and Kiekko-Espoo.
After spending a few years away from the sport, Sinisalo was offered a European scouting opportunity with the San Jose Sharks. He did it for one season before being contacted by the Flyers for a similar position.
Sinisalo has been one of four European scouts for the Flyers since 2004-05. I spoke to him again recently. At the time, he was in Helsinki, Finland getting ready to go watch a game.
Here is a transcript of the interview:
What are you doing right now?
“I’m on my tour of Europe. Right now I’m in Finland, but I just got back from Sweden and I’m going to Slovakia next week, so I’m on the road all the time which is good because I get to see a lot of hockey. I need to see a lot of players, which I will. It’s basically just watching players every night.”
What are the challenges of being a scout?
“I think it takes a little bit of time to get used to. I watch some of the older players for free agents but the young guys you need to see them many, many times to make sure they have those qualities that you would expect from them to play for the Flyers. Basically you start with the National Teams and then you go see them in the leagues. We have four scouts here in Europe and we have it pretty well covered, we just have to make sure we pick the right guys… and good ones.”
Are you in constant communication with the other scouts?
“We talk all the time. We know where everybody’s going and what everybody’s doing and we talk constantly with the office with [Director of Hockey Operations] Chris Pryor and all the North American scouts. We’re a really good team and work really well together.”
Do you all scout the same players?
“We crossover a lot. Everybody has to see the same players because we have to make decisions together. I come home and see some games in North America and see the U.S. National teams and the Canadian team too, so I have an idea of what’s going on and I can better compare guys from Europe to the guys from North America.”
How long are you in Europe?
“My home is in Voorhees, N.J. I come here in August to go to the Ivan Hlinka tournament to see the eight national teams. You keep your eye on those guys and go se them in their leagues, but at the same time, you see some other guys who weren’t on the national team and get an idea of what’s going on everywhere.
I’ll stay here for four months and then I’ll come home and see some games in North America. Then I’ll come back to Europe some time in January and we have a tournament in February and then World Championships in in April and May, so it’s pretty much hockey every night.”
When you are in Finland, do you have a chance to visit family and friends?
“Whenever I’m in Helsinki I get to see a lot of friends. It’s nice to come over here for a little while.”
Did you ever think when you were a player that you would get into scouting?
“When I played I never really thought about getting into scouting, but when my career was ending, I started thinking about what I wanted to do. San Jose gave me a chance to do some scouting, and then the Flyers hired me to scout for them. It was great because it’s such a great organization and we have such a great group of scouts, so it’s super to work for this organization and with all of these guys.”
You see hundreds of games in a year, but what do you like to do with your free time?
“The summertime is the time with the family, but when I’m here in Europe, I do a lot of biking until the snow comes, then I do a lot of cross country skiing. I still skate twice a week in Finland with a group of older Finnish players who get some ice. But when you’re on the road you’re always working out or doing something athletic.”
What do you remember about your playing days with the Flyers?
“My first year was 1981-82 and I got to play with the older guys like Bobby Clarke, Bill Barber and Reggie Leach. Brian Propp was a young guy with me. It was a great experience to get to know them and play with them. It was unbelievable. They taught you what it was like to play hockey in the NHL. After that we had some pretty good teams and went to the Finals twice. I have a lot of good memories. Actually, they’re all only good memories. The only bad memories I have were the injuries I had, but back then it was such a fun time to be a Flyer.”
What was it like playing in Philadelphia?
“The fans in Philadelphia are the best, not just in the U.S., not just in North America, but in the world, and I mean that. We weren’t always playing good, but it didn’t matter because they were always behind us 100 percent. When we played at the Spectrum, every game, even in the regular season, it was like having another player on the ice. Plus the organization was always behind me as a player. When I got there I noticed right away that it was a first class organization and they always treated players well and took care of their families. “
Do you tell players in Europe what it’s like to play in Philadelphia, in case they are ever given the opportunity?
“I think everybody knows that if you play for the Flyers, it’s a big deal. You don’t even have to say anything to these guys. They know the reputation that it is a great organization with great ownership. I would bet that everybody, deep down, wants to be a Flyer at some point in their career.”
What’s next for you? Do you have any other plans to do something besides being a scout?
"I really like scouting. I don’t know how long I’m going to do it, but hopefully it’s many, many more years for the Flyers. I have no plans to move up. I’m really happy doing what I’m doing and as long as I’m healthy and in good shape I hope to do this for the Flyers for as long as I can.”
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