TAMPA – When Kimmo Timonen was 23 years old, he was told by NHL scouts and management types that he would never play in the NHL.
The theory was that he was way too small to play defense in the best league in the world.
“I was told that right to my face,” Timonen said. “They said, ‘Forget it. You have no chance to play in this league.’”
Today Timonen turns 38. Today he plays in his 1,000th game in the NHL.
Take that NHL experts circa 1998.
It is a testament to a great career for a player to have the longevity to reach 1,000 games played, but for a guy who was never supposed to be in the league to begin with, it’s even more amazing.
Timonen was drafted as a 18-year-old by the Los Angeles Kings in the 10th round of the NHL entry draft. That round was so inconsequential that it doesn’t even exist anymore.
At the time it was when teams gambled on long shot kids – mostly in the European leagues or the U.S. collegiate ranks, hoping to find a diamond in the rough who might develop into a depth player to help the team out in a pinch down the road.
Never were guys drafted that low expected to become NHL all-stars.
After watching him play in Finland for five seasons, the Kings felt that Timonen wasn’t ever going to develop and made him a throw in piece in a deal with Nashville.
But the Predators saw something there, and decided to try and buck the trend of how defensemen were to play in the NHL and give the young defenseman an opportunity.
Fifteen years later, Timonen remembers his first opportunity fondly.
“I don’t want to brag about it, but I’m sure I had to break down a lot of walls to play in this league and at the same time I’m sure I opened up a lot of spots for smaller defensemen to play in this league along the way,” Timonen said. “If you go back to that time, defensemen were all over six feet tall, played hard physically and always cross-checked people. I’m not that way. That’s why I said I had to break down a lot of walls.”
And it didn’t take long.
Timonen played half-seasons his first two years with Nashville, but by the 2000-01 season it was evident he was here to stay.
Timonen played all 82 games. He finished with 12 goals and 13 assists for 25 points. The next season he played all 82 again and saw his numbers increase across the board (13-29-42).
It was the start of seven consecutive seasons where he had 40 points or more.
“The way he’s played he’s opened the door for a lot of smaller players,” said Danny Briere, who hopes to reach that 1000 game plateau by the end of his current contract. “I’m not sure if guys like Brian Campbell [Florida] or Tobias Enstrom [Winnipeg] would have had a chance to play in this league if not for Kimmo. You see at least one smaller defenseman on every team in the league now and a lot of them are making a mark.
“But what’s most impressive about Kimmo is that most small defensemen are considered offensive defenseman – and he is – but he’s also our best defensive defenseman. He does it at both ends of the ice. He’s also one of the toughest players I’ve ever played with in my career – and I’ve played with a lot of guys - When it comes to toughness, he’s in the top two or three in my career.”
And he’s not easy to play against – just ask Briere.
Although the two have been teammates since 2007-08, Briere broke into the NHL at about the same time as Timonen and played against him frequently for a few years when he was in Phoenix and Timonen was still in Nashville.
And Briere said there aren’t many guys out there who make you feel worse about your own game after playing against them than Timonen does.
“You leave the game after playing against him and you don’t feel beat up or bruised and battered, but you leave the game feeling like you haven’t done anything,” Briere said. “You forecheck him and he makes the easy pass. He doesn’t turn the puck over. He blocks a lot of your shots.
“It’s weird. He’s one of those guys who is just frustrating to play against because he takes your opportunities away without really doing anything physically…and that’s even more frustrating!”
As he has gotten older, Timonen has also become a mentor on the blue line. Currently, he is paired with Luke Schenn, a player the Flyers envision as a top pair defenseman for a long-time and they want him to learn for Timonen.
He has helped other young defensemen as well, but maybe none more than Braydon Coburn, with whom he was partners for four-plus seasons.
“Kimmo has been great,” Coburn said. “He’s had a lot to do with the growth in my game. When you are able to play with a partner who plays the game the way he does and is able to think the game like he does and is very cerebral, it’s really a good confidence builder to a young player – and it was invaluable to learn from him all the time we were together.”
Coming into his 1,000th game, Timonen has 109 goals and 417 assists for 526 points. In 426 career games with the Flyers he has 30 goals and 195 assists for 225 points.
He has also played in 80 career playoff games with four goals and 30 assists for 34 points.
“It’s a great honor to play 1,000 games,” Timonen said. “It means a lot to me. There are so many people to thank for it too. You have to thank your parents, your brothers and your family first. Without them, I wouldn’t be here. Those are the ones I have to say thank you to first. Also my wife and kids. There’s a lot of personal stuff that goes on behind the scenes that most people don’t realize.
“A big thank you to the Nashville Predators organization – especially [general manager] David Poile and [coach] Barry Trotz. They gave me a chance and said ‘We believe you can play in this league.’ That was the only chance I needed because I knew I could play in this league but I just needed that chance. And then obviously here [in Philadelphia]. It’s been a great six years here. This is the best organization in the league. They treat players like they are kings here. It’s great to be here.”
And now that he’s 38, to be among the top 5 scoring defensemen in the NHL – as he is this season - and to be, as Briere said, the best defenseman on the team right now, it’s pretty safe to say that the Flyers think it’s great that he’s here too.
To contact Anthony SanFilippo, email firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @AnthonySan37
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