Although he dons the same Griffins number once worn by his younger brother Valtteri, Ilari Filppula is ready to serve notice that he’s not following in anyone’s footsteps.
Story and photo by Mark Newman
Griffins forward Ilari Filppula has a new admiration for tennis players.
As a very skilled and highly conditioned athlete, Filppula has an appreciation for competitors in sports other than hockey, whether they’re batting a baseball in the Finnish game of Pesäpallo that he grew up playing and loving, or backhanding a racquet on the courts in a fast-paced tennis match.
Filppula got a close look at the premier players in tennis this past summer when he attended a couple rounds of the Wimbledon tournament in England, thanks to his younger brother Valtteri’s Nike connections.
“We were able to see some of the better players in the world,” said Filppula, rattling off the names of Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray, Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova.
“Val and I watched matches on Centre Court and we got to see them practice and warm-up about five meters away,” he said. “Their skill is awesome. When you see it right in front of you, it makes it that much more impressive.”
The experience of seeing the best tennis players excel at their chosen sport left the brothers amazed.
When you’re watching them on TV, sometimes you’ll think how did they miss the ball if they’re the best?” Filppula said. “Then you see the spin on the ball and the speed of their shots, and you’re surprised they can make any plays at all.”
It’s no different in hockey or any sport, for that matter, that has its share of armchair quarterbacks. It’s not as easy as it looks.
For years, Filppula watched National Hockey League games on television in his Finnish homeland. One of the featured teams was frequently the Detroit Red Wings, likely due to the fact that it was a Swedish channel and there were more than a few Scandinavian players wearing the winged wheel.
It was fun watching Valtteri, who is 2-1/2 years his junior, make a name for himself in Detroit, but the older brother always had an aching desire to see how he could fare in his own right.
He was finally handed the opportunity to play in North America this past summer when the Red Wings inked him to a one-year contract.
Now that he’s seen the flipside (wearing his brother’s #15), Ilari can attest that it’s not as easy as it looks.
“The game is way different than back home, more so than I thought,” he said. “I knew that the smaller ice surface here meant that you don’t have that much time to make plays and that you have to react quicker.
“Val and I talked about those things, but it’s always different when you’re actually experiencing the game yourself. Plus the teams here are more disciplined. You see more dumping in and chipping out the puck, which makes it harder to play against, too. Obviously it’s been a huge deal for me.”
Worries aside, Filppula had a strong start in Grand Rapids after the Red Wings assigned him to the Griffins before the beginning of the season. He tallied six goals and seven assists in his first nine games.
“It’s going to take a lot of time to adjust, but I’ve been fortunate enough to play with good players who know the game here already and they’ve helped me a lot,” he said, referring to linemates Jan Mursak and Cory Emmerton. “I hope I can keep improving as we go along.”
Filppula had never been offered an NHL contract until he won the Jari Kurri Trophy as the best player in the Finnish Elite League playoffs last season. He signed a two-way contract with Detroit, where Valtteri has played since 2005.
“When the opportunity came, I was fortunate to be able to choose among a couple of teams who were interested, but for me, Detroit was the obvious choice,” Filppula said. “Knowing Val was in the organization wasn’t the deciding factor, but the desire to play on the same team with him was strong.”
The two were slated to play on the same team in Finland during the 2005-06 season, but that opportunity was cut short when Valtteri decided to sign with the Red Wings and head across the Atlantic to play for the Griffins.
Now it’s up to Ilari to give the Red Wings every reason to make the brothers’ dream a reality with a recall to Detroit.
“Obviously I knew it was going to be hard to be able to play for the Red Wings because they have so many good players. To fit into that group, you’re going to have to be really good yourself. At the same time, if you make it, there’s always a good chance to win the (Stanley) Cup.”
Filppula knew the odds were stacked against his making the club out of training camp, so he girded himself to be ready to make the most of his time in Grand Rapids.
“Val liked the city here, which influenced my decision to sign here because I was 95 percent sure that I was going to start in the AHL,” he said. “I knew I was probably going to start in Grand Rapids and I don’t have any problem with that.
“I’m just going to work hard and do the best I can to help the team here and hopefully, at some point, I can get the chance to go up.”
Filppula is coming off his most productive season after helping TPS Turku win the championship by recording two goals and 12 assists in 15 playoff games. He had 12 goals and 37 assists for a team-high 49 points in 58 regular season games.
“I’ve never been on a team that won anything, so that was the main thing for me, but it still was a huge honor to be selected as the playoff MVP,” he said. “For some reason, everything went perfect for us in the playoffs.”
Filppula’s team swept the first-round series in four games, defeated the defending champions in six games, then won the title by winning the final series in five games. “We felt like we almost couldn’t lose,” he said.
The championship marked the pinnacle of his career, which several years earlier had undergone a crisis of confidence.
“There was a coaching change and, for some reason, we didn’t see eye to eye,” he recalled. “I was a healthy scratch a couple of times. Away from the rink, we got along great, but he just didn’t want to play me, which wasn’t good for my confidence.”
The lack of playing time started messing with his head.
“Confidence is obviously the key in this game, as is the case in so many games, and when you start doubting every decision, you’re not going to make good plays,” he said. “I think it took a full year for me to regain my confidence.”
On the other hand, his little brother’s career seemed to be on the fast track to the NHL. Not that it bothered Ilari any.
“There were no envious feelings whatsoever – it’s never been an issue with us,” he said. “Obviously I was kind of bummed when we didn’t get to play on the same team, but I was just happy for him, proud more than ever that he got an opportunity to sign and play here.”
Although their style of play is similar – they are both exceptional playmakers with strong puck skills – the game comes more naturally to Valtteri, who is a better skater.
“It’s been that way throughout our careers,” he said. “Val’s such an awesome skater – where I’ve been forced to find ways to create scoring chances, he’s just been able to skate. It’s been exciting to watch him become one of the better young players around.”
The older Filppula has worked hard on his skating in recent years, honing his skills with the help of former Finnish speedskating national team coach Janne Hänninen. “I’m not the most economical skater, so I’m trying to get more out of my stride,” he said. “I need to improve my technique.”
He feels he’s made great progress the past couple of summers.
“My skating has improved a lot, which has influenced my whole game,” he said. “As you get older, you see the game a little differently, maybe read some plays a little better. Every year I try to pick up something from the other players and this year is no different.”
His summers have not been all work and no play. Besides Wimbledon, Filppula took his girlfriend, Sara Laaksonen, to see Kings of Leon play Hyde Park in London. Actually, it might have been the other way around. As a marketing manager at Sony Music Entertainment, Finland, she was able to get the tickets.
The couple also went to the Far East last summer, traveling to Bangkok, Bintan Island in Indonesia and Singapore.
“I didn’t like Bangkok that much. I found it to be a little scary, like if you got lost, no one would miss you because there are so many people. But Bintan was beautiful. It’s like paradise, with nothing on the island but the resort and rain forest. And Singapore was one of the coolest places I’ve been. If you want to experience the best of Asia – the best restaurants, the best shopping – it’s the place to go.”
For the time being, however, the one place that’s most on his mind is Detroit, and he’s willing to be patient in hopes that he will eventually get a chance to play with his little brother.
“My mom wasn’t that excited to have both sons so far away, but it’s part of the game and I’m sure my mom and dad are happy for us,” Filppula said of his parents, Liisa, a kindergarten teacher, and Raineri, an electrical engineer.
“Hopefully we will make them proud, too.”