Reijo Ruotsalainen

With his alphabet soup name and his unbelievable skills package, Reijo Ruotsalainen is impossible to forget for anyone who ever watched him play.

Routsalainen joined the New York Rangers in 1981, unable to speak much English but with a hockey resume that spoke for him. The son of a coach back in his native Finland, Ruotsalainen was sought after by top professional Finnish teams from the age of 14.

At the age of 16, coach Kari Makinen finally convinced Reijo and his parents to join Karpat Oulu. Although he was now playing against men 4-10 years older than him, within a couple of months he became the top defenseman on the team, and was well on his way to becoming one of the best Finnish players ever.

Over the next six years he'd represent his country at 4 world junior championships, 2 senior world championships and the 1981 Canada Cup. After joining the NHL he'd add 3 more worlds, 1 more Canada Cup and 1 Olympics to his impressive international resume. Rangers scout Lars-Erik Sjoberg, a very similar defenseman who starred in Sweden and the WHA, was one of his biggest fans and convinced the Rangers to select him 119th overall in 1980.

When he arrived in New York he was instantly paired with defenseman Barry Beck. The hulking Beck would take care of the physical game, as the diminutive "Rexi" quarterbacked the offense. In his rookie year Routsalainen scored an impressive 18 goals and 56 points. He followed that campaign up with seasons of 16 goals and 69 points and 20 goals and 59 points. His best season came in 1984-85 when he scored 28 goals and 73 points, though a significant portion of that season saw him skate on a forward line with Mark Pavelich and Anders Hedberg.

Paul Coffey was Ruotsalainen's most comparable peer. Like Coffey, Rexi's skating ability was simply phenomenal. He had an incredible set of wheels, blessed with great speed and the ability to get into gear within a step. And he skated backwards and laterally equally as well, perhaps even better than Coffey. In fact he could skate better in reverse than most forwards could skate forward! He effortlessly drifted across the ice as the opposition skaters strained to keep up. It was nothing short of beautiful, and perhaps only equaled by a Scott Niedermayer or a Katerina Witt!

Also like Coffey, Routsalainen loved to rush the puck, often bursting down the left wall, or sneaking off the point and into the slot. He was an excellent stickhandler, able to cradle the puck at any speed. His passes were soft and on target. And his shot was almost as good as his skating. He had an absolute rocket from the point. It took him a bit to learn to keep his shots on net, but once he did he may have been the best one-timer in the league.

Where Coffey and Ruotsalainen differed was in their size and physical ability. While Coffey was big and sported a physical nature, Ruoutsalainen was just too small to be effective. At just 5'8" and 170lbs, Ruotsalainen didn't shy away from the physical play, but he would stay away from the big battles and try to defend from the outside by using his smarts and skates.

So why didn't Routsalainen create a bigger NHL legacy? Under coach Herb Brooks he thrived in New York, but he did not get along with new coach Ted Sator. Rather than return to the Rangers, Ruotsalainen left for Europe, joining SC Bern in Switzerland where he remains a legend.

Seeing the obvious comparison's to Paul Coffey, Edmonton Oilers GM Glen Sather desperately sought Ruotsalainen's services. He made a complex trade to acquire his NHL rights, but he could not buy out his contract from SC Bern. Instead he waited until after the Swiss season for Routsalainen to join the team. The Oilers would win their third Stanley Cup that spring.

Ruotsalainen opted not to stay in Edmonton, but return to Europe again the following season. The big draw was the 1988 Olympics, something Ruotsalainen had yet to participate in. With NHL participation not guaranteed back then, Ruotsalainen opted to play for a Swedish club team as well as the Finnish national team. The Finns surprised many in those Olympic games, winning the silver medal.

Rexi returned to SC Bern in 1988-89, but joined the New Jersey Devils in 1989-90. By the end of the year the Oilers came knocking again, making another trade for Ruotsalainen's services for another successful Stanley Cup run. By this time the nickname "Rental Rexi" was firmly part of Ruotsalainen's image. So much so that even to this day when the Oilers need help on defense sports casters often joke that the team is inquiring about Ruotsalainen's availability.

Though he probably still can skate better than many NHLers, Ruotsalainen is no longer available as he retired back in 1998. After spending much of the 1990s with SC Bern, he finished his career off where it started, spending two more seasons with Karpat Oulu.


Anonymous,  7:35 PM  

Another interesting tidbit and something someone should ask Glen Sather about. Reijo was protected by the Oilers for many years (for expansion and waiver drafts) - including a couple years after he had retired. I vaguely remember it being mentioned as something Glen Sather liked to do as a joke - but a rather expensive one I would think. It left a potential "useful" player available.

Also noteworthy - I wonder how many players in history have played more playoff games than regular season games for a team - and won a cup. Twice! In his career, Reijo played 26 games for the Oilers in the regular season, yet 43 playoff games.

-- joel in Calgary (grew up in Edmonton)

Anonymous,  7:39 AM  

Reijo is now a coach with Red Bull Salzburg of the Austrian EBEL league. Just got off the phone with him - what a great athlete and even greater guy!

Anonymous,  2:01 AM  

Ranger fans nicknamed him "Plexy Rexy," because of how hard the puck would hit the plex glass if he missed the net in warm ups.

Anonymous,  1:35 PM  

Watch from Vimeo "Reijo Ruotsalainen highlights" wow!

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