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Buzzing The Net

Kingston Frontenacs’ Finns Henri Ikonen, Mikko Vainonen finding their way in OHL

Buzzing The Net

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Nashville Predators pick Mikko Vainonen (OHL Images)

Forget Finnish flash — it's more like the Kingston Frontenacs have the Finnish bash brothers in Henri Ikonen and Mikko Vainonen.

Typically, major junior teams look overseas for a playmaker. Or a new starting goalie. The Fronts, as a young team, are getting a lot of grit from two 18-year-olds whom coach Todd Gill got to know well while working as Canada's assistant coach at last spring's IIHF world U18 championship. Many European players have come to the CHL to show they can play a North America style of game. Ikonen and Vainonen are unique since they are one-half of the OHL's Finnish presence and ease the burden on Kingston's rookies, playing with the team's 16-year-olds. Usually a wizened veteran of 19 or 20 draws that duty.

"It's a tough league and I think I've handled well," says Ikonen, who seems to play bigger than his listed 6-foot, 183 pounds. "I've had good results so far.

"I thought [playing in the OHL] would be the best opportunity for me to develop because I wasn't sure I could make the Finnish Elite League ... The game is faster and the players are stronger than in Finland."

Vainonen, who is noticeably buffer than he was at the NHL Scouting Combine last June, was always intent on coming to the CHL.

"I like the small rink and the more physical game," says the 6-foot-3, 215-pounder whom the Nashville Predators drafted in the fourth round in June. "It's been great so far. I have a good D partner [rookie Roland McKeown] and it's been great so far. He [McKeown] is such a good kid, we have good chemistry with each other."

The last import to have a big impact in the Limestone City was Radek Smolenak (84 points in 2005-06), a Czech who coincidentally plays in Finland. Kingston resolved to utilize the import draft this season after it earned the No. 6 overall pick. While Gill was coaching, assistant coach Darren Keily also travelled to the U18 championship to scout. Ikonen seemed like a hidden gem.

"We played them twice, when Darren said we had an opportunity to get them, I said let's do it," says Gill, whose young team is 12-10-0 after winning just 19 games a season ago. "We definitely did our homework on them."

Vainonen is paired with top pick McKeown. Ikonen patrols the left wing with Kingston's second and third picks from last spring's draft haul, centre Sam Bennett and right wing Spencer Watson.

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Henri Ikonen has been a surprise for the improved Fronts (OHL Images)

"I think I'm more surprised by Ikonen," Gill adds. "He's come a long way. He's playing really, really well for us. He can do it all, He's killing penalties for me, he's physical, he can score goals, he's setting up goals. He's one of those all-round players that every team needs. He's complemented the two young kids amazingly. His physicality opens up a lot of room for the other two guys and lets Sam and Spencer dangle a little bit."

Gill notes that he's impressed by how Vainonen invested his summer into improving his conditioning.

"We told him he had to lose the weight and took it seriously," the former NHL defenceman says. "He's been very, very solid. We've had him paired with McKeown all season. They have a good feel for each other."

If all pans out, Vainonen could become a good value pick for the Predators organization. He could also be in Finland's plans internationally after captaining the U18 team last spring.

"Next summer is going to be a big step," he says, looking ahead to his 19-year-old season.

Both have taken to Kingston, where Frontenacs attendance is up nearly 20 per cent compared to this point this season.

"Everybody's quite close, the mall and rink and downtown," says Vainonen, a native of Helsinki. "It's a nice place and beautiful city."

Ikonen grew up in Savonlinna, which about is 385 km away from Helsinki. The city was founded in the 17th century to help protect the border of the then-Kingdom of Sweden — not unlike Kingston's origins with Fort Henry.

"It's almost like Kingston," Ikonen says. "There's one long road and everything is beside that long road [like Princess Street]."

Pittsburgh Penguins first-rounder Olli Määttä, the London Knights defender, and 17-year-old Peterborough Petes newcomer Jonatan Tanus are the only other Finns in the OHL. The Fronts' Finns can lean on each other when the need arises, but prefer to branch out socially.

"We never speak Finnish to each other in the locker room," Vainonen says. "Sometimes if we're teasing some guys we'll use it."

Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Canada Sports. Contact him at neatesager@yahoo.ca and follow him on Twitter @neatebuzzthenet.

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