I was going to title this post "Remembering: Mikko Makela," but then I thought people might think he had died. Mikko is very much alive and well. Anyway, with little news of note from the Islanders (Tomas Marcinko notwithstanding), I thought it might be time to take a look back at Islanders of the past to see where their careers took them and, if possible, where they are today. If the off-season drags on for as long as it feels like it's going to right now, perhaps this will be a regular feature.
So, why Mikko Makela? For me, he played a very important, though unfulfilled role in my life as an Islanders fan. He was a bridge from the Cup teams to the modern era. However, there was more to it than that.
As it became more and more obvious that Mike Bossy's angry back would prevent him from putting the proper exclamation points on his Hall-of-Fame career, I had an opening to fill—albeit with sorrow and reluctance. You see, Mikko Makela was also the heir-apparent to the role of my favorite Islander. Hoo boy.
Those were big skates to fill. Bossy wasn't just my favorite Islander, he was my favorite athlete. The fact that he actually was a legend in everybody else's eyes, too, certainly wasn't going to make it easy on the next guy.
But there was something about Mikko. He and Bossy were similar in stature, though give the edge in size to the young Finn. More importantly, Makela had a sniper's touch. He was a goal scorer with a quick and accurate shot. Who better to follow in the strides of the greatest sniper of them all? It also didn't hurt that his name was fun to say.
In my eyes, the defining moment for Makela as an Islander came in the 1987 Patrick Division Final against the Philadelphia Flyers. With the Isles having lost the first game at the Spectrum, Game 2 was winding down with the teams tied 2-2. The Isles received a golden opportunity when the Flyers were called for too many men in the final minute.
In what felt like the stuff of legends at the time, Makela snuck a well-placed shot by Ron Hextall with three seconds left in regulation to send the Isles back home with a split. (For a trip back in time—21 years ago tomorrow—read a recap here.) The momentum was shortlived as the Flyers took Game 3 by the score of 4-1 and went on to win the series in seven games.
Overall, Makela shone brightly and briefly for the Islanders. He played on Long Island for four seasons before being traded to the L.A. Kings for Ken Baumgartner and Hubie McDonough part way into his fifth season in November 1989.
That 1986-87 season was a major step forward for Makela, as he tallied 24 goals and 33 assists for 57 points. He followed that season up with a true breakout year in 1987-88 when he put up impressive totals of 36-40-76. Makela led the Islanders in shooting percentage on more than occasion and even found himself among the league leaders in that category.
It all went south quickly. Makela never again scored more than 45 points in an NHL season. He was out of the league by the start of the 1991-92 season except for an 11-game cameo with the Boston Bruins after the lockout in 1994-95. Surrounding that stint, he did achieve some success playing in Finland, Sweden, and Germany. He retired as a player in 1999.
In the years since his playing days ended, Makela has stayed in the hockey scene, perhaps in ways you wouldn't have imagined. He served as an assistant coach for Lethbridge of the WHL (where he met his wife while competing in the 1987 Canada Cup) for the first few months of the 2002-03 season before taking over as head coach in December 2002. He remained in that position until January 2004. Makela also spent time as a junior coach and GM in Finland.
In 2007, Makela established Mikko Makela's Hockey Program, a hockey skills and strength and conditioning development program also based in Lethbridge. He serves as owner/director/instructor for the program, which has four other staff members.
My hopes that Mikko would become the Islanders' next perennial 50-goal scorer never were realized. Despite that disappointment, I do have fond memories of rooting for him and was pleased to find him still involved in the game.