Exclusive: Rangers defenseman Tarmo Reunanen on Kakko and his future
Four years ago, the New York Rangers selected a young Finnish defenseman in the 4th round, Tarmo Reunanen. At the time, it was a bit of a gamble, with the youngster coming off a season riddled with injuries. But 4 years later, the now 22-year old is determined to make the team and play in the NHL. I sat down with him and talked about his childhood, his hockey career and more.
Growing up in the small town of Naantali, about 10 miles from Turku, young Tarmo was always a fan of TPS. It was his childhood dream to represent the team that is today partly owned by Miikka Kiprusoff, Mikko and Saku Koivu. Tarmo tells me the story of how he ended up with them after quitting hockey at the age of 8. “There was an open spot for a goalie in the team of my age and I went to try out and took that spot. So I was able to make my dream happen as a goalie“. He would play goalie for about 18 months before moving to the blueline and starting to play as a defenseman. As a teenager, Reunanen had some rough years, having to undergo several back surgeries, resulting in him dropping in the 2016 draft. But that weekend, everything changed.
Joining the Rangers family
On draft day in 2016, Reunanen was with his family in their summer home, when he saw his name on TV and noticed he was drafted by the Rangers. It was a bit of a surprise, after the rough season he had just gone through. He wasn’t able to train at 100% at the time, and being drafted gave him a huge boost. he joined the Rangers for the prospect development camp where he was introduced to all the other prospects. A lot has changed over the years, and Reunanen was the first in a line of TPS players the Rangers added to their organization. After Reunanen in 2016, they drafted Patrik Virta the following year, and then of course Lauri Pajuniemi in 2018 and Kaapo Kakko in 2019. Goalie Alexandar Georgiev also played for the team from Turku when the Rangers came knocking.
In his first season after the draft, Reunanen spent most of his time in Mestis, the minor league in Finland. He was loaned to TUTO, a team also playing in Turku. It was a tough year for Reunanen, but he learned a lot during his time with the minor league team. It’s not uncommon for players to spend a stint or two in Mestis at a young age and it certainly worked out well for Reunanen. Throughout his teenage years, he was playing with Olli Juolevi a lot, who was drafted in the top-10 that same year. Sometimes players fall in the draft, and work their way back up. Reunanen certainly has worked hard to get back.
Reunanen is close with Kaapo Kakko, the 2nd overall pick from the 2019 draft. “We have played only couple games together in juniors so not much. We have practised in the same summer training group, the last couple summers so we talk a lot. As a person he is absolutely great and funny guy also. He definitely loves hockey a lot. He never wants to lose doesn’t matter what he does“. They played together a bit before Reunanen left TPS for Lukko, but then re-connected again with the national team early last year, when both were called up for the Euro Hockey Challenge games in Denmark.
Lukko and the national team
In the 2018 off-season, Reunanen had time to fully heal with a long summer to prepare for the next season. Near the end of the season, things changed. He was no longer part of the future with TPS, and the coaches told him he was free to look for a new team. It was a bit of a blow to Reunanen’s confidence, but things moved fast. Not even a week later he joined Lukko, one of the founding teams of Liiga back in the 70s and a team with a rich history, and played for them the day he signed the contract. It was just what his career needed at that time. A fresh start. He drove up to Tampere to play against Ilves and he hasn’t looked back since. “I would say the hard work really paid off and then I got a chance to play in a big role in a good team”. He was never given the opportunity with TPS unfortunately, and his situation is very similar to Yegor Rykov, who left SKA for Sochi and was given the responsiblity of a bigger role off the bat and did not look back.
He finished the season with 25 points which is the 2nd highest in team history by a defenseman aged 21 or younger. Reunanen is quick to credit the coaching staff. They gave him a chance, showed confidence in him and he repaid them with what is arguably one of the better seasons by a young defenseman in Lukko history. It even led to a call up for the national team. A huge honour for the defenseman. “It was a very proud moment for me. It was great to get some national team games and see that I can play well in that level too which really pumped my confidence“. Reunanen would end up playing in both the Euro Hockey Challenge and Euro Hockey Tour, before finishing his season, just short of making the team for the World Championships. But it was a great experience, and something Reunanen built on.
It was followed shortly after by the Rangers reaching out to Reunanen with an entry level contract. After signing the 3-year ELC, including a European Assignment Clause for year 1, Reunanen traveled to New York. This time for more than just prospect development camp. Reunanen played in the Traverse City Tournament and the NHL pre-season. He played against the Devils in New Jersey, in his first NHL preseason game. The following week, he suited up again, this time in blue, at Madison Square Garden. “A dream come true. I was more nervous that I had ever been before”, he said. His family and friends followed his progress and they were all proud of Tarmo reaching the next goal in his life. Signing that first NHL contract was cause for celebration and playing hockey in New York, in the world’s most famous arena.
Reunanen used his European Assignment Clause after not making the team, and returned to Lukko. It was a bit of an adjustment, as he was asked to play a more defensive role. Despite that shift in focus, his production was still quite high, with 19 points in 51 games, after having 25 in 58 the year before. Reunanen missed part of the season early on as he was still in New York. “I would say my season was good. I should have score more points but the biggest thing I had to improve was my defensive game and that really improved a lot so Im not dissapointed at all“. Reunanen and Lukko finished 2nd in the regular season and they were poised for a strong post-season. Unfortunately it wasn’t meant to be, as the COVID-19 pandemic cut the season short.
COVID-19 and the future
After the season was cancelled, life was tough for the defenseman who turned 23 earlier this year. Shops were closed, and everyone was forced to stay home, unlike neighboring Sweden. Now, the government has slowly started to re-open schools, gyms, restaurants and bigger shops. I asked him about his military service, after hearing that Lauri Pajuniemi started his this summer, but Reunanen hasn’t yet. He has until the age of 28 to start military service, and there’s no rush. If he sticks in the NHL, he will serve during the off-season. Now that everything is slowly opening up, Tarmo can go back to playing some tennis and badminton, his 2 big hobbies. He recently starting training for the upcoming season, wherever that may be. With the restrictions being lifted, Reunanen is back in Turku training with a group of players, including Kakko.
What the future holds, is a mystery but Reunanen feels more confident than a year ago, and thinks he is ready. For Lukko he wears number 11, same as TUTO in Mestis, because of his childhood hero Saku Koivu. Of course, that number is retired, twice. For TPS and the Rangers he was given number 51. But if it’s up to him, when he makes the team, it will be number 22 because he won a championship wearing that number. It was for TPS’ u20 team and Reunanen played with another familiar face that year. Goaltender Alexandar Georgiev was part of that championship team as well. “Alex is also practicing with us during summer here in Finland, so we talk a lot. It really is very nice to have familiar faces around me when I fly to New York“, he said about the current Rangers backup goalie.
When Reunanen finally arrives in New York, he will see more than one familiar face. He and Kakko will definitely hang out together, making the transition for both a bit easier.