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Samuel Hoffman | The Journal Gazette
Mike Vaskivuo returned to the Komets after a season away.

Familiar face sees new among old

Playoff hero Vaskivuo returns after year away to changed team


– The bells are mostly silent these days, when you walk into the Komets dressing room. So few faces are around, after all, that ring any.

Mike Vaskivuo’s does, if faintly.

He was here for two or three cups of coffee a couple of winters ago, and if you know him, that’s how. And you wouldn’t know him from that were it not for the fact that his two or three cups of coffee were memorable ones.

Vaskivuo came to Fort Wayne from Rapid City at the tail end of the 2011-12 season, trailing a reputation as a guy who knew where the back of the net was located. He played the last six regular-season games and all 18 in the playoffs. And his reputation was not undeserved.

He scored 12 goals and accumulated 33 points in 24 games. Ten of those goals and 24 of those points came in the playoffs, igniting the Komets to the CHL President’s Cup.

Now he’s back, a not exactly new face among new faces, who needed only that brief time in Fort Wayne to know where he wanted to be.

“I had offers to go back to Europe and stuff like that,” says Vaskivuo, who played in France last season. “But I had such a good time here. It was short and sweet. I just kind of wanted to stay home this year.”

It’s a changed place to which he returns, most obviously behind the bench, where Gary Graham is now coach. That’s one of the reasons Vaskivuo chose to return.

“I just know what Gary brings to the table as a coach,” he says. “He kind of found me, and I definitely am looking forward to playing for him.”

And as for all the other changes … well, it’s not like Vaskivuo hasn’t dealt with that before.

Born in Helsinki, Finland, he’s spent most of his playing career in the U.S., first at Merrimack College in New Hampshire and then for Dayton in the IHL and CHL and Rapid City in the CHL. Then it was back to France, where things were as different as different gets.

“Not too many guys spoke English on my team,” he says. “There were a couple of guys from the Quebec area who were bilingual and helped me out a bit, but 90 percent of the team was French. There was just me and a guy from Missouri who spoke English so we kind of had to stick together.”

The hockey was different, too: Bigger rinks, smaller and generally less skilled players, less physical. Which suited Vaskivuo’s game if little else did.

“I’d say it’s definitely a step back,” he says. “Depth-wise, it wouldn’t compete with hockey here. You had a couple of imports that made your first line there, and then there was a big drop-off just because you had your junior guys.”

That’s hardly the case in North America or the ECHL in particular, where the speed, size and depth of the talent – and the motivation to move up – are worlds away from France in more than just the geographic sense.

“I definitely think North American hockey is bigger,” Vaskivuo says. “The guys are a lot bigger, and obviously most of the rinks are smaller here, so the physicality gets ramped up more here. Lot more checking and stuff like that.

“I think the European game suits my game with the big ice. But it’s always difficult going overseas. So I’m excited to be back. Maybe get a call-up this year and see how I do.”