Ilkka Sinisalo (1958-2017): Our Teammate, Our Friend

 

The Philadelphia Flyers’ all-time leading goal scorer among European players, Ilkka Sinisalo was never one to call much attention to himself. Whether it was as an NHL player, a former Finnish league general manager or a longtime European scout for the Flyers and other NHL organizations, the soft-spoken Finn just went about his work, quietly, effectively and efficiently.  

 

Off the ice, Sinisalo was gracious and courteous to all who met him. On the ice, the often-overlooked winger’s skating ability and proficiency with the puck made him a silent assassin.

 

A speedster with an effortless stride, silky hands and excellent hockey sense, Sinisalo thrived on both ends of special teams.  He scored 11 shorthanded goals and 45 power play tallies among the 199 he accumulated in his 526 regular season games with Philadelphia. If not for frequent injury issues, Sinisalo would have had more. 

 

Twice, the elegant Finn topped 35 goals (with a high of 39) and averaged more than point per-game.  Sinisalo was also the first –  and, to date, only – Flyers player to score his first NHL goal on a penalty shot attempt. Regularly, Sinisalo gave “Sign Man” Dave Leonardi opportunity to break out his “Ilkka Score-a-Goal-a” placard.

 

Demonstrating his underrated two-way sense, which at times was maligned by head coach Mike Keenan as a way of “pushing his buttons”, Sinisalo compiled a plus-135 rating in his Flyers career and was never on the minus side of the ledger in any of his Flyers seasons.

 

Sinisalo passed away at age 58 on April 5, 2017 following a long struggle with cancer. He went about that fight with the same dignity and understated determination that made him an inductee in Finland’s national hockey Hall of Fame as well as valued member of the Flyers organization in both playing and scouting capacities.

 

“lkka was a true friend and loyal member of the Flyers,” said Flyers President Paul Holmgren, who was Sinisalo’s teammate early in the Finn’s NHL career and later his Flyers assistant and head coach.

 

“He gave a great deal of his time, effort and talents to the organization in several capacities as a player and long-time scout to bring this franchise success on and off the ice. Most important to all that knew him, he was a great person, a loving husband, father and grandfather. His presence and friendship will be deeply missed by all that knew him. Our thoughts and prayers are with his wife of over 35 years, Carina, his sons Niklas and Tomas, as well as Tomas’ wife, Maija and their children Peter and Matilda.”

 

Added Flyers Hall of Fame defenseman Mark Howe, “Ilkka had a certain way and quality about him. Kind, polite and considerate of others. A genuinely nice person. He will certainly be missed by all that knew him. My prayers to his family.”

 

Although Sinisalo was often a man of few words during his playing days, teammates learned over time that he had a dry sense of humor lurking beneath the surface. As with many Flyers players who played under Keenan, Sinisalo had a complicated relationship with “Iron Mike.” With a chuckle, Howe recalls one occasion when the Finn left the head coach flabbergasted and the rest of his teammates in stitches.

 

Said Howe, “My funniest, most memorable Ilkka story comes from the Vancouver locker room during the Keenan era.  We were having a terrible game in Vancouver and Keenan was ripping into each one of us one by one at the end of the 1st period. He started out with the guys to his left and went around the room stopping and verbally abusing each and every player. Just so happened that the last 3 players to the right of the locker room were Ilkka, myself and [Brad] McCrimmon last.

 

“I had a bad period and was waiting my turn to get torn to shreds, but Ilkka was right before me. Keenan started by saying ‘so-and-so’ things about "the so-and-so’ Finns. This is late December mind you. Keenan then looks at the stat sheet he had with him and screamingly asks Ilkka, ‘How in the hell do you have 16 goals playing like this?’ 

 

“Usually, nobody responded to any of Mike's jaded and sarcastic questions and just prayed Mike would move on to the next player in line. Ilkka, however, chose to respond in his own carefree way. He looked at Mike and deadpanned, ‘power play!’ Robin Williams could not have delivered the line better himself. It was priceless.

 

“We all started to snicker and Mike blew a cork. He turned and kicked the heavy table in the middle of the room and probably broke a toe and he turned instantly red. We all then started to chuckle and laugh out loud because we couldn't hold it in any longer. Mike threatened us with what was going to happen to us at practice the next day. We knew we would pay for what had just happened but it was just another day in the life of Ilkka.”

 

Flyers Hall of Fame left winger Brian Propp also recalls Sinisalo’s understated sense of humor stepping to the forefront from time to time as well as his natural gifts on the ice.

 

“Ilkka became a great team leader, quiet with a sense of humor. He was funny with his remarks. As a player, he was a pure goal scorer with great speed. He helped our power play but was also a great two-way player; just someone it was an honor to teammates with in Philadelphia and also later in Minnesota,” Propp recalls.

 

The 1980s era Flyers were truly a team of triumph and tragedy. Far too many of its members, including Pelle Lindbergh, Peter Zezel, McCrimmon, Miroslav “Cookie” Dvorak, assistant coach EJ McGuire and now Sinisalo – all well-liked and well-respected figures have passed away at young ages. Although the teams never won a Stanley Cup – coming close twice – longtime Flyers captain Dave Poulin believes that their bond forged in blood, sweat, tears, laughter and their shared experiences on and off the ice is as enduring as that shared by the Broad Street Bullies era teams of the 1970s.

 

“The 1970s teams, as Fred Shero prophesied they would, have walked together forever,” Poulin said after the 50th Anniversary Alumni Game in January. “In my mind, so do the teams from my era. Would that bond be any stronger if we had won just one more game in ’87 or three more games in ’85? Not in my mind.

 

“The Flyers organization is very much like an extended family. …When the family gets together, it’s hard not to miss and think about those who can’t be with us physically but are here in spirit, like Mr. Snider, Pelle, Pete, Beast and Edge.”

 

Sinisalo’s Flyers legacy and the impression he made on his teammates, coaches and fans alike are likewise immortal; something that the passage of time and the ravages of a three-year battle with cancer cannot take away.

 

“lkka was a very good player, a great teammate, but most importantly an outstanding person and a terrific friend to us all,” said Flyers Executive Vice President & General Manager Ron Hextall. “We’ve all had the pleasure to work with him for many years and he will be missed.”

 

MORE TRIBUTES TO ILKKA SINISALO

 

"So sorry to hear about Ilkka`s passing. Just saw him last year at the Flyers golf tournament for the first time since we played together. He was without question one of the funniest guys I ever played with. Not only was he an underrated player but his humor was priceless. May he rest in peace."  -- TIM KERR

 
"Ilkka went out of his way to help me adjust to life in Philly. The nicest guy and gentleman. I lived in his apartment and he set it all up for a young clueless kid from Finland. May he rest in peace." -- JANNE NIINIMAA (Flyers player, 1996 to 1998).
 
"I am very sad to hear of Ilkka's passing. I don't have any specific story or memory, but just of many scouting trips together,  stories and laughs over a few beers after the games." -- JARMO KEKALAINEN (Columbus Blue Jackets' general manager).