Hailing from Riihimaki, Finland, just 43 miles north of Helsinki Santeri Hatakka grew up with his sights set on breaking into the NHL.
For North American players, the process to the NHL is more streamlined; play juniors, maybe go to the NCAA for a few years, and work your way up through the minor leagues. Even if a North American player is undrafted, there’s still a clear path forward, although it’s by no means easy. For European players growing up and playing in their home countries, it’s not always a linear, or simple process.
It’s one of the reasons why Hatakka is such an impressive athlete at just 21 years old. It’s no easy task to be successfully scouted, maintain interest, and develop with their organization’s end product in mind, and it demonstrates an acute level of work ethic, determination, and perseverance.
Hatakka was drafted by the San Jose Sharks in the 2019 NHL Entry Draft, in the sixth round, at 184th overall, making his professional debut for the Finnish Liiga for the Tampereen Ilves, in the 2019-20 season. He played for the same team the next year, playing in 44 games for a total of one goal and six assists.
Then, it was time for him to make his way to California, some 5,418 miles from Finland, to San Jose. After a strong camp with the San Jose Sharks and the first few games of the season spent up top, Hatakka made his way down to the San Jose Barracuda, where’s he’s spent most of the year.
From a development perspective, European players who developed within their home countries and play professionally there seem to have an advantage. Off the ice, those players appear to have a more solid work/life balance and healthy perspective, confident in their on-ice and off-ice identity. It’s obviously easier when you’re familiar with your surroundings and the language.
The struggle comes with the transition between European and North American ice. Here, the game is faster, the ice rink is smaller, the hits are harder, and, at times, it seems like they’re playing two completely different styles of hockey. Coupled with the fact that defensemen generally develop slower than forwards and possible language barrier issues, the grind becomes that much more impressive for young European players assimilating into North American leagues.
And, as I learned when speaking to Barracuda head coach Roy Sommer, it’s often preferred for players to start that transition process in the AHL, versus the NHL, because of the generally slower pace and room for growth, which lends itself to allowing the time and space to adjust to the more physical and instinctual style of play here.
San Jose Sharks head coach Bob Boughner echoed Sommer, in regards to Hatakka: “Watching some of the games and from what I’m hearing, it’s taken a full year for him to adjust to this North American game.”
Hatakka might need next year to adjust too.
“He’s just a steady, safe, non-flashy defenseman,” an NHL scout told San Jose Hockey Now. “Might need another year as a call-up guy.”
Hatakka spoke at length about the transition from Finland and North America, and the differences between the two countries aren’t always about the size of the ice – sometimes it’s about the weather, too.
“The weather is the biggest difference between Finland and California. Of course, here, there is no snow,” Hatakka said. “We are so cold in the middle of winter, we have like minus-20 Celsius weather and snow, so that’s the biggest difference – and the food, of course, we have some traditional Finnish meals.”
(For any of my fellow Americans who aren’t versed in Celsius, that’s about minus-four degrees Fahrenheit).
While Hatakka hasn’t been able to make his way up to the mountains beyond the fake snow at Santana Row (which we determined just doesn’t compare to the real thing), he has been able to make Finnish food at home, although it’s never quite the same as a home-cooked meal made in your home country with familiar ingredients.
And, when it comes to the ice, Hatakka shared the differences there, too: “The biggest difference between European hockey and the US is that the hockey rink is smaller and the game is faster here, and it’s not that organized – everything that happens you can’t expect, and what’s going on the ice, you’ll have to react to. Because back in Europe… everything happening on the ice, we can expect that. We play there more carefully and it’s a little bit slower because the ice is bigger.”
In other words, the bigger the ice, the more it favors set plays and more tactical, chess-like strategizing, versus the North American style of play, which relies more on physicality. In essence, this leads to European players generally developing different on-ice habits, behaviors, and instincts in youth hockey compared to the North American juniors experience.
Speaking of instincts, ex-defenseman Boughner, 630 NHL games to his credit, likes Hatakka’s: “He does a good job of gapping up and being aggressive.”
But there’s a flipside to that, that Hatakka is still trying to balance.
“What he needs to work on if anything, coming back, is reads,” Boughner said. “When to be aggressive, when not to be.”
There’s a communication gap too – attempting to connect with your teammates during the frenetic, fast-paced play becomes more difficult when no one around you speaks Finnish. While there are many countries in the world that make English a mandatory aspect of their public education system, Finland isn’t one of them, and (unfortunately) the United States has very little investment in foreign language learning within their education system, which means that the language barrier can be a real struggle for players and their teams.
When it comes to Finnish in the Barracuda locker room, there’s not much. “A couple of the guys know basic words, but not that much – I think it’s a pretty hard language to learn,” Hatakka said.
And, not being able to communicate as effectively with the people around you can be isolating, especially in a team environment, even if eventually you’re settled into the system.
“The first couple of months were pretty tough, because my English wasn’t that good yet, and I didn’t know guys that well,” the 21-year-old acknowledged. “But after the first couple of months, everything was great. I enjoy my time here. It’s so fun to be in the US and part of the Sharks organization.”
Playing in the NHL was a dream come true, but it’s one that’s filled with as much stress and anxiety as excitement and elation. Finding the balance between having a personal life and a professional career in the spotlight can be difficult, although essential.
“You have to just focus on positive things. You have to work,” Hatakka said of his professional life. “And, when you’re off the ice, you have to find those things that you enjoy doing, and just get a little bit out of hockey.”
Hatakka’s emotional and mental maturity, and ability to navigate the stresses of everyday life and pro hockey is a skill borne out of sacrifice and hard work.
“When I was 16, I moved. So I’ve been alone a couple of years already, [and was] a couple of years [playing] pro in Finland, and it’s helped me a lot to find that balance. Too much is too much,” he shared.
We often talk about the balance between being a professional athlete and regular life as something that a player finds, but in reality, it’s a skill they hone, much like working on their shot or skating. And, it’s not an easy skill to develop, and there are plenty of players I’ve met who struggle with finding that balance. Not only is it an indication of Hatakka’s personal development, but it’s always a huge plus for the team to have players like him, who have a strong sense of identity and perspective outside the rink.
This maturity, coupled with Hattaka’s physical attributes, is what makes him an enticing prospect.
“There’s a lot of good to his game,” Boughner said, “he’s a young guy that moves real well.”
And, when it comes to being a normal person off the ice, Hatakka said players are just that – normal.
“We’re just a person and normal people that are professional athletes. Of course, there’s a lot of eyes watching us, and people want to watch us, but we’re just normal humans,” he said. “And it’s always so fun to meet new people.”
So if you ever meet Santeri Hatakka?
Here’s the correct (i.e. Finnish) way to say his name: San-teh-riy (with a slight rolled ‘R’ sound), Hah-tah-Kkah.
The Barracuda’s season isn’t over yet, although it’s drawing close to an end. In 32 games, Hatakka has had one goal and eight assists, for nine points. Over the course of eight games for the Sharks, Hatakka had two assists for two points. While he may not be called up before the season’s end, it’s obvious from both his on-ice play and Sommer’s messaging that Hatakka’s on the right path to make it back up top.
When it comes to the rest of the Barracuda, here’s how their last five games have been laid out. It’s been a long time since the Barracuda have bought themselves a win. On March 28, the Barracuda played their second of two games against the Colorado Eagles, which ended in a 4-0 shutout loss.
Their March 30 game versus the Ontario Reign was a 6-3 loss, and Jasper Weatherby, Evan Weinger and Joachim Blichfield held the only goals. The Barracuda opened the month of April with a 7-1 loss against the Stockton Heat with newcomer Mason Jobst with the single goal for the Barracuda. Their last game was April 3, a rematch at home versus the Heat, which was a 3-1 loss, with Artemi Kniazev with the only goal.
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