There are not many captains in elite European hockey who were given that honour at just 22 years-of-age. Lahti Pelicans, one of two Finnish teams who will make their CHL debut in the 2019/20 season, did just that, naming hometown hero Hannes Björninen as their captain prior to the 2018/19 season.
“I’m very proud to be the captain of Pelicans”, said Björninen. “I’m from Lahti so it is great for me”.
Björninen was born in Lahti and rose through the team’s junior system before making his professional debut aged 18. The smooth-skating forward quickly became a star in Pelicans’ top-six, recording a career year in 2018/19 of 14 goals and 20 assists in 58 games.
"I think I am moving forward each year"
“I liked my past season, but of course you can do everything better, and I believe I can improve next year. I think I am moving forward each year, getting a little bit better each season”, commented Björninen.
Despite the individual plaudits, Pelicans’ season did not end the way they had wished. After finishing third in the Liiga Regular Season, Pelicans were stunned by IFK Helsinki in the Playoff Quarter-Finals, losing out in six games to their rivals from the Finnish capital.
“The regular season was really good”, added Björninen. “We played good hockey, but in the Playoffs we didn’t do our best. It was a huge disappointment for our team because we all know we can play better”.
“In the Playoffs we have to be tougher and play better in Spring”, Björninen stated.
However. Because of their third-place finish, Pelicans qualified for the Champions Hockey League for the first time in their club’s history. Speaking of this achievement, Björninen said, “Of course we are so excited to play in Europe. There are a lot of good teams. We know that and we want to challenge ourselves and play good hockey there”.
What can the CHL expect from its new Finnish competitor? Björninen said, “I think we play good hockey. We play fast hockey and the crowds really enjoy our play”.
When asked if he had any dream locations to play in the Champions Hockey League, Björninen praised all the participating teams. He said, “Every team is very good, and it doesn’t matter who we play”.
Pelicans featured in Pot 3 in the recent CHL Group Stage Draw, and were drawn into an extremely tough Group D, containing Oceláři Třinec (CZE), Lausanne HC (SUI) and Yunost Minsk (BLR). The battle for Playoff places will be tight and Group D, it can be assumed, will be one of the CHL's "Groups of Death" in the 2019/20 season.
When asked of his expectations and desires for the upcoming season, Björninen simply answered, “Play a better season than before”.