Playing the majority of his career both with Wayne Gretzky and in Gretzky's shadow as his so called, "Right-hand Man," Jari Pekka Kurri was considered by many to be perhaps the best defensive forward in the NHL. His two-way abilities were the perfect complement for his hard, accurate shooting and scoring proficiency.
Kurri was born on May 18, 1960 in Helsinki, Finland to Ville and Liisa Kurri. His father was a trainer and spent countless hours driving Jari to and from the local rinks. From an extremely early age, he belonged to the Jokerit Helsinki hockey club, progressing through the ranks and dreaming of one day playing with his heroes in the Elite League or winning Olympic gold with the Finnish National Team. As a youngster, Jari also participated in many other sports, including track and field and soccer. However, it was in hockey that his true abilities shone.
By age 17, Kurri had realized part of his dream by playing with Jokerit's senior club. He spent three seasons in the Elite League, steadily progressing from two to 16 to 23 goals. During that time he also realized another dream by playing for the Finnish Junior National Team in 1978, 1979, and 1980. Kurri scored what proved to be the biggest goal of his early career at the 1978 European Junior Championship against the Soviet Union, in double overtime, to capture Finland's first gold medal. For his efforts, Kurri was named the Best Forward at the tournament. Later he tied for the tournament scoring lead at the 1980 World Junior tournament, capturing Finland's first WJC medal, a silver. His efforts earned him a berth on Finland's 1980 Olympic Team and led the Edmonton Oilers to select him 69th overall in that summer's Entry Draft.
Speaking only a little English, Kurri was initially hesitant about a move across the Atlantic Ocean to an unknown land, but Finnish players with the Oilers-- Matti Hagman and Risto Siltanen--convinced him it was the best move to make. Jari reluctantly made the jump, planning to spend two years in Canada before returning home. The 1980-81 NHL season began slowly for both him and the Oilers while head coach Glen Sather struggled to find the proper line combinations. Blair McDonald started the season on the number-one line with Wayne Gretzky, but things were not working and by Christmas it was Jari's turn to play with Wayne. Instantly the magic was created and one of the most lethal combinations in NHL history was born.
Over the next eight seasons, the duo wowed NHL crowds everywhere they went, not only breaking records...but obliterating them. Similar to his years in Finland, Kurri's play steadily improved. He recorded a 100-point season in 1982-83 and reached the 50-goal mark the following year, the first Finnish-born player to reach both marks. The Oilers also captured the Stanley Cup in 1984, beginning a run of four championships in five years. During that time, Kurri recorded career highs of 71 goals and 135 points in 1984-85 (a single season record for goals by a right-winger), capturing the Lady Byng Trophy and finishing second to Gretzky in the scoring race. During the playoffs he recorded 19 goals on the way to the Stanley Cup, tying the playoff goal scoring record set by Reggie Leach in 1976. From 1984 to 1988, the "Master of the One-Timer" recorded four consecutive 50-goal seasons and led the playoffs in goals each time the Oilers won the Cup. Despite capturing only one major award throughout this period, Kurri was honoured with two First Team and two Second Team All-Star berths. As Barry Fraser, the Oilers' Personnel Director, once put it, "We've got some outstanding people, eh? All-Stars, right? But Kurri is by far our most complete player."
Following Gretzky's trade to Los Angeles in 1988, there were those who believed Jari Kurri's success would come to an abrupt end. But over the next two years, like a man on a mission, he recorded 195 points in 154 games, leading the Oilers to their fifth Stanley Cup in 1990 and earning another berth on the Second All-Star Team. Kurri also became just the 25th NHL player to reach the 1,000th point milestone.
A wealthy owner in Italy took it upon himself to bring a big star to his club and he believed Kurri was just the man to be a star in Italy. Kurri signed a two-year contract with the Milan Devils, a contract contingent on his being allowed to leave to play for Finland in the World Championships and an escape clause allowing him to head back to North America the following year. Kurri didn't miss a beat, despite playing fewer games he still managed to record 75 points in only 30 games, prior to joining the Finnish national team for the 1991 World tournament.
Because of the Oilers' domination throughout the 1980's, Kurri managed to play in only four World Championships throughout his career--1982, 1989, 1991, and 1994. Finland won a silver medal in 1994 and Kurri was named the All-Star right-winger in both the 1991 and 1994 tournaments. He also played in the 1981, 1987, and 1991 Canada Cups and 1996 World Cup, and during his final year of competitive hockey he captured the bronze medal at the 1998 Olympic Winter Games. Kurri played a total of 65 tournament games for the senior national team, recording 26 goals and 52 points against top-level world competition.
After a season in Italy and an NHL trade to Philadelphia, the Los Angeles Kings managed to pry Kurri away from the Flyers and he was back in North America, re-united with his longtime pal, Wayne Gretzky. By the 1992-93 season, they had re-kindled the old magic, leading the Kings to their first Stanley Cup finals appearance. Kurri also became the first European-trained player and 18th NHLer to record 500 career goals, although he accomplished the feat with Gretzky in the press box with an injury, a fact he truly regretted. He spent five seasons with the Kings, the latter time of which were injury-riddled. In 1996, he was traded to the New York Rangers where he played only 25 games before signing that summer with the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim. He played a full season and was a mentor for many of the young European stars the Ducks had acquired, notably Teemu Selanne.
Kurri contemplated retirement following the 1996-97 season, but with an offer from the Colorado Avalanche and a chance to reach the 600 career goal mark and win another Stanley Cup, he couldn't resist. Late in the season, he did, in fact, score his 600th goal, becoming just the eighth NHL player in history to do so. However, the Avalanche was upset in the first round of the playoffs.
Jari Kurri finished his career as the highest scoring European-born player in NHL history with totals of 601 goals, 797 assists, and 1,398 points. He also finished with 106 career PLAYOFF goals and 233 PLAYOFF points, third all-time behind only Wayne Gretzky and Mark Messier. While he wasn't the flashiest player, Kurri was consistent and this ability alone enabled him to become an icon for thousands of fans and young players, both in Finland and throughout North America.