Veli Pekka Ketola was one of the pioneering players from Finland to cross the Atlantic. As a 20 year old, he was invited to the Detroit Red Wings' training camp together with legendary Swedish defenseman Lennart Svedberg.
Ten years later, the situation had changed dramatically. A Finn had played at the side of Wayne Gretzky in winning the Stanley Cup and Finns had participated in All-Star games. The scouts had begun to expand their recruitment drive to take in Europeans.
In the 1974 World Championship, Ketola showed that he was a leader on the international level and offers of a professional career started to come in. The only surprise came when he signed a contract not with the Detroit Red Wings, who held his NHL rights, but with the Winnipeg Jets of the WHA.
In Finland, Ketola's number 13 was already legendary, but in North America he wasn't allowed to use it. In Winnipeg, he became number 12. Playing for Winnipeg, he had the good fortune to be part of a winning franchise led by hockey's first $1 million man, Bobby Hull. At the time, Hull was being ably assisted by a pair of Swedes, center Ulf Nilsson and right wing Anders Hedberg. Nilsson's predominant role with the team left centerman Ketola without much ice time. Nevertheless, he managed to end his WHA career with a respectable 183 points in 235 games. The highlight of his years in the World Hockey Association was his second season, when the Jets won the Avco Cup. He'd signed a three-year pact with Winnipeg, but during his final year, 1976-77, he was traded to the Calgary Cowboys.
Ketola then returned to Finland to play, but in 1981 he returned for a second stint in North America, this time with the Colorado Rockies of the NHL. He lasted one season and 44 games. Ketola had the size necessary for an NHL player, but the powers that be felt that he didn't use his gifts to full advantage. Ketola, who was brought up in the European mold and taught that technique came before physique, didn't like that attitude.
On the international level, Finland didn't have much success during his era. Making matters worse was the doping scandal in 1974 involving the unfortunate goalie Stig Wetzell. Finland was on the brink of winning its first medal, only to have a key 5-0 victory over Czechoslovakia reversed when Wetzell tested positive. Wetzell has never admitted to any wrongdoing and there is even reason to believe that members of his own national team unfairly targeted him. The net result was that first Wetzell and then Ketola refused to play on the national team again.
The goalie never went back on his promise, but Ketola rescinded his boycott to participate in three more World Championship tournaments. Even though he lost some key years in his international career, he still makes the all-time top 10 list with the national team with 105 points in 186 games. The latter mark ranks sixth in team history, as do his 60 goals.
In Finland, Ketola helped his hometown of Pori win three national titles. The first one came in 1965 with the club nicknamed Karhut (the Bears). Two years later, the two hockey clubs in Pori joined forces and became known as Assat (the Aces). In the 1970s, Assat won two national championships, both times with Ketola as the team's top scorer.
After hanging up his skates, he turned to coaching. Then came a promotion to general manager of Assat, which ended in the spring of 2000 as the club, full of ambition at the start of the season, failed to make the playoffs. In Pori, however, he will still be known as "Mr. Hockey" for years to come.