Avalanche forward Mikko Rantanen doesn’t remember it, but there was a time a few years back when he skated against the University of Denver’s Henrik Borgstrom as a teen in Finland, their native country.
“I was playing with one-year older kids, and I remember one game against him. He was like 15, and I was like 14,” Borgstrom said. “He wasn’t their best player and I want to say he was kind of slow back then. In a year or two he started to be really good and everybody was like, ‘What happened?’ I’ve played with some really good Finnish players back home. He’s probably the best.”
Fast forward five years and cross an ocean and not much has changed. Rantanen is arguably the Avalanche’s best offensive weapon. And Borgstrom? There isn’t a better college player in the country.
To Denver hockey fans, Borgstrom is what Rantanen would be if he had chosen the NCAA route. Conversely, Rantanen is the professional that Borgstrom seems destined to become.
The 20-year-old forwards grew up within a 2-hour drive in the Northern European country, which helps explain why they are a spitting image on ice. Tall, lanky left-shooting scoring forwards who became first-round NHL draft picks in 2015 (Rantanen) and 2016 (Borgstrom).
The difference is Borgstrom is a sophomore for the University of Denver and Rantanen is in his second year with the Avalanche. Rantanen is 10 months older.
Both could become NHL stars, and appear bound to play against each other. Borgstrom, selected 23rd overall by the Florida Panthers, led all college hockey freshman with 22 goals last season in becoming a first-team All-American. Regarded as one of the most gifted forwards in the country, Borgstrom could become the second consecutive Hobey Baker Award winner as national player of the year for the defending NCAA champions.
“It’s fun to see that there’s another Finn here,” said Rantanen, who led the Avs with 20 goals last season. “They won the whole thing last year and (Borgstrom) was a key player for them, one of the best players in the whole (country).”
In their first full year in Denver last season, Rantanen and Borgstrom naturally became friends. Rantanen attended a DU game to see Borgstrom play and Borgstrom tried to get to as many Avalanche games as he could. After the Pioneers won the NCAA championship in April, Rantanen and a handful of other Avs attended a celebration party with the college team.
“It was pretty cool to speak Finnish with him,” Borgstrom said. “I asked him about the big show (NHL).”
They also ran into each other late last summer at the Helsinki Airport, both flying to Denver to rejoin their hockey teams.
“We were wishing each other good luck for the upcoming season,” Borgstrom said. “He’s a nice guy. I like watching him, the way he shoots the puck and there’s lots of things I’ve been noticing in his game, small things. I feel like he’s a good guy to look up to. It’s nice having an NHL team here, especially with another Finn.”
Borgstrom’s success at Denver helped bring another Finn to town. Undrafted freshman Jaakko Heikkinen, who is also 20, is a third-line forward for the Pioneers — a player coach Jim Montgomery dubs as “a poor-man’s Borgstrom.”
Rantanen didn’t attend DU’s home-opening series last weekend but hopes to catch a handful of Pioneers home games this season to watch Borgstrom and Heikkinen.
“It’s a lot of fun over there,” Rantanen said of Magness Arena. “It’s fast hockey.”
Borgstrom looks forward to the day when he plays against Rantanen in Denver. It could be next season, given that Borgstrom isn’t expected to return for his junior year. He could have signed with the Panthers last spring or summer.
“I’m trying not to think about it too much because our season just started,” Borgstrom said. “But when you bring it up like that, of course, it would be great. When I think about coming back here (as a professional), it will be a pretty amazing feeling for sure. Lots of people I know out there. But I’m just trying to live in the moment.”
Two Fine Finns
Henrik Borgstrom, 20, is a 6-foot-3, 190-pound center from Helsinki. Born Aug. 6, 1997. Selected 23rd overall by the Florida Panthers in the 2016 NHL draft. He led DU and all NCAA freshmen with 22 goals last season.
Mikko Rantanen, 20, is a 6-4, 210-pound right wing from Nousiainen. Born Oct. 29, 1996. Selected 10th overall by the Avalanche in the 2015 NHL draft. He led the Avalanche with 20 goals last season.