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"The Church of Kakko"

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As the Rangers seek redemption, New York turns to Kaapo Kakko

Kaapo Kakko

Kaapo Kakko isn't one to feel pressure.

Coming into New York, as he weaved his way through the airport, skyscrapers and multitude of fans chanting his name, his calm demeanor was evident. It was more so Wednesday at Madison Square Garden; despite being surrounded by a scrum of reporters, he was like any other kid, hands in his pockets as he leaned back and offered a smile to the scrum before him.


Not much overwhelms him - not even becoming the new face of a franchise.

"Little bit [surprising]," Kakko said of the fanbase with a smile. When asked if there was any added pressure, he delivered a surefire answer.

"Not so much."


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The Finn is no stranger to high expectations. Playing beyond his years and improving his play with each year has become routine for Kakke, who averaged over a point per game in the Finnish junior leagues and earned a spot on TPS in Liiga, the top level of professional hockey in Finland. Though he was just 17, Kakko fit in right away.

After registering a 25 goals and 55 points in 38 games last year in Jr. A SM-liiga, Kakko continued to impress in his jump to the big club. He managed 22 goals and 38 points in 45 regular season games and five points in five playoff matchups. He was named the SM-Liiga rookie of the year, and his 22 goals led all Liiga rookies. He also won a gold medal with the U-20 team and following the season, he suited up for Finland at the World Championship, where he had seven points in 10 games en route to another gold medal.

His performance, as well as his size, vision, hockey smarts and hands have made him one of the league's most anticipated prospects - one that even took away the 100 percent guarantee of Jack Hughes going first overall.

"His name isn't sneaking up on anybody. He's always been under the microscope," general manager Jeff Gorton told reporters at the NHL Draft. "I think it's no different than the way he's lived the last couple years of his life. He sets high expectations for himself."

Those expectations will surely be heightened as he joins a young Rangers core and becomes the centerpiece that the team will rebuild its franchise around. The Rangers have an impressive pool of prospects, but not every day does a forward like Kakko enter the league. Therefore, for Gorton, Kakko is perhaps the most important piece of the puzzle, and the second overall pick will likely be turned to to lead as New York looks to return to its former greatness. The Rangers haven't qualified for the playoffs over the last two seasons.

There are big skates to fill and work to be done, which can bring nerves onto any kid entering his first year in the league. However, Kakko nonchalantly shrugged off any concern about taking on high expectations, sporting a grin as he explained that the fan support and trust make things much easier.

He has developed quite a following in the Big Apple; from Rangers faithful chanting his name at the airport to others establishing a church in his name, the city has found someone to rally behind.

"He does have a lot of pressure, he is the lord and savior of the New York Rangers," Ryan Mead, a long-time Rangers fan and founder of "The Church of Kakko" told Sporting News. "There's a chance he's special, there's a chance he brings a Cup to New York. . . he is the embodiment of hope and faith. He is the picture of, 'this is your future, this is your happiness and this is the guy who can bring you the Cup."

As sermons are held in his name on Tuesday mornings and the Rangers finish up development camp and enter free agency with more plans in mind, Kakko is set on taking his game to the next level. And of course, his plan involves seeing his nameplate in the Madison Square Garden locker room come October as he "[hopes] to play in the NHL next season."

Kakko is a man of few words and is extremely humble in his tone, but he does recognize his potential and lets his abilities speak for him. Coupled with his collectedness in regards to his situation, he is one of the most dynamic, interesting forwards New York has seen over the last couple of years - and he's happy to fulfill that role.

"[This experience] is so great for me, great city," Kakko said. "I like to be here."

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