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Lauri Mononen, a Finnish Hall of Famer, has passed away at the age of 68. Mononen, a native of Joensuu, was a trailblazer in Finnish hockey when he in 1975 signed a professional contract with the Phoenix Roadrunners in the World Hockey Association. He died yesterday in Kesalahti.
Mononen began his career in the outdoor rinks in Joensuu, following in the footsteps of his brother Erkki, also a national team player, first to the Joensuu JoKP men’s team as a 16-year-old and then to Lahti where he made his breakthrough.
He made his national team debut as a 18-year-old in an exhibition game against Poland – and scored a hat trick. At the 1969 World Championships in Stockholm, Sweden, he scored two goals and seven points in nine games, tied for team lead in points.
In 1972, Mononen caught fire. He finished second in the Sapporo Olympics goal scoring, behind Valeri Kharlamov, and at the World Championships in Prague, he finished fourth in the tournament scoring race, behind three Soviet players, a feat that was almost unheard of at the time. Mononen’s Finnish record for most points in a World Championship, 15, stood until 1999 when Saku Koivu notched 16 points in Lillehammer.
“The Sapporo tournament showed me that I could play with the best,” Mononen told this reporter in 2003, “and I was determined to be even better at the Worlds.”
He returned to Joensuu where he worked out for a week, using his unorthodox methods that included carrying big rocks, running a forest pretending trees were defencemen, running backwards, and running in the snow wearing rubber boots.
That fall Mononen attended the Toronto Maple Leafs training camp, but couldn’t crack the line-up, and his dreams of convincing NHL scouts at the 1973 Worlds crumbled when he got injured.
In 1975, a year after Veli-Pekka Ketola and Heikki Riihiranta had become the first Finns to turn pro when they signed with the Winnipeg Jets in the WHA, Mononen attended the Phoenix Roadrunners’ camp and signed a contract.
While Mononen scored a hat trick in his first game, his flamboyant European style didn’t impress the coach and Mononen returned home after two seasons in North America.
Once again determined to prove his doubters wrong, Mononen scored six goals in his return to the Finnish league, and scored 27 goals in 34 games that season. The next season, he left IFK Helsinki mid-season for SC Bern in the Swiss league and helped Bern win the Swiss title. He spent three more years in Switzerland before returning to Finland.
In total he represented Finland in six World Championships, one Olympics and a U18 European Championship.
Mononen was a true entertainer on the ice, and a larger-than-life person both on and off it. He loved to enter the rink as the last player, the star of the show, and blow kisses to the crowds. He thought hockey was supposed to be fun, and – as the gentle soul that he was – art. “Like ballet,” he said.
He was inducted into the Finnish Hockey Hall of Fame in 1991.