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on June 30, 2015 at 3:05 PM, updated June 30, 2015 at 3:11 PM
If the Flint Firebirds have it their way, a Detroit Red Wings prospect will call Perani Arena and Event Center home come the fall.
Vili Saarijarvi, a 5-foot-10, 163-pound defenseman selected by the Red Wings in the third round of last weekend’s NHL Draft, was picked ninth overall by Flint in Tuesday’s Canadian Hockey League Import Draft.
Saarijarvi, of Rovaniemi, Finland, told the media over the weekend he has plans to play junior hockey in his native Finland next season, but the Firebirds are hoping to use their close locale to keep in Michigan following Red Wings development camp in Traverse City July 3-7.
“It’s not up to us as to where the boy plays, it’s up to the Red Wings,” Flint general manager Terry Christensen said. “And I’m sure they’ll make a decision as to where they want him and hope that he’ll reap the benefit of playing in the Ontario Hockey League.”
Christensen had a chance to watch Saarijarvi, 18, play in the U-18 World Hockey Championships in Switzerland in April, where he was named Most Valuable Defenseman and assistant captain for runner-up Finland, and considers him an offensive defenseman with good leadership skills.
“The one thing I really liked about him is that he played in all the tough situations for Finland,” Christensen said. “This guy anchored their power play, and of course in a tournament like that you get so many opportunities against great teams. He was always one of the first guys to put others over the boards and quarterback their power play.”
Saarijarvi played last season for the Green Bay Gamblers of the United States Hockey League, where he had six goals and 17 assists in 57 games, and tied for 20th among defenseman in points.
He was named to the 2014-15 USHL All-Rookie second team and played in the 2015 USHL/NHL Top Prospects Game.
“We know that he’s a talented athlete, and the fact the Red Wings take him in the third round of the draft, Christensen started, “To obviously take him in the third round, they think highly of him.”
Christensen said Saarijarvi’s one season in the USHL made him more attractive than most other European players, giving him a head start on learning the North American game and English language.
A timetable for Saarijarvi’s decision is not known, but Christensen said he expects him to be in attendance at the Firebirds training camp in August.
“This isn’t something that’s going to take place over night,” he said. “This whole thing is a process. Everything’s happened for him quickly.
“If you think about Vili, a short while ago he gets off an airplane in South Florida, he goes to a draft and he gets drafted in the NHL by one of the more storied franchises in the history of the National Hockey League. Then, a couple days later, he gets drafted No. 9 overall in the first round of the Import Draft. This has been a whirlwind tour for him.”
Flint takes Czech forward
The Firebirds added Matyas Kantner, a 6-foot-1, 163-pound forward from Plzen, Czech Republic, with their second round pick, No. 69 overall.
Kantner, 17, scored 21 goals and added 25 assists in 42 games for 18-U HC Plzen in 2014-15, and played three games for the U-17 Czech Republic team.
“He’s fairly good sized, has a left-hand shot and plays center of the wing,” Christensen said. “This year, he put up good numbers and scored at least a point a game at the U18 level and we believe will really help improve our offense.”
Flint took two players in this year’s CHL Import Draft as both European-born players on the Plymouth Whalers’ roster last season, Victor Crus Rydberg and Yannick Rathgeb, are over the league’s age limit.
The OHL allows teams to carry a maximum of two European players per season.
— Aaron McMann covers sports for MLive.com and The Flint Journal. Contact him: firstname.lastname@example.org; on Twitter @AaronMcMann.