Fresh faces, branding for defending champion Kuopio Steelers heading into 30th anniversary season

In 2020, the Kuopio Steelers finally reached the mountaintop, seizing the first Maple Bowl title in team history. As the club enters its 30th anniversary season, the objective is to remove all doubt as to who the top team in Finland going forward is.

Head coach Pekka Utriainen’s group was unquestionably dominant last season, leading the nation with an offense that scored an average of 44.6 points per game, but there are some who might place an asterisk next to that accomplishment in a season where the eight-time defending champion Helsinki Roosters chose to play without American imports. There will be no such caveats if they repeat the feat this year, but it will be a very different roster opening the season Saturday.

The Steelers have taken ‘new-look’ literally with fresh branding for the organization and the changes haven’t stopped at logos. Gone from the 2020 championship squad are Finland’s top passer Seth Peters, backfield home-run threat Lamar Carswell, receptions leader Josh Vandeweerd and star linebacker AJ Wentland. German receiver Max Zimmermann is back for another shot in the CFL and defensive back Tommy Kaczocha defected to the Wasa Royals. Homegrown stars Tino Ndongo and Iiro Pekkarinen, British linebacker Kadel King, French safety Maxime De Falcis, and German guard Lane Acheampong have all found employ in the new ELF, while budding French tackle Thomas Fileccia is now in the GFL.

Joey Bradley led Vysocina Gladiators to a perfect 7-0 record in Czech Republic before pandemic canceled season Photo: Vysocina Gladiators

Replacing 12 starters from a championship team is no walk in the park, but Kuopio hasn’t shied away from big acquisitions. Chief among them is six-year European veteran Joey Bradley. The former Harlon Hill nominated quarterback made a name for himself in Portugal with the Lisboa Devils before finding success in Poland, Spain and the Czech Republic. Last year, Bradley led the the Vysocina Gladiators to an unbeaten regular season, throwing for 1,951 yards, 30 touchdowns and just two interceptions in the eight games prior to the cancellation of the playoffs.

In the backfield with Bradley, the Steelers opted to change out one Division III All-American for another, replacing Carswell with Le’Anthony Reasnover 0f Eureka College. The 5’10”, 210-pound back rushed for 2,187 yards and 40 touchdowns in his final collegiate season, eight more than his predecessor in Kuopio. Reasnover and the ground game are expected to be the heartbeat of the offense, aided by the addition of former Frankfurt Universe guard Tim Hirsch and 2019 GFL All-Star Basil Weber of the German Bowl champion New Yorker Lions.

When Bradley does go to the air, it will be to a dramatically changed receiving corps. Young Jaakko Paananen is the key returnee, expected to take a big step forward after a 2020 season that saw him catch 10 passes for 127 yards and three touchdowns, but former Thonon Black Panther and French national team standout Alexandre Jefferson should be the top target. Joining the pair is long time Tampere Saint Tuukka Lehtonen, now in search of greener pastures, and intriguing prospect Hannes Harju, who dominated the Finnish First Division in 2020 with the Rovaniemi Nordmen.

Edge rusher Semmi Radji was a key to the success of the Steelers defense in 2020.

Defensively, the Steelers should have no problem getting after the quarterback. Fearsome Dutch edge rusher Semmie Radji returns for another season after recording 20 tackles and two sacks en route to a Maple League All-Star nod last year, but he’ll have a worthy counterpart  in Miami of Ohio defensive lineman Ikeem Allen. The former third team All-MAC defender heads to Finland following a successful stint with the Brisbane Rhinos and should be a difference-maker at 6’1″ and 270 pounds. Homegrown Jani Lindqvist will add local flavor to the three-headed monster.

Just like their offence, the Kuopio defense will also have an All-American at their heart. New middle linebacker Maurice Wright Jr. notched 459 tackles and 38.5 tackles for loss in four seasons for Division II Northwestern Oklahoma State, finishing as their career tackles leader. He’ll be aided by a trio of European imports in the secondary, namely safety Lars Steffen, another talented defector from the reigning GFL champions in Braunschweig. French national team contributors Kenny Floret and Adel Bafdile will be big factors, while 2020 surprise Roni Laine will also have a role.

Returning to the Maple Bowl with so many fresh faces will be no easy feat for the Steelers, but change has increasingly become the new reality in European football thanks to the COVID pandemic and a fresh European league drawing talent. Since 2005, just one Finnish team, the 2011 Helsinki Wolverines, have claimed a national title and failed to repeat, with the Porvoo Butchers and Helsinki Roosters building successive dynasties. The expectation is for Kuopio to assume that mantle but they’ll need to get through the competition first, starting Saturday with the Wasa Royals.

J.C. Abbott is a student at the University of British Columbia and amateur football coach in Vancouver, Canada. A CFL writer for 3DownNation, his love of travel has been the root of his fascination with the global game.