Ice hockey became a fully professionalized sport in Finland in 1975, with the creation of the SM-liiga. Not surprisingly, the Finns did not emerge as a major power on the international hockey scene for almost another 15 years, as there was a steep drop-off in its talent depth beyond NHL-caliber stars such as Matti Hagman, Jari Kurri and Pekka Rautakallio when compared to the mighty Soviet Union, Canadian, Czechoslovakian and Swedish teams.
During the transitional years of Finnish hockey, few stars burned brighter than Tappara Tampere defenseman Pekka Marjamaki, who died earlier this month at the age 64 after suffering a fatal heart attack. While he was later surpassed by Teppo Numminen as the greatest defenseman to emerge from the city of Tampere, "Marja" enjoyed a sterling career of his own.
A member of the International Ice Hockey Federation Hall of Fame (inducted in 1998, becoming the first Finn after goaltender Urpo Ylonen to be so honored) and the Finnish Hockey Hall of Fame (inducted 1990), Marjamaki's No. 3 jersey hangs in the rafters of Tappara's famous Hakemetsä Ice Hall as a retired number.
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"Pekka Marjamaki was one of the players that I grew up admiring," Numminen said in a 2009 interview for YLE. "He played the game with a lot of skill and character."
During the recently completed 2012 IIHF World Championships, a moment of silence was held in Helsinki's Hartwall Arena in memory of Marjamaki before Finland's game with France. Members of the Finnish team wore black armbands to mourn the legendary defenseman's passing.
The prime of Marjamaki's career unfolded in the early to mid-1970s, overlapping with the emergence of center Hagman as the first Finnish-trained player to reach the NHL as well as the World Hockey Association careers of forward Veli-Pekka Ketola and defenseman Heikki Riihiranta . During those years, Marjamaki was perennially a key member of Team Finland's blue line. He was one of the national team's players who more than held his own when pitted against elite-caliber competition.
A silky smooth skater and offensively gifted talent who played with an occasional physical edge, Marjamaki suited up in 10 IIHF World Championships between 1967 and 1979 as well as the 1972 and 1976 Olympics. Following a 14-season stint with Tappara, with whom he won three championships, Marjamaki departed for Sweden. After two years with HV 71 Jonkoping, the Tampere native returned home to conclude his career with two more seasons for Tappara before hanging up his skates in 1984.
Marjamaki was one of the last Finnish stars to get his start in the era of outdoor hockey and amateur-only teams in his homeland. While growing up in Tappara, the local team was the predominant club in Finland, winning five championships between 1952-53 and '1960-61. At the age of 16, Marjamaki graduated from Tappara's junior to senior team. Three years later, he made his international debut at the 1967 World Championships in Vienna.
During the latter part of the 1960s, Tappara's on-ice fortunes took a downturn. However, under the leadership of new head coach Kalevi Numminen (Teppo's father) and Marjamaki's on-ice brilliance, the club returned to the top the league in the 1970s.
The defenseman's peak season came in 1974-75. That year, the 27-year-old won the championship with Tappara, took league MVP honors and was named to the World Championships All-Star team after scoring six goals and eight points in 10 games. After the season, the player reportedly received an NHL offer from the Minnesota North Stars, as well as a pair of offers from WHA clubs. He turned down the invitations.
"The timing was not right for me for leave," Marjarmaki said in 1998. "It was not common yet for Finnish players to go over there."
After the formation of the SM-Liiga in 1975, Marjamaki won two more championships with Tappara in 1976-77 and 1978-79. His best individual statistical season was 1976-77, in which he compiled 26 points (14 goals, 12 assists) and 31 penalty minutes in 32 regular-season games. In the playoffs, he added three goals and seven points in just six games.
In the summer of 1979, Marjamaki finally decided the time was right to try his fortunes in another country, signing with Swedish team HV 71 Jonkoping.
"It was definitely a new situation," Marjamaki recalled in a 2011 interview for HV 71's official website. "In Finland, everything was very secure without any problems. In Jonkoping, it was the opposite. Tappara was a top team in Finland, but HV 71 were newcomers in Elitserien. Many people had high expectations for the team and the new players who were brought in. It was a little tough in the beginning. I couldn't speak Swedish – I still can't – and the playing system was a little different than in Finland. It helped to have some other Finns (Jukka Koskilahti and Hannu Lassila) on the team. They could speak Swedish and told me how things worked. There was also a difference in the training. We trained harder in Finland. But we had a good coach in HV 71 and we intensified our training and continually got better as a team."
At the age of 34, Marjamaki returned to play for Tappara. Although he was effective his first season back with the club, injuries caught up with him the following year. He retired after playing just 13 regular-season and three playoff games in 1983-84. Following his retirement, he stayed close to the Tappara organization, serving as an assistant coach for much of the 1990s as well as a brief stint in 2005.
Although most closely associated with Tappa, Marjamaki remained a respected figure throughout the Finnish and international hockey communities for the remainder of his life.