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Finns Relishing 2010 Premiere

by Paul Branecky / Carolina Hurricanes
It appears the Hurricanes will have some competition when it comes to winning over the locals at the 2010 NHL Premiere in Helsinki.

Paul Branecky
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When reports first began to surface about the Canes opening the 2010-11 season in Finland, one assumed they would be the clear favorites with native sons Jussi Jokinen, Joni Pitkanen and Tuomo Ruutu on the roster. Two of those players are expected to suit up for Team Finland in the upcoming Olympic Games. Don’t get us started on the third, who is currently tied for first place among Finnish-born NHL players in goals (20) and ranks second in points (44).

All that being said, their opponents for next season’s first two regular-season games, the Minnesota Wild, stack up evenly. They also have three Finns on their roster, and three Olympians, in forwards Mikko Koivu and Antti Miettinen and goaltender Niklas Backstrom. As of today, Koivu is the only Finnish-born NHL player with more points than Jokinen (51).

Together, the six players amount to just under one-fifth of the 32 Finns currently playing in the NHL, demonstrating why each team’s selection is a no-brainer. According to the Hurricanes’ trio, the folks back home are already getting anxious.

“There have been some rumors in Finland, and my mom is already getting so many phone calls for tickets,” said Jokinen. “It’s going to be really exciting.”

“I’ve got to put in some ticket requests for sure,” said Ruutu. “It’s really something special. Coming over here I never really dreamed about playing back home in Helsinki.”

Ruutu’s last comment demonstrates the unique perspective held by European-born players, as next season’s premiere will be just the fourth time that the NHL has held regular-season games overseas. Much like today’s Olympians, they couldn’t possibly imagine something like this becoming a reality due to the relatively recent participation by the league.

Ruutu, whose hometown of Vantaa is just a 30-minute drive from downtown Helsinki, will be in charge of showing his teammates around. Jokinen and Pitkanen hail from the northern region, approximately nine hours away by car, according to Google Maps.

“That’s the best part,” said Ruutu of playing tour guide. “I’ll have to take them to the sauna.”

Independently of Ruutu, Jokinen also listed a visit to the sauna on the to-do list. Although puzzling at first, further inspection reveals that the sauna is a crucial part of the culture.

There are five million inhabitants and over two million saunas in Finland - an average of one per household. For Finnish people the sauna is a place to relax in with friends and family, and a place for physical and mental relaxation as well. Finns think of saunas not as a luxury, but as a necessity.  Before the rise of public health care and nursery facilities, almost all Finnish mothers gave birth in saunas.

The entry goes on to claim that Saturday is the traditional day for the sauna in Finland. Thankfully, the Hurricanes’ games will take place on Thursday and Friday, so no conflict there.

The event will mark the second time that Jokinen has participated in the European Premiere, having also played for the Tampa Bay Lightning in Prague back in 2008.

”It was pretty cool because we had a lot of Czech players then,” he said. “I remember thinking that it would be pretty neat to go to Finland, but it was pretty sure it would never happen. It’s really neat.”

Jokinen went on to say that, regardless of nationality, taking the equivalent of a long road trip to start the year serves as a valuable team-building experience.

“It’s going to help if we have some new faces next year,” he said. “Even if we don’t, it’s so big with bonding as a team. It’s a totally different culture and it’s all of your teammates, so you all do things together. I think that’s really going to help us.”

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