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Guy Behind the Guy: Finnish Homecoming a Hit

by Mike Sundheim / Carolina Hurricanes
Jussi Jokinen and Joni Pitkanen sat side-by-side, barely trying to suppress their smiles with a half-dozen cameras pointed at them. Over the course of their hockey-playing careers, they’d faced reporters in press conferences before, but never quite like this.

Mike Sundheim
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As children, Jokinen and Pitkanen played youth hockey together, and off the ice they were good friends in Oulu, Finland. Surely they dreamed of playing professional hockey. Maybe they even envisioned playing on the same NHL team one day. But they couldn’t possibly have imagined the opportunity they had during the first week of October in 2010.

They were doing a press conference, together, after playing and winning an NHL game with the team they both play for. And the questions were in Finnish.

When the Hurricanes opened their season in Helsinki, Finland, it was an amazing opportunity for everyone involved. Players and staff had the opportunity to travel to St. Petersburg, Russia, and Helsinki, Finland, places many of us never imagined we would go in our lifetimes. Players had the chance to spend time together, sharing brand-new experiences in unique settings to bond as a team. But there is no denying the trip was most special for three men on the Hurricanes’ charter plane: the three players returning to their home country with their NHL team.

Pitkanen and Jokinen, who grew up a six-hour car ride north of Helsinki, were the second and third stars of the Hurricanes’ 4-3 victory against the Minnesota Wild on Oct. 7. Tuomo Ruutu, who was born just outside Helsinki and still spends his summers there, earned second-star honors in Carolina’s 2-1 shootout win there the following day. The fact that all three Finnish Canes performed well in Helsinki was really just a bonus. The real prize what that the trio had a chance to introduce their teammates to their homeland and culture in a way none of them could have thought possible.

That meant trying reindeer meat, and tasting fresh smoked salmon. It meant enjoying everything the clean, modern city of Helsinki has to offer, from its architecture to its shopping.

It even meant sitting in 180° heat, then jumping into the 50° waters of the Gulf of Finland. Two days before the Hurricanes opened the season against the Wild, every player visited Sauna Island, a smoke-sauna paradise on one of the many islands in the waters outside of Helsinki. Perhaps no one custom defines Finland as much as its saunas – it is estimated that there are more than 2 million saunas in the nation with a population of about 5 million people.

The Hurricanes visited Sauna Island as guests of Ruutu, who is a member there. And although even Ruutu was slightly concerned for how his teammates would react to the unique customs of the Finnish Sauna, it was clear from the smiles afterward that the players-only excursion was a hit.

It was also clear the pride that Ruutu felt in seeing his teammates’ reactions to the culture of his home nation.

“Ever since they published that we were going to play (in Finland), I felt like the Carolina Hurricanes really wanted to come here and see our home country. I felt really honored that they wanted to do that,” Ruutu said in the locker room in Helsinki. 

“Everybody has been so open to try everything from the food to the sauna. And it felt good. This is where I’m from. This is where Joni and Jussi are from. We’re proud of where we are from. It’s so nice to feel that everyone liked it here.”

Clearly, the team’s decision to travel to Finland was worth it, even before the two wins.

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