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Inaugural Finnish Winter Classic lives up to its name

by Bill Meltzer /
The success of the NHL's annual outdoor games has spawned similarly well-received events in European hockey. If the attendance at these games is any indication, annual outdoor games could become a tradition in hockey across the pond in the same way North Americans have embraced the NHL's events. 

Last season, for example, an Elitserien game in Gothenburg, Sweden between home team Frolunda HC and Farjestads BK Karlstad drew a sold-out crowd of 31,143 to soccer venue Ullevi Stadium. At the time, the game set a new one-game European hockey attendance record.

Not to be outdone by its Nordic rivals, Finland's SM-Liiga hosted its first "Talviklassikko" (Winter Classic) at Helsinki's Olympic Stadium last week. The game packed a crowd of 36,644 wildly enthusiastic and fiercely partisan fans to see a clash between local rivals HIFK and Jokerit.

"This was a tremendous event, although I wish the outcome of the game was different. I hope we can do this again. I think that only these two teams can create an atmosphere like this at the Olympic Stadium." -- Jokerit general manager Jarmo Kekalainen

As much as the game itself, won 4-3 by HIFK, it was the atmosphere within the stadium that hosted the 1952 Summer Games that made the inaugural Talviklassikko a smash hit. It had everything to do with the history and tradition of the rivalry between the Helsinki teams, as perhaps no two other clubs and fan bases in Finland arouse such open enmity. Put bluntly, HIFK and Jokerit supporters dislike one another, and fans throughout the rest of Finland typically can't stand either club.

Although the intensity of the HIFK-Jokerit rivalry has dimmed a bit in the last 10 years, as more frequent player movement (it's no longer unusual for players to have stints with both teams) and the on-ice power structure within the league has changed, an event such as the Talviklassikko rekindles the fervor. The HIFK partisans on one side of the stadium came decked out in red, while the Jokerit supporters sported blue. Throughout what turned out to be a tense, hard-fought tilt, the fans exhorted their respective teams and tried to out-do one another with characteristic soccer-style singing and chanting and derisive whistles at the other side.

"This was a tremendous event, although I wish the outcome of the game was different," said Jokerit general manager Jarmo Kekalainen. "I hope we can do this again. I think that only these two teams can create an atmosphere like this at the Olympic Stadium."

Kekalainen has seen the rivalry from both sides. Immediately after retiring as an active player in 1995, he became the general manger of HIFK. He assembled a club that would win HIFK's sixth (and most recent) Finnish championship in 1997-98. The roster of the SM-Liiga championship squad boasted the likes of Tim Thomas, Brian Rafalski, Olli Jokinen, Kimmo Timonen, Jarno Kultanen, Czech forward Jan Caloun, Miika Elomo, Swedish forward Johan Davidsson, Christian Ruuttu, Jarkko Ruutu, Marko Tuomainen, Jere Karalahti and former NHL defenseman Bob Halkidis.

After leaving Finland in 1999 to work with the Ottawa Senators for three years and then serve as the director of amateur scouting and assistant general manager of the St. Louis Blues, Kekalainen returned to SM-Liiga this season to become Jokerit's GM.

Likewise, HIFK captain and leading scorer Ville Peltonen knows first-hand how fired up the two sides (and their fans) get for the games. The former NHL forward and Finnish national team living legend got his start with HIFK, spent two seasons with Jokerit (2001-03) after his first stint in North America and returned this season to where it all began.

"I think there's no question that this is the best rivalry in Finland," he said the week before the Talviklassikko. "We're all excited to play the outdoor game, but it's also an important game for us in the standings and the same goes for them."

With 49 of 58 regular-season games played this season, HIFK stands in third place in the 14-team SM-Liiga. The club likely won't catch first-place JYP Jyvaskyla, but is just three points behind second-place Assat Pori with a game in hand. Jokerit is in fifth place, and is in a more precarious spot than HIFK. In Finnish hockey, the top six teams get a first-round playoff bye, while the seventh- through 10th-place teams have to play a preliminary-round to move on to the quarters. With 79 points in 49 games, Jokerit is just two points ahead of seventh-place Luukko Rauma.

As it turned out, the first Talviklassikko combined uniquely Finnish elements of tradition, pageantry and of the nation's hockey past, present and future. Two of Finland's top NHL prospects -- HIFK's Mikael Granlund (Minnesota Wild) and Jokerit's Teemu Pulkkinen (Detroit Red Wings) -- each scored a pair of goals. Peltonen, who ranks second to Lukko's Perttu Lindgren in the SM-Liiga scoring race with 51 points and third in goals with 22 (Jokerit's Janne Lahti leads the league with 29), also scored for HIFK.

Granlund opened the scoring a mere 23 seconds into the game. One shift later, Kimmo Kuhta fired a shot past Jokerit goalie Jan Lasak to make it 2-0.

With their team staked to a 2-0 lead before the game was even a minute old, the red side of the stadium went bonkers. But any hopes that the game would turn into an epic rout for HIFK were dashed. Play settled in, and when Pulkkinen scored to cut the deficit to one with just nine seconds left in the opening stanza, it was clear Jokerit was not going to go down without a fight.

The clubs traded goals in the second period, with the 37-year-old Peltonen restoring the two-goal lead early in the period and 36-year-old Jokerit veteran Jukka Hentunen answering back in the middle stages of the period. In the third period, it was the youngsters' turn to shine again. At the 1:23 mark of the third, Pulkkinen brought the Jokerit contingent to its feet by scoring to tie the game. The celebration was short-lived, however, as Granlund scored less than two minutes later to put HIFK up for good.

The box-office success and intense nature of the Talviklassikko already has sparked talk of whether there will be an encore in 2012 and beyond. While officials will not yet commit to making the Olympic Stadium game an annual event, everyone involved said they would like to see it happen if feasible. Prior to last week's game, ice hockey had not been played at Olympic Stadium in 70 years.

The wait until the next game at the venue figures to be much, much shorter.
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