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Jokela tragedy hits home in hockey world

by Bill Meltzer / NHL.com

Former NHL defenseman Sami Helenius,
now playing in the Finnish Elite League,
was shaken by a school shooting that took
place in his hometown of Jokela, Finland.
The morning of Wednesday, Nov. 8, 2007, started out like most days for Sami Helenius. The former NHL defenseman, who now plays for Jokerit Helsinki in the SM-Liiga (Finnish Elite League), practiced with his club and then headed home.

This was to have been a week where the tough defenseman focused mainly on staying sharp during a week-long break in the schedule. The respite afforded him the opportunity to heal some of the bumps and bruises that accumulated during the first 20 games of the season while getting ready for the next match, against KalPa Kuopio.

But hockey was the last thought on Helenius’ mind when he received an urgent text message from a friend. The message was the first to inform him about the horrific events in the village of Jokela, located about 30 miles north of Helsinki.

An 18-year-old pupil at Jokelan Koulukeskus (Jokela High School) burst into the building and started shooting. Before turning his gun on himself, he murdered eight other people, including five male students, one female student, school principal Helena Kalmi (who gave up her own life to enable students to escape) and the school nurse.

Helenius, 32, is a native of Jokela, a normally peaceful little village of 6,000 people. He’s an alumnus of the school where the unspeakable tragedy unfolded. Two of his cousins, ages 17 and 15, are students at the school.

“My immediate reaction was to call my cousins, but I couldn’t reach them (the students at the school had been evacuated to a secure location). But then I was able to reach my uncle and I found out that, thank goodness, my cousins were all right,” Helenius said.

Shortly thereafter, a concerned Jokerit head coach and former NHL player Doug Shedden called Helenius, a father of two children.

 

“He wanted to know if my 13-year-old daughter was there at the school. I live in another town now with my wife and kids, but of course the situation has affected my entire family. You hear about something like this and you feel awful – and you realize the world can be a dangerous place – but it’s hard to understand the magnitude of the impact until you are actually there,” said Helenius.

Nearly 1,000 people in and around Jokela have been directly affected by the tragedy. Helenius, accompanied by his immediate family, was deeply moved as he walked around the grounds of his old school.

“There’s a little pond right near the school, and when I was walking there with my wife and kids, that’s when it really hit me, how many people are affected when something like this happens. There were rows of candles and memorials and tributes. It’s a time when you realize what’s really important,” said Helenius.

The week the shooting occurred was a busy hockey week in Finland, despite the SM-Liiga break. National team players and coaches from four different countries, as well as European-based NHL scouts, gathered in Helsinki for the Karjala Cup tournament, and in Vaasa for the Under-20 Four Nations tournament. The events in Jokela cast a pall over the tournaments, as well as the SM-Liiga upon the resumption of play.

“A tragedy like this reminds you that a hockey game isn’t really all that important, although it often feels that way,” says Helenius, who has played professionally since the 1992-93 season, including NHL stops with the Calgary Flames, Tampa Bay Lightning, Dallas Stars and Chicago Blackhawks. He returned to Jokerit (his original SM-Liiga team) this season after stints with Ilves Tampere and the Lahti Pelicans.

Helenius is the only top-level pro player from Jokela, but many Finnish SM-Liiga and NHL players and officials have carried on with heavy hearts. Both as Finnish natives and on a purely human level, they feel the pain of the people in Jokela. Many people in the Finnish hockey world come from small towns that are similar in character to Jokela and, if they have children of their own, the horror affects them viscerally.

“This tragedy has affected the whole Finnish society. The hockey community has organized multiple silent moments during the last weeks, for example during the international Euro Hockey Tour. We sincerely hope that the families and the affected ones will be able to recover from this tragedy even though the losses that happened are forever,” said Jarmo Koskinen, the SM-Liiga’s director of communications.

Jarmo Kekäläinen, the assistant general manager of the NHL’s St. Louis Blues, expresses similar sentiments.

“I’ve lived over here in North America for a long time now, but a tragedy like this hits home for everyone. I can speak for myself and the numerous Finnish friends over her in North America, that our thoughts are with the families in Jokela,” said Kekäläinen, a native of Kuopio.

Some of the cultural differences between Finns and North Americans come in to play in terms of organizing responses to tragedies such as these. The tendency in Finland (and northern Europe in general) is for people to turn almost exclusively to public relief agencies and the government. Private charities and support from the business community are much less common.

Sami Helenius poses for a photo with Toronto's Mats Sundin before the exhibition game between the Maple Leafs and Helsinki Jokerit in 2003 in Helsinki, Finland.

“That’s not just as built-in in the Finnish society as it is in North America. Even though private charity work has gone up in recent years, it's still exceptional,” says Finnish journalist and NHL.com blogger Risto Pakarinen.

Relief workers from the Finnish Red Cross and a team of psychologists experienced in working with survivors of natural disasters and horrific violence have been working to help the families. Church and civic groups also have pledged support.

“Therapy is not something Finns often turn to, although the victims sure need it now,” says Pakarinen.

The community of Jokela has asked the Finnish government for an additional 5 million Euros to finance additional, ongoing support for the families of Jokela. School has reopened and many have expressed a desire to start moving forward, but the wounds remain too fresh, the grief too acute for actual healing to begin.

“I hope that the Finnish government will award it right away. It is nearly 1,000 people who have been closely affected,” said Koskinen.

Although it is not typical of Finnish culture for celebrities or athletes to organize large-scale private fund-raising efforts of the sort often seen in the U.S. and Canada, there has been some groundwork laid in recent years. For instance, the Ice Breakers team (organized in Sweden by Peter Forsberg and Markus Naslund) played a benefit game in Helsinki earlier this year against a team of players currently or previously affiliated with HIFK Helsinki. The proceeds went to support local hospitals and sick children’s causes.

Helenius says it would be both welcome and appropriate for the hockey communities within and outside Finland to help in the healing in Jokela – an assist that would be far more important than any credited in a hockey game.

But hockey remains a significant part of Finland’s cultural identity, especially abroad. The Finnish hockey communities in the NHL and Europe recognize that they represent their homelands as well as themselves in the cities in which they live and play during the season. The vast majority do so with quiet dignity and honor.

“Obviously as a Finn, and more importantly as a father, my heart goes out to the victims and their families,” Philadelphia Flyers defenseman Kimmo Timonen said. “I can only imagine the shock and horror they had to endure through this ordeal. I think we should all have a thought for them and help them any way we can.”

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