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Sauna Island will provide taste of Finnish culture

by Dan Rosen
Asked recently to estimate how many guests he expects to have at each game in Helsinki, Carolina Hurricanes forward Tuomo Ruutu figured he would pick a safe number. "Approximately 13,500," Ruutu told, letting out a roaring belly laugh after dishing the number. "Quite a few." He might be right. Hartwall Arena can squeeze roughly just that many people inside its walls for a hockey game, and Ruutu is the hometown boy returning to his neighborhood to play in the 2010 Compuware NHL Premiere against the Minnesota Wild. Ruutu's bio lists him as being from Vantaa, which is part of the Greater Helsinki Metropolitan Area. His parents still are in Vantaa, but Ruutu now owns a place within Finland's capital city limits. He said his parents' house and his home in Helsinki each are 10-minute drives from the arena. "Tuomo is going to be our city guide," fellow Finn and teammate Jussi Jokinen told "We'll let him guide all the North American guys as to what is important in Finland and stuff like that." Ruutu, Jokinen and Joni Pitkanen make up Carolina's Finnish contingent, but Jokinen and Pitkanen are from up north, roughly a six-hour drive or a one-hour flight from Helsinki. They'll each have plenty of family and friends making the trip for the games, too, but Helsinki is Ruutu's town, so it's Ruutu's show. He already has something planned, too. "Sauna Island," he said. "Yup, that's what it's called." Sauna Island is one of about 330 islands off the coast of Helsinki, a short ferry ride from Market Square in downtown. It's known as being a smoke sauna paradise, and you have to know that these Finns love some sauna. Ruutu is planning to bring the team to Sauna Island on Oct. 5, their first full day in Helsinki. Carolina coach Paul Maurice said it's going to be a players-only trip, and he's hoping it serves as a team-bonding experience. "I think (sauna) is the biggest thing in the Finnish culture," Ruutu said. "They made a calculation over the past summer and there are about 5.5 million people living in Finland, and they calculated that there are about 3 million saunas, so it gives you that idea that we really like our saunas. "I've tried to explain this while I've been in the States, but it's such a big part of Finnish culture and it's tough to explain to people that never experienced it. These are not electric saunas, they are smoke saunas and you heat it with big logs about seven hours before you go in there. You really smell the smoke. It's not even that long ago that all the kids in Finland were born in a sauna. It's been a big part of Finnish culture forever." Maurice learned that the Florida Panthers visited Sauna Island last season when they were in Helsinki to play the Chicago Blackhawks. Ruutu said bringing the team to a sauna in Finland is akin to going out for a team dinner in North America. "If you want to hang out with your friends, you go to the sauna," he said. "It's not about just being inside the sauna, but you relax outside in the hot tub and eat some salmon. It's a way of spending time with your best friends and family." Pitkanen told the sauna is the one thing he truly misses when he's in North America for hockey season. "Almost every house in Finland has a sauna," he said. "It's normal routine. People go into it three or four times a week. Here, there aren't many places that have a sauna, so hopefully everybody can experience it over there." The sauna, though, is only one part of the Finnish culture Ruutu, Jokinen and Pitkanen can't wait to show their teammates. Unfortunately, time won't allow for too much sight-seeing and culture. The Canes arrive late on Oct. 4 after playing in St. Petersburg, and after two days of practice get right to it with back-to-back games against the Wild. Their charter flight for the return trip to Raleigh goes wheels-up not long after the second game. "I would love to take them to so many things, like the countryside and the lakes, but we don't have time for that," Ruutu said. "We have Tuesday and Wednesday and we play Thursday and Friday, and on Wednesday guys are going to want to get ready for the game. Tuesday is the day we can do something nice and build some team chemistry. That's the sauna day." Ruutu at least will find the time to make it back to his house and to see his parents and his brother. Jokinen and Pitkanen likely will spend time with their families, as well. Then, when the puck drops on the 2010-11 NHL season, they will experience something they never thought possible. "It's one small dream come true to play a real NHL game in front of family and close friends in your home country," Jokinen said. "It's probably going to be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity." Follow Dan Rosen on Twitter at: @drosennhl
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