Excitement is building in Helsinki, Finland.
There are big plans being set up, Panthers and Blackhawks jerseys being sold, and history waiting to be made.
“We are waiting for you,” said Matti Virmanen from Helsinki early Tuesday morning. “Hockey is big here, and the NHL is very big. There are two or three games on television here every week. We know your (Stephen) Weiss and (Nathan) Horton. We know (Jonathan) Toews and (Patrick) Kane. And this is our first real NHL game. So this is very big.”
Virmanen, GM and Director of Sports Activities for Finland’s Jokerit hockey team, has seen the excitement build firsthand since Jokerit plays in Hartwall Areena, site of the NHL Premiere Games Oct. 2-3 between the Panthers and Blackhawks.
“The first day we were able to sell tickets to the games, we sold 24,000,” Virmanen said. “Our arena sits 13,000. So the demand has been very big. It’s been huge.”
Demand has also been big for the Panthers two Premiere Challenge preseason games in Finland: Sept. 28 against Tappara in Tampere and Sept. 30 against Jokerit in Helsinki. Tampere is called the hometown of Finnish hockey, having the first ice hockey arena ever built in Finland and the Finnish ice hockey museum.
More than 150 world media members have requested credentials for the Premiere Games, and Helsinki is already buzzing and bracing for a large ‘pep rally’ to be held Oct. 1 in downtown Helsinki featuring both the Panthers and Blackhawks.
“This is a big, big deal over there,” said Ken Yaffe, Senior VP, NHL International. “Since the (Premiere Games) sellouts we’ve added the exhibition games and they’ve sold out. There’ll also be a buildup to the games because the Finnish teams are a month ahead of us and they’ve already been skating.
“The interest in these games has been tremendous.”
Finland’s interest in the NHL and the Premiere Games and Challenge shouldn’t be a surprise. The country, which has a population of 5.5 million, and particularly Jokerit, has produced a number of NHL alumni including Jari Kurri, Teemu Selanne, Saku and Mikko Koivu, Tomas Sandstrom, Tuomo Ruutu, former Panthers Esa Tikkanen, Ville Peltonen and Olli Jokinen, and the list goes on.
|Hartwall Areena from inside during a hockey game (Wikipedia.org) |
A number of NHL stars have also played in Finland, including Panthers goalie Tomas Vokoun, Bruins goalie Tim Thomas and Blackhawks defenseman Brian Campbell
, who spent the 2004-05 season with Jokerit.
And, yes, the NHL does have a history in Finland. The country has hosted a number of preseason games, as far back as 1994 (Winnipeg) and as recent as last year (Pittsburgh).
Virmanen, a former player with Jokerit, says, unlike other European countries, hockey is favored in Finland over football (soccer). “Maybe because our football is poor,” he joked.
But the crowds at Hartwall and Tampere will be more like soccer crowds.
“Finland is the only country (in Europe) where hockey is bigger than football, so the crowds are very loud,” he said. “Everyone loves the game.”
The Finns have been working on bringing in NHL regular-season game to Finland for a number of years, Virmanen added, and the process was accelerated after the Penguins preseason game there last year against Jokerit.
“We started working on it after the Pittsburgh exhibition,” Virmanen said. “I went to see the Panthers play two games in (Sunrise). It was exciting and I think the fans will enjoy Helsinki.”
Virmanen says Panthers and Blackhawks fans will find a welcoming city and one, although just five hours from St. Petersburg, Russia, that is quite western.
“Some people say we’re like Russia because we’re close, but we copy a lot from the USA and Canada,” he said. “Our downtown is quite old and beautiful. We have lots of restaurants. And when players or fans go out they’ll find most people speak English and they will be treated well.”
And, in Virmanen’s words, they are waiting for you.