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Finnish Youth Hockey Club Competes in Nashville, Cheers for Preds

Helsinki HJK Hockey Clubs Brings Youth Players to Tennessee for Presidents' Day Tournament

by Brooks Bratten @brooksbratten / Communications & Content Coordinator

While Pekka Rinne's friends and family watched back home in Finland as the Predators goaltender record his milestone 300th NHL victory on Thursday night - or Friday morning for them - a few from Rinne's homeland just happened to be in the Bridgestone Arena crowd as well.

A group of youth hockey players - 27 participants, plus their families - saw their fellow Finn reach the milestone thanks to a hockey tournament that brought them stateside, to Nashville, of all places.

Two teams from Helsinki HJK, based in Helsinki, Finland, participated in the 'Predsidents' Day Classic at Ford Ice Center over the Presidents' Day weekend, the third time the group has made the trek to Middle Tennessee for the holiday.

This time around, Markku Kallionkieli, who organizes the excursions, brought two teams of players all born in 2005, to compete in the tournament. Both groups made it to the final game with one team capturing the 12U Elite Division championship.

So, how do 27 young hockey players choose Nashville for a visit halfway around the world? Music, of course.

"It actually all started in 2011," Kallionkieli "Our hockey club was coming to having its 40th anniversary in 2012, and we decided that we would do something different. I have a Finnish friend who has actually lived in Nashville for 25 years. He's a musician called Harry Fontana and I suggested for our hockey board that we would make a song, a special song for the 40th anniversary song for our hockey club.

"We came here over in February of 2012. We always have a holiday from school, so we came over with my [two sons], and during that time we realized that you guys have the Presidents' Day weekend, and we recognized they had a hockey tournament here for kids, and so it all started from there."

In February of 2015, the club made their inaugural journey, and they were hooked.

"The best is the people here," Kallionkieli said. "We have been welcomed so warmly everywhere. They are just amazing the people here."

Once the word started to spread back home about the hidden gem in the southeastern United States, more wanted to experience it for themselves. Fundraising efforts were laid forth to bring double the skaters for the tournament, thus the expanded numbers this time around.

They make a vacation of it as well - three Predators hockey games were on the menu this time, including seeing their native netminder in Rinne post win No. 300.

Juha-Pekka Mutanen's son, Aleksis, is also a goaltender - just like Rinne and Preds backup netminder Juuse Saros - and he can't help but look up to his fellow countrymen and the success they've had in the top league in the world.

And for the elder Mutanen, the chance to experience hockey in a different culture than theirs is priceless.

"It's a fantastic place; it's real America for us," Mutanen said of Nashville. "It's a really interesting combination of a traditional music city with a newer hockey development, so the atmosphere here is really genuine and really friendly. The atmosphere in the city is just fantastic."

In addition to viewing three NHL games and playing in the tournament against their American competitors, the Helsinki HJK club also had a friendly scrimmage with a Jr. Predators team, which included a jersey exchange and photos following the contest, a chance to make a new friend and bond over a shared love of the greatest game on earth.

"It develops relationships between the kids, which is the most important thing," Mutanen said. "They know somebody from over here that plays the same position and loves the game, and they can be in touch and meet later on maybe. It's really an outstanding opportunity for the kids, and it's been a terrific success."

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