Earlier this month, Riku Koivunen traveled to the United States for the first time in his life.
An equipment manager for the Finnish National Team at the World Championships and Winter Olympics across the last 15 years, Koivunen has found himself at some of hockey’s biggest stages in Europe.
But none of those venues were quite like the one he stood behind the bench in last week.
“Preparation for a game at the NHL [level] is done top notch - like world-class,” Koivunen said. “Everything is so much bigger here. There are a lot more players and things to do than when I’m prepping for a game in Finland. It’s been very helpful to see how things work at this [scale].”
Thursday night, Koivunen looked up from his team’s bench, scanned the arena and realized he was about to be part of a contest at hockey’s highest level. A sea of gold to his left and right, the equipment manager stood somewhere he couldn’t have imagined a year ago - in Bridgestone Arena for a Nashville Predators game.
Predators Head Equipment Manager Pete Rogers first met Koivunen at the World Championship in Finland in 2013. Working closely together at the tournament, Rogers quickly noticed the care and effort Koivunen put into sharpening skates, arranging each locker and attending to every player’s request.
“Because there aren’t a lot of the European trainers and equipment managers, Riku’s [work] stood out to me,” Rogers said. “It’s a different culture over there with the way the players are treated. I’m not saying that in a bad way, it’s just usually not like how we run it in the NHL. At that point, we initially talked about his interest to come and help the Predators.”
Koivunen’s work with Team Finland also brought him in contact with two Nashville players, goaltender Pekka Rinne and forward Olli Jokinen, who also struck up a friendship with him.
“I first met Riku working with the Finnish National Team,” Rinne said. “I think it’s really eye-opening - not only for us players - when we come from overseas; it’s amazing to see how many hours go into preparing our equipment and getting everything ready. It’s so amazing how much work they do over here. I think that’s a really good thing for Team Finland and Riku for him to get this chance.”
The opportunity extended to Koivunen was simple, yet powerful: Work with the Predators through their training camp and preseason and learn firsthand the inner-workings of equipment management in the NHL. Working alongside fellow Finns and NHLers in the Preds’ locker room has been the very learning experience - and above all, honor - that Koivunen thought it would be.
“I think he’s learning how hard the equipment managers have to work over here, especially at camp and preseason,” Jokinen said. “It’s a different situation when you’re at the Olympics, World Championships; you set up a room as the equipment guy and that’s the only thing you really have to do there. It’s a lot more [intense] here though, and he’s learning that. It’s such an honor for him to be here.”
It may seem strange to hear that being an equipment manager in the NHL (and only for a short stint) would be regarded as an honor. What that really speaks to is the special privilege Nashville has to have hockey at its highest level, and Koivunen says even being a part of it for just a short amount of time has been unforgettable.
“It’s a really neat thing that Riku gets to come over and learn from the best,” Rinne said. “He gets to see all these things firsthand and get his hands dirty. He gets to see how these guys take care of business - Pete and [Predators Assistant Equipment Manager Jeff Camelio] and everybody - so it’s really great to see and he’s really enjoying it. [...] Plus it’s been awesome having another Finn around to talk Finnish to.”
“For Pete to invite me here - it’s such an honor,” Koivunen said. “I can’t believe he picked me. I don’t know of any other Finnish managers that have come to the U.S. and done something like this before. It’s a huge, huge thing for me and for all of Finland.”
The benefits for Koivunen aside, the Preds have also quickly realized how much they’ve been helped by having the Finn around.
“We wanted him to see a live NHL game in action just so he can kind of be a part of things, and he’s been great,” Rogers said. “I think it’s an honor for the Predators, [General Manager] David Poile and [Director of Hockey Operations] Brian Poile to allow him come over. It was so good for him to be on the bench to see that action. It’s been mutually beneficial. He’s great at what he does and we were able to give him that boost.”
His three-week stint in the NHL nearly complete, Koivunen will leave the Predators and the United States tomorrow. He’s unsure of when he’ll return, but there’s little doubt he’ll always remember his first visit.