And that was the second Finnish Winter Classic. A real Helsinki derby, with the reds, IFK, taking on the whites, Jokerit, in front of 35 000 people in the Helsinki Olympic Stadium. The home team, IFK, won the game in a shootout, 3-2. And you know there’s magic in the air when the nicest play of the game is Jarkko Ruutu’s forehand-backhand deke in the shootout.
Last year, the home team – then Jokerit – lost the game so IFK is now 2-0 in their outdoor games in the SM-liiga.
While the February 2011 derby was the first outdoor game in the Finnish league history, it wasn’t that long ago the Finnish top teams still battled for points while battling against snow and freezing cold. The league was founded in 1975, as an entity divorced from the federation.
Back then, the first indoor arena in the country was just ten years old. In the early 1970s, several of the rinks were converted into arenas, and surprisingly many are still – after renovations – home arenas to Finnish league teams.
Unlike in the NHL, where hockey has always been an indoor sport, the Finnish top division was still an outdoor league some 40 years ago and in mid-1970s even the teams playing indoors still switched sides in the third period, because that was the outdoor rule.
Less than 50 years ago, Finland couldn’t host the World Championships because there were no arenas in the country, and just thirty years ago, the team in my hometown still played their Division I games outdoors, come rain or shine.
The first Finnish NHL and WHA pros came almost straight from outdoor rinks. When Veli-Pekka Ketola (and Heikki Riihiranta) signed with the Winnipeg Jets (original original) in 1974, the arena in Ketola’s hometown, Pori, Finland, was three years old. Riihiranta’s Helsinki, the capital, had got an arena in 1966.
When Lauri Mononen signed with the Phoenix Roadrunners in 1976, there was still no arena in his hometown, Joensuu, Finland. While he didn’t play in Joensuu anymore, as a teenager, Mononen had famously honed his skills skating on his own on the river that flows through the city.
When I, barely a teenager, moved to Joensuu in 1981, there was still no arena. The local team played in Division I, and their biggest star was a hometown boy, Hannu Kapanen, who had left the city, played with team Finland, won a Finnish championship, and then returned home in 1980.
“I went from a Finnish championship team that was playing in the best arena in the country to a Division I team with no arena at all,” Kapanen says.
Every Thursday and Sunday, the outside rink was the heart of the city. That it was artificial ice had been a step forward, and a new arena was in the plans so the future looked bright. But that was the future. That season, the stands were standing room only because nobody wants to, or should, it through three periods of hockey in a −15°C temperature. The crowd got close to the action, at times a little too close, and I remember seeing people throwing snowballs at the players once.
When it snowed, there was snow on the ice, but unlike ten years prior, the players no longer had to shovel the snow during the intermission. There was now a tractor for that.
And sometimes, early, early in the morning, my friends and I would ride our bikes to the rink, turn on the lights, and play a couple of hours before the first team turned up for practice.
There was no plexiglass, but instead, there was a chickenwire fencing, and few things looked as cool as a puck hitting that frozen chickenwire, and a cloud of ice and snow, like an explosion, marked the place where the puck had hit the net.
That’s what I’ll be thinking about on Thursday when I’ll attend another outdoor game at the Helsinki Olympic Stadium, that one between Finland and Russia, the first time in 71 years that Finland’s national hockey team plays at the stadium.
On February 17, 1941, during the interim peace time, after the signing of the Moscow Peace Treaty that ended Finland’s war with Soviet Union, and four months before the start of a second war, the continuation war, between Finland and the Soviets, Finland played a hockey game against Sweden.
Sweden won the game, 11-0, in front of 1182 spectators. But at least there was hockey again.