Aston Villa and Wayne Gretzky

“Remember what the sign on Walt Disney’s desk said: ‘Always be yourself’”
– Dad, all my life

When people hear that I write a lot about hockey, their first question is usually, “oh, what’s your favorite team?” And when they realize I’m a Finn, living in Sweden, writing about hockey, the question gets modified to, “who do you root for when Sweden plays Finland in the World Championships?”

You would think that by now, I would have a boiler plate answer to that. Something humble, a little funny and witty, yet, open enough to keep the conversation alive, regardless of the nationality of the person asking.

Especially since the truth is not funny nor witty, and pretty much kills the conversation every time.

I don’t have a favorite team.

Not anymore.

In fact, I’ve been a poor fan of teams all my life because I’ve always followed my idols wherever they’ve gone. As a four-year-old, I was one hundred percent behind Helsinki Jokerit, rolling my r’s in the French style, cheering my team: “Jokkkeeeerrrrrrrrrrrrkhiiiiit!” Decades later, every time I told Grandpa that I’d go play or watch hockey, he’d say, “Oh, Jokerrrrrriiiiit?”

And then we’d laugh. After it became our thing, we laughed because we connected, but at first, I laughed because it was such a ridiculous thing to say to me. “Jokerit?” Everybody knew I had been an IFK guy as long as I could remember. Turned out, Grandpa could remember even longer.

IFK, Helsinki is the other, the first, big Helsinki hockey club, and back then, the bigger and better one. That wasn’t as important to me, though, as was the fact that my favorite player, Hannu Kapanen, had switched from Jokerit to IFK. And I simply followed him. He was my favorite because I had met him.

I was in the arena in 1980 when IFK won the Finnish title, but I probably would have been there for the final had it been Jokerit. Mom, Dad, and I went to practically every game played in the arena for a few years. Mom had rinkside to every game while Dad and I would sit wherever we found an empty seat.

Three years later, I was so far away from the arena that I have no recollection of even the final series, even though it was an all-Helsinki final: IFK v Jokerit. By then, I was in Joensuu, following the local team and, as luck would have it, Hannu Kapanen, who had moved there a year before us. So, for me, the fandom hadn’t changed much. I was 14, and already on my third team.

I did keep an eye on my favorite player on IFK, though, and when Matti Forss, on January 31, 1982, collected seven assists in a game, breaking the league record, I cut the photos out of the paper.

The Magic Man

However, by then, I already had my new idol, and he didn’t play for my local team, or for IFK. His name was Wayne Gretzky.

I read everything about him that I could get my hands on. With no NHL cable packages available, I watched the only game tape I had, the Canada Cup final in 1981, over and over again. I had posters and pictures on my walls, and from one of them, I learned how to imitate his autograph. He was an Oiler, so I learned to draw the Edmonton Oilers logo. He wore his hair long, and so did I. He used a Titan stick, so I’d try to get a white Titan. He wore number 99. I got 99, too. At one point, he had what looked like a perm, and I seriously considered having one.

He got traded to the Los Angeles Kings, and I wanted the Kings to win. But, more than that, I wanted him to keep breaking records.

Thanks to Gretzky, I was even a St. Louis Blues fan for a few months. Just before I started to like the New York Rangers. Until his retirement. Then … nothing.

I’ve never been a bigger fan of anybody. And never will be.

The 1981 Canada Cup final.

It’s hard to be a fan these days.

Being a fan, a raging fan, is fascinating, though, and I’ve tried to get into it a couple of times over the years, always through soccer. But I just don’t care enough. I don’t know any of the players, or any of the clubs. Then I’ve tried to play dumb, and pick the team with the coolest shirts or logos, but … well, I need more than that.

Although, becoming a fan doesn’t really take much. One of my favorite hockey clubs in Finland is Ilves simply because Dad bought me an Ilves scarf once. He also got me a Tottenham banner from London once. And yes, I still follow the Spurs a little extra.

That said, if you wake me up in the middle of a night, and ask me to name my favorite Premier League soccer team, I would probably say Aston Villa. I don’t know anything about them. I don’t know which division they play in, I have no idea about their players, and quite honestly, I don’t even know where they’re from.

But I do know that the Finnish TV was showing an Aston Villa match during my Christmas holiday in the mid-1970s, when we were all at my aunt’s old house, and my grandma was cooking. I watched the game, and liked the team’s name because it was so easy for a small Finnish boy to pronounce. Maybe it all came down to that? Maybe Aston Villa played against Ipswich, and I just couldn’t deal with that name.

Or maybe it was the fact that grandma was there, and that I got to play a little football with her after the game, and that it was Christmas, Santa was on his way, and everybody was happy.

Maybe Aston Villa even won the game.

Not that it matters to a true fan.


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