End of an Era

Back in March 1965, Urho Kekkonen, the President of Finland, officially declared the hockey world championships opened from a brand new presidential box in the brand new Hakametsä arena in Tampere.

Finland had been up as host of the 1963 Worlds but with no indoor rink in the country, and no government commitment for one either, the Finns agreed to back Sweden’s bid. There were more-than-vague plans to build an arena in Helsinki, and a delegation from Tampere had visited the 1962 Worlds in Colorado Springs on an expedition.

In the end, Tampere beat Helsinki by a year, and hence, Kekkonen made the 200-kilometre trip from Helsinki to open the tournament and watch the opening game, which alone tells a 21st century reader how the world has changed.

It was Czechoslovakia v East Germany.

Finland’s offensive leader was Matti Keinonen, a truly imaginative hockey artist, and one of the country’s first hockey superstars.

“Keinonen is an amazing skater but he goes in circles too much. He’s too good,” said Father Bauer’s Team Canada coach Gordon Simpson.

The hosts lost their first two games against the Soviets (8-4) and Canada (4-0) before gearing up for their big game against Sweden. Canadian-Finnish coach Joe Wirkkunen gave his players a day off before the big game.

“Joe’s got something up his sleeve. I wonder what he’s planning,” Keinonen told Finnish media. Wirkkunen’s plan was probably just to let Keinonen run loose.

Scalpers were busy. The arena was packed, the recently finished concrete stands were shaking as the Finns cheered on their Lions. Finland had never beat Tre Kronor at the Worlds and had over the years only managed to tie them once, in 1959.

Late in the second period, Keinonen – who had led Rauma Lukko to their club’s first Finnish championship in 1963 – grabbed the puck after a rare Roland Stoltz giveaway, sidestepped to the front of the net and fired the puck trying to beat the goalie on the short side, only to have his shot hit a Swedish defenceman’s shinpad and beat Kjell Svensson in Sweden’s net.

The Swedes tied the game in the second period and won the shots 17-5.

Before all the fans had returned to the stands after the second intermission, Keinonen carried the puck behind the Swedish net and made his customary twists and turns and scored on a wraparound.

“I saw an opening there and I scored. We had been criticized for our lack of production so I had to come up with a new style, which was the old-fashioned style,” Keinonen joked. (The wraparound is called an “old-fashioned” in Finnish).

Even though the Swedes tied the game in the third, the Finnish team and the crowd went crazy after the game. The players threw their sticks in the air and hoisted their goalie Juhani Lahtinen on their shoulders.

Finland had won the game, 2-2.

“Keinonen is fantastic. It doesn’t matter that he’s not from Tampere, he is Finnish, after all,” said one fan in the Tampere newspaper Aamulehti.

His skating was the talk of the town, his work ethic was praised in the newspapers.

“The secret’s no secret. It’s practice. In the rink, in the tournament village, anywhere, parking lots, he’s always training,” wrote a columnist in Uusi Suomi.

Well, there was one secret. Keinonen’s car that often needed a push to get it started.

“The team calls it ‘The Flintstones’ Car,” wrote Uusi Suomi.

Finland finished seventh in the tournament, a disappointment to the hosts, but the new indoor arena ushered in a new era.

”Naturally, Tampere is such a big town that life has gone on as usual elsewhere and not everyone has paid a visit to the new arena. However, the factory town’s citizens have, for the first time, got to experience a night-time restaurant life and continental merriment,” Uusi Suomi wrote.

The arena was also the Worlds venue in 1982, 1991 and 2003, and the home of Ilves, Tappara, and KooVee in the Finnish top league. Wayne Gretzky took his 99 All-Stars to Tampere and Theo Fleury charmed the fans there when he played for Tappara in 1994.

On Friday, Ilves played their last game in the arena, and the next day, it was Tappara’s turn to say goodbye to the old faithful. Both teams will now move to the Nokia Arena in downtown Tampere.

Also on Saturday, Matti Keinonen passed away at the age of 80.

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