Home away from home

A couple of weeks ago, I traveled to Finland for the first time in 350 days and went up to the newly renovated Helsinki Olympic Stadium and its tower to see the sights.

The view is fantastic – the best in town – regardless of whether you look out south, toward downtown or east toward the swimming pool that was the venue for the 1952 Olympic water sports.

My favourite is the one to the north, toward my home away from home, the Helsinki rink. Built in 1966, the second indoor rink in the country, it’s never really even needed a name. Except “The Rink”.

My earliest hockey memories are from that rink, sitting up in the stands, mesmerized by goalies and wondering why I never saw such weird creatures out on the street, not completely understanding why they wore masks and other equipment. A few years later, when I was a hockey player myself, Dad and I would visit the rink twice a week, on Thursdays and Sundays. Back then, the Rink was home for both Helsinki IFK and Jokerit, and with the Finnish SM-liiga having only two game-days a week, one of the teams had a home game.

Dad had a friend who worked at the door, and not once or twice, Dad slipped a piece of paper to his friend who pretended to tear it and we were in, welcomed by the sound of teenagers shouting “popcoooorn!” in the lobby, as they walked around with bags of popcorn in a box they carried with a neck strap. Others paced around the entrance selling game programs. The smell of wet concrete was everywhere.

Since we didn’t have tickets, our next step was to casually hang around at a section entrance while our eyes scanned the stands for empty seats. When the puck dropped, all empty seats were fair game. Sometimes we watched the first period from the upper bowl, scouting for better seats for the rest of the game. If it was a sellout, we sometimes had to go to the standing room only area across the rink.

I was up in the last row in 1978, holding onto the cables that were part of the ceiling construction, when Finland, coached by a baby-faced Alpo Suhonen, beat the Soviets in the under-18 European championship. My friend’s Dad had scored free tickets from a bank and his Mom had made us sandwiches to take in. Good thing we had them because Finland won the game on a Jari Kurri OT goal in the fifth period. The fourth period wasn’t a sudden death period and Finland tied the game with eleven seconds to go. Some poor souls had given up on the team and departed.

During the Finnish league game intermissions, the lights went down and advertising slides were projected onto the ice, a fascinating show in the 1970s. During the second intermission, there was always the contest. In HIFK’s games, the contestants tried to score goals from the blueline through a shooter tutor’s five-hole. Contestants in a Jokerit game tried to get a curling stone to stop at the redline.

Sometimes I missed the second intermission contest because the end of the second intermission was the best time to get a free sausage from the nice ladies at the concession stands. Buy one, get three, four, five, whatever’s left.

And in the third period, a cloud of cigarette smoke floated in the air.

It was at the Rink I witnessed a player so much more superior than anyone else on the ice that it was ridiculous. No, it wasn’t Wayne Gretzky, although I did see his 99 Stars there, too, years later. It was a 15-year-old Esa Tikkanen who went coast-to-coast whenever he wanted.

Whenever my team had a game in the Rink, it was naturally a big deal. I don’t have any memorable stories of goals I scored there, but I can tell you the ice was soft and the arena was warm. (Hence no memorable goals). Sometimes, I reffed my Dad’s oldtimers team scrimmages there, and sometimes I played with them.

It was at the Rink’s cafeteria all the Finnish hockey hotshots gathered after a game, that’s where the players were, and that’s where I played pinball with Phil Verchota, a member of the USA’s “Miracle on Ice” team. It was in the same cafeteria, I stood in a scrum decades later when Patrick O’Sullivan scored the World Juniors game-winner for the US in 2004.

It was at the Rink I first met Bryant McBride – now famous for producing “Willie” – who liked me enough to have me as his runner during the 1994 NHL International Challenge, with Teemu Selänne’s and Teppo Numminen’s Winnipeg Jets taking on Finnish teams. One of my tasks was to signal to the players when it was time to walk from the tunnel onto the ice. It was there I noticed Numminen was misspelled on Teppo’s sweater – “Numminnen” – in the first game. Too late.

And it was also at the Rink that I first met our Ken Yaffe who was in charge of the fan experience outside.

IFK wants a new, modern arena, but I love the old building. I think it looks cool. I don’t mind that it’s old because it’s always been old.

I can breathe there. The odor of wet concrete and piss be damned.

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