Every time people tell me that “it’s a small world..” when I know somebody they also know, my shtick is to finish their sentence with “… and Finland’s even smaller.” (When the person in question is Finnish, of course, I realize it doesn’t really work otherwise).
I see evidence of the smallness of Finland if not every day, then every week, or at least every month, on Facebook, when a friend of mine friends another friend of mine, and I didn’t know they were friends, too.
And then I go and “like” their friendship, a cyberversion of me putting my arms around them both and saying, “now, isn’t this fantastic?”
The reason I started to play hockey was that Pepe, a good friend of mine, came to school one morning in third grade and told me that the local team, OKK, was looking for players. And that he was going.
“Me, too,” I said, and a week later, I was, in full hockey gear, waiting for a car to take me to the rink for my first practices.
What I didn’t know then was that the club’s founder was my Dad’s childhood friend, and that it had been my Mom, just a few years earlier, who had drafted the founding documents of the club.
I knew “Jorkki”, my Dad’s friend, simply as the barber from the downstairs barber shop. The guy with the Superman after shave, not as a big sports guy. There were no competitive eating contests in Finland back then.
But, the neighbourhood kids didn’t have a hockey club so he set one up.
A couple of years later, Pepe and I had moved on to another club, with my Dad as our coach, and another childhood friend of Dad’s as a sponsor – he owned a grocery store – and something of an equipment manager. “Jaska” was a sports fan, not very athletic, he would have given “Jorkki” a run for his money in a hot dog eating contest, but he liked sports.
One Saturday morning, when we were maybe 11, Jaska decided to lace ‘em up, and join us on the ice for a little skate. Now, Pepe was a goalie, and one with a fire in his belly, too. He hated to get scored on by anybody, but he surely wasn’t going get scored on by a … beginner, no matter how big he was.
And Jaska, in turn, was happy to be skating. He ankles were a little wobbly, but he didn’t fall down, and was probably doing better than he’d expected so he gained confidence with every stride.
Next step: shooting some pucks.
His first shot was a little soft, which Pepe had no problems with, so he caught it with his glove, then threw the puck in the air and hit it with his stick to send it back to Jaska.
Jaska took another, with a little more power behind it. Pepe made a save. And so it went. Just as Jaska’s shots got better, Pepe got more and more determined to not let him score. A shot – a save. A shot – a save.
And then Jaska, a 30-something big man, with wobbly ankles but a wicked right-hand slap shot, ripped one from the top of the circles, some ten meters from the net. Maybe Pepe wasn’t paying attention, or maybe Jaska just nailed it, but his bullet hit Pepe in his old two-piece Cooper helmet, the kind that skate boaders use these days, cutting his ear open.
Pepe was bleeding, Jaska was apologetic – although, Pepe had made a save – and the practice was over.
A few years later, my family moved to Joensuu, and Pepe spent a couple of summers at our place, but we drifted apart a little. Pepe went on to become a good goalie, and then a coach in the Finnish minor leagues.
Even though we’ve always been able to pick up the conversation from wherever we last had left it when we’ve bumped into each other at hockey games over the years, I really connected with him again at a class reunion we had last summer.
So I went to see his team practice a few times last season. His team was a third-tier team, he had no assistant coach, and the team was put together in October from the left-over pieces of teams higher up in the hierarchy.
Last weekend, we had a class reunion again.
“How did you do last season in the end?” I asked him.
“Uh, we got relegated,” he said.
“Oh, that’s a bummer. So, what’s next for you?”
“I’m coaching juniors up in Järvenpää,” he said.
“Nice. Congratulations. That must be more fun anyway. You got yourself an assistant coach this time?” I said, grinning.
“Yeah, I do,” he said, and laughed. “Jussi Kärki is his name.”
“Wow, I said. You know he’s Jaska’s son?” I said.
That was news to Pepe, even if he did say that the possibiity had occurred to him. I pulled up my phone and showed Jussi’s Facebook profile to him.
“That’s the guy,” said Pepe.
Now I’m just waiting to see if they connect on Facebook. And I’m ready to hit “like”.