“Is the number 17 in there? See if number 17 is there,” I heard from around the room.
I lifted one of the sweaters in the white box, just to see what was available. There are many codes in hockey, most of which I wouldn’t be able to repeat, but one of them is not to make a big deal out of your own number. On any team, everybody always knows each other’s numbers so it’s not a problem, but when you’re playing shinny … it’s a different story.
I lifted one sweater – a number 3 – and put it back down. I picked up another one. It was 21. I put it back in the box.
“I’m not sure what numbers we have there, but grab the 17 if there is one,” I heard another voice behind me say.
Of course I wanted to be number 17, because on that team, that was my number. It hadn’t been my first number in the club, but it was the one I had had for most of the time with these guys when I last played with them. Of course, that was 30 years ago. I wasn’t sure if I still was 17.
I picked up another sweater and without even checking the number, I turned around and hung it up on the hook in my stall. Then I took off my watch and dropped it in my jeans pocket, and as I hung my jeans up as well, I glanced at the number on the sleeve of the white sweater.
It was 12.
It was just another Monday night in Helsinki. Just another rink in the suburbs, but one that I had never been at before. Of course, I almost didn’t find it. I checked the Google Maps before I took off, and seeing that it was in my old neighborhood, I figured finding it would be easy, even if there was no rink when I used to live in that neighborhood in the early 1990s. There was just industrial space, but with the economic downturn around that time, the industrial barn was turned into a hockey barn.
On the map, there had been a new street that would take me straight up to the rink. When I got there, it wasn’t there so I kept driving towards the intersection that would take me to my old place. There were two new gas stations, and a mall, but no sign of a hockey rink. I turned right, and took another right, thinking that it might be the “new street”.
When the street ended in a dead end, I made a U-turn, and saw another car drive by me. For some reason, I thought that it looked like a car that would be going to a hockey rink. I decided to follow it. It turned right, and then right again, going back to the highway. I made another U-turn, and called “Pepe”.
He’s a Helsinki cab driver and knows every street – and rink – in the city. He was also the reason I was out there looking for that rink in the first place.
“Hey, what’s up?” he said.
“I can’t find the rink, dammit,” I said.
He laughed, and then talked me there.
“See you there in a bit,” he said, and hung up.
I parked my car, and grabbed my red hockey bag out of the trunk. It was an old bag, with no zipper left, and mostly just something I wrapped my gear in. But on what used to be one end of the bag, you could still see, in big, white block letters, “KARHU-KISSAT”, the name of the club.
Karhu-Kissat, or “Bear Cats”, was founded in Helsinki in 1938. You can wake me up in the middle of the night and ask me when it was founded and I’ll tell you because the year was a part of the logo. I saw it on our sweaters, on my jacket, and on stickers I had on my desk and walls.
The club was named after the Port Arthur Bear Cats, a club from Thunder Bay, Ontario, that had represented Canada in the 1936 Olympics – and won silver. The founders of Karhu-Kissat wrote a letter to the Bear Cats, and were granted permission to use the name, the maroon colors, and the club logo. The Finns took the name, and the colors, but designed a new logo, the one that makes you think of the Las Vegas Elvis’s sideburns.
As I walked into the dressing room, with the bag over my shoulder, following a guy I sort of knew, because we had probably played together at one point, I wished I hadn’t forgotten my old sweater or my old socks at home. My sweater, that original number 17, and the one that my mother cut open and resewed so it would fit me, the smallest kid on the team, is in the closet next to my desk, and I had planned to wear it in the game.
The guy I had bumped into at the door reminded me of the fact that it wasn’t just my team that was getting together. What I considered “my team” was just a small part of it, or rather, I was just a small part of it. There would be guys that I had never met, guys that had joined the club after me, after I had moved, and that it would be their team, too.
I stepped into the dressing room, and the first face I saw belonged to one of those guys. We shook hands, and I took another step. The second guy was something of a stranger, too. I quickly looked around the room, and saw a familiar face right in front of me. The fact that he was wearing goalie pads helped. We hugged each other and I threw my red bag next to the guy on the other side of the room, already in full gear.
He’s the guy who set up the Facebook group that ultimately got us all into the locker room together. He set it up, he sent invitations, and after that, all it took was a wise guy to suggest that we should play together, and another guy, a doer, to make it happen.
Going through old team photos at home, I noticed that I often sat next to Taskinen. It was probably simply because we were two short kids so we were always pushed to the front row, but sitting next to him in the locker room felt like being back at home.
Back when I was number 17, Taskinen was 13. My father, the coach, gave me Valeri Kharlamov’s number, Taskinen got Boris Mikhailov’s 13, and Jari, now an elite coach in the Finnish league, was number 16, just like Vladimir Petrov in the Soviet Union’s feared first line.
But when I looked at Taskinen that night in 2011, I saw that he was wearing number 20.
In the corner, a goalie was putting on his equipment. I looked at him, and I looked at Taskinen’s long hair – he also plays bass in a rock band – and I remembered how that one summer the whole team got crew cuts, or buzz cuts. Mine was a 5mm buzz cut, and it felt so awkward that I wore a hat for a few full days after the hair cut. Only two guys on the team didn’t do it, and they were both goalies. “Oppo” and “Pepe”.
Today, both have little or no hair. Maybe they already knew something back then.
I put on my hockey underwear. As I started to put on my shin pads, I pointed to Taskinen’s maroon-and-white-and-green Karhu-Kissat socks.
“Man, you have those. So jealous. I have socks from all other teams I’ve played with, but not those. But you know, I was going to take my old sweater. I could have worn it tonight, you know,” I say.
“Not with that belly,” Taskinen shot back.
Oh, the locker room. Nobody’s safe there. And of course, he was right.
To my left, there was Reinikainen whose Dad, the equipment manager, once got everybody on the team red tuques. My mom and dad got us numbers that everybody was then supposed to iron on them for that uniform team look.
To my right, there was Taskinen, and to his right, Jake, whom I’ve never seen not smile. Next to him, there was Tomppa, not playing due to an injury, then an empty space, and then there was Jussi.
The reason it’s been exactly 30 years since I played with these guys is that my family moved to another town, 400 kilometers from Helsinki. That was it. With the exception of two guys, I hadn’t seen anybody since. I played against Taskinen once in the mid-1990s, and I bump into Pepe regularly in hockey games.
But when we moved, the team sort of broke up, and I seem to remember that Jussi’s parents blamed my dad for it, for finding new clubs for some of the players on the team. My 13-year-old self tells me that the other parents thought Dad didn’t want to let anybody else try his luck with such a great team. (After all, we did finish second in a tough Helsinki league).
I’d like to believe Dad just wanted help some kids get to an even bigger club, but I also understand how the others thought he betrayed them. I also understand now that Dad was in his 30s, and simply making it up as he went along. But what do I know, we were just kids then.
But there was Jussi, the man, and he came up to me to shake my hand, and he laughed because he thought I didn’t recognize him. It did take me a fraction of a second, but I did recognize him. Jussi joined the team together with another guy, nicknamed “Zero”. Oddly enough, “Pepe” is now the coach of one of “Zero’s” kids.
That’s when “Pepe” walked in the room. He didn’t have his gear with him because just came to see what was going on.
I’m in the room because of him. Without Pepe’s bragging about joining the local team, I’m not sure I had ever started to play hockey. By the way, Pepe’s not a 160 cm tall Mexican guy who, for some weird reason, is into hockey. Pepe’s 170, and he’s Finnish. Like we all are.
So, we joined the neighborhood club that my father’s buddy had started, and we got hooked on hockey. Back then, “Pepe” wasn’t a goalie – “Oppo” was, and he was good, too. I don’t even remember when “Pepe” switched to goal.
I turned to Taskinen for help. I needed somebody to tape my shoulder pads onto their place.
“What are those?” Pepe asked me.
“My shoulder pads,” I said.
“They must be your Dad’s,” said Taskinen. He was right again.
“What’s with the bag?” Pepe asked me.
“Hey, check it out, it says “Karhu-Kissat” here. It’s a classic,” I said.
“That your Dad’s, too? Hadn’t they invented the zipper yet?” he said and laughed.
Before the game, Oppo had asked Pepe on Facebook who should play in goal.
“You do it, my knees can’t take it anymore,” Pepe had said, and that’s why it was Oppo in the corner, putting on his chest protector.
He’s one of those people who are stars wherever they go, and whatever they do. He was a star goalie on that first hockey team Pepe and I joined, and he was still a good goalie when we moved and I lost track of him. The next time I heard his name, he was a Finnish league MVP, and a national team player in American football.
It was no surprise that when somebody suggested on Facebook that we should go play hockey together, it was Oppo who got us the ice time.
Of course, to me, he’s not just a goalie, or an American football star. He’s also the guy that I saw The Empire Strikes Back with in the fall of 1980. It was very exciting because I hadn’t really been to the movies by myself, and also, like “Star Wars”, “the Empire” was rated “12 and older” in Finland. That’s why I hadn’t seen “Star Wars”, but there I was now, with Oppo, in downtown Helsinki, at the movies.
Afterwards, we took the bus from the city to Oppo’s house, and I walked home from there. It was a long walk, about two kilometers, and it was dark, but I used the Force and made it home.
I put my helmet on, and walked out the dressing room door onto the ice. The game was obviously just a sideshow, but we made up two lines – I’m with Taskinen and Jake -, we dropped the puck, and we played.
You can see people’s personalities in the way they play hockey. Jake is all hustle, powerful skating, working through everything. Taskinen has flair, but he’s trying moves he no longer really can make. I’m lazy, but I try to compensate for that by getting the puck to others as quickly as I can. Oppo makes saves. Reinikainen looks like he’d really like to hit somebody, but since we said we wouldn’t, he loves grinding in the corner. Jussi is a conscientious two-way forward.
But, 30 minutes into the game, we were trailing 3-0. Then, suddenly, Taskinen passed the puck to me, I kicked it forward, and realized I was on a breakaway. Before I’ve had time to think what to do, I’ve already done something – forehand, backhand – and the puck’s in the net. I turned around, and thought that I should have had a cool goal celebration. I just lifted my arms, and did fist bumps with the guys.
Jussi scored another goal to get us within one – a nice wrist shot – and then Jake’s hustle paid dividends and he scored our third, but we lost 4-3. I think.
Afterwards we swapped stories about the other guys who hadn’t made it to our skate, and we reminisced about past games, and past tournaments.
“Remember how we used to sit in the stands at the old rink, and yell so Obelix would throw us some candy,” Taskinen said.
I did remember the club’s eccentric bus driver. And I thought about getting a nickname like that, and how it it must have started as a mean joke before becoming just a new name. I remembered Oppo’s weird old mask, and how “Pepe” never let his dad come to our games so he’d have to sneak in during the first period, and I remembered all their moms and dads.
And I remembered Tomppa’s 50s style hairdo and our team’s trip to Sweden, and I remembered early morning skates in an outdoor rink, and games in a dimly-lit and cold indoor rink.
Almost 40 years ago, during the 1974 Stanley Cup Final, the Philadelphia Flyers head coach Fred “The Fog” Shero wanted to inspire his team, so he wrote a message on the dressing room chalkboard:
“Win today and we walk together forever.”
But you don’t even need to win. You just need to play the game together.