Names and numbers

Last week, I was back at the Joensuu rink that was my home rink for four years in my teens. It’s been 25 years since I moved from that town to go to college in Helsinki, and most of my old friends have moved somewhere else, too, but if there’s one place I can see familiar faces, it’s at the rink.

Also, the rink pulls me back. I’ve walked around it hundreds of times, I’ve run around it as many times. I’ve jumped up the stairs, I may have eaten hundreds of sausages and chocolate bars there, and I’ve spent countless hours in the cafeteria – that is no longer a cafeteria.

I walked around the rink and climbed up to Dad’s old seats, way up in the stands, at the red line. I sat there for a while, watching the game, and noticed some familiar names on the backs of the sweaters, the names of my former teammates, now on the backs of their sons’ sweaters.

Then I looked for number 17, because I always do that.


Every November, after Son’s birthday and before my Dad’s birthday, Son, Daughter, and I head off to Finland for an early Xmas tour that goes through Helsinki and ends up in Joensuu where Dad lives. It’s a fun tradition – at least I like it – and after six years, I think it’s fair to call it just that, a tradition.

Another part of the tradition is going to hockey games. That first year it was just Son and I driving through the winter wonderland that is Finland, and I think we went to games on three consecutive nights, in three different cities – much to Son’s chagrin. Sure, the hotdogs were nice, and yes, it’s always nice to read comics, but the games were just a little too loud and too long. He was only four then, too.

The first night, Son, Daughter and I paid a visit to a rink, and as luck would have it, my old team had a game. Well, it wasn’t pure luck. I had been at the rink earlier so I knew there’d be a game later that night.

Three minutes into the game, Son got bored, went on an expedition around the rink – he found the cafeteria – and then informed me that he wanted to go back to Grandma’s so I drove him there during the first intermission, then drove back with Daughter, who was bursting with excitement, and questions:

“Did you really play for the black team?”
“Where’s the one with the golden helmet?”
“Why do they have to play music as soon as the play stops?”

(My answers: “Yes, I did”, “They only use those in the elite league”, and “I really don’t know.”)

We ate sausages, sat in the cafeteria, walked around the rink, watched the game, and stayed until the very end, because Daughter wanted to see the handshaking alley.

Afterwards, she told my mother about how I had played for the black team, and as she told her the story, something occurred to her.

“Hey, Dad. What number did you have when you played for the blacks?” she asked me.

And before I had the chance to say anything, my Mom said: “Seventeen.”

Daughter looked at me, her eyebrows raised.

“That’s right, that was my number,” I said.

“He was always number 17, just like his big idol … whathisname?” said Mom.

“Kh..,” I started.

“KHARLAMOV,” shouted Mom, “that’s right. Valeri Kharlamov.”

The next day, and 450 kilometers later, Daughter, my father, and I visited another one of my old rinks, now in Joensuu. There was no game, we just wanted to hang out a little, because that’s what Dad and I do when we have nothing to do.

We watched at some practice for a good ten minutes, Daughter and I walked around the rink looking for pucks – she found seven – and when we got back home, Daughter asked me if I had played for that team, too. When I said I had, she asked me what number I had worn.

“Seventeen,” I said.

“Was that your lucky number?” she asked me.

“He always wore seventeen, just like Kharlamov,” said Dad quickly.

“And yes, then it became my lucky number,” I added.

“Did you also have your name on the sweater,” Daughter asked me.

I know the name on the front of the sweater is supposed to be more important than the name on the back, but I always dreamed of getting my name on my hockey sweater. (My dreams are small to medium-sized). When I was ten, and Mom had to make the sweater a little smaller to fit me, I insisted that she does it so that the advertising in the back stays on because that’s what made it a real sweater. She did.

“No, I never had my name on the sweater,” I told Daughter.

“Too bad,” she said.

“I know.”

I walked down the stairs, and around the corner to the other side of the rink, all the while keeping an eye on the action on the ice. I ended up in the stands behind the bench, where most of the people were. The parents, the buddies, the hockey fans, and the high school girls.

Suddenly, I saw him. There he was, the red number 17, flying down the right wing, chasing a puck that went into the corner. I followed him around, as he forechecked and then back-checked, and then, 30 seconds later, climbed over the board for a line change.

I looked down to the bench as 17 sat down on the bench and noted that he had his name on the back of the sweater. “Rahunen”, it said. That was not a name I recognized from the past.

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