You can take the boy out of Finland

“Are you Finnish?” the man asked me, wasting no time with niceties.

Now, he asked the question with a smile on his face, but his tattooed knuckles told me I’d better answer him, and answer him truthfully.

“Yes, I am,” I said.

“I could tell. Finnish genes are strong,” he said and raised his finger to indicate he was about to take a pause in the conversation.

We both did a set of bicep curls.

“I don’t know what it is, but there’s something very Finnish about you. My ex-wife was Finnish so I can tell,” he went on and wiped some sweat off his brow.

I did, too.

“Yeah, well, I don’t really know what it is, but sure, I’ve seen an image of the genetic map of Europe and we’re way out here when the rest of Europe is here,” I said, pointing holes in the air.

“Where in Finland are you from?” he asked me then.

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A polyglot on languages

Luis Miguel Rojas Berscia is someone who’s rarely lost for words, for the simple reason that he is a polyglot, someone who speaks a great number of languages.

Born in Lima, Peru, Rojas Berscia has traveled the world and has made languages his profession and his life. He’s studied linguistics and literature in Peru, Germany and the Netherlands. He’s taught Chinese in Peru and he completed his doctorate in the Netherlands before leaving Europe to study indigenous languages – Kukatja and Yidiny – in the Western Australia outback.

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Superfans

Last weekend, one of Daughter’s hockey teams played their last game of the season at our local rink. We played twice against the same team – and when I say “we” I’m trying to draw your attention to the fact that I’m the assistant coach – and since it was the season finale, we had even got a little news item on the club’s website. 

You get it. It was a special event. 

In fact, it was so special that even the man I had earlier only seen at local soccer games and the men’s hockey team’s games – working the door, hanging out with the officials, cheering on the boys – was there on both days. He hung out in the locker room corridor, fist-bumped the head coach, and took in the action.

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Even Hockey Can’t Offer Escape

It’s difficult to focus on hockey when missiles are flying in Europe, not unimaginably far from where I’m sitting and typing this. And yet, all I want to do is think of hockey, hoping that the game will, once again, offer me refuge from the grim realities outside the rink.

Then again, all through my lifetime, hockey has been at the center of political attention, a venue for proxy fights and battles, from the 1969 World Championship, relocated from Czechoslovakia to Sweden due to the Soviet invasion of the original host country – and then the Czechs and Slovaks beating the the Soviets twice in the tournament – to the 1972 Summit Series to the Canada Cups to the 1980 Olympics and the Miracle on Ice all the way to the IIHF relocating the 2021 Worlds from Belarus.

There’s no escape.

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Jalonen, Finland check one more box

Finns love a lot of things – sauna, for example – but right at the top of the list there’s hockey, and then there’s sticking it to the man and sometimes the stars are aligned in a way that brings their two loves together. The Beijing Olympics men’s final was one such event when the Finnish Lions downed ROC 2-1, claiming the nation’s first Olympic gold medal in ice hockey.

With Finland currently a giant of the game, it’s hard to imagine a time when the men’s team didn’t make the final of big tournaments in regular intervals.

About 45 per cent of the population are too young – born in 1983 or later – to remember the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary where Finland beat the Soviets, 2-1. Back then, the win was enough to give Finns the silver medals, behind the Soviet Union but ahead of Sweden (and sticking it to the Swedes is also on the list of things Finns love).

And about a third of the current population either wasn’t born or they hadn’t turned five in 1995, when Finland won their first World Championship, in Sweden.

There’s at least a generation of Finns who never felt the truly bitter sting of disappointment.

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History will be made

When Dre Barone takes the ice next Wednesday in Laval, it may be a small step for him but it’s a leap for hockey culture. Barone will be the first openly gay male official in an AHL game.

In fact, he’s the only openly gay male hockey participant in a pro league. For now anyway.

For Barone, Wednesday’s game between the Laval Rocket and the Manitoba Moose marks both a comeback and a step up. After hundreds of games in the ECHL and the Southern Professional Hockey League, he feels he’s now ready for the American Hockey League.

“The ECHL is still a one-ref league, the highest pro level league not to have gone to the two-ref system. Fitness is not a problem and since I live in Canada, I’ve been able to find places to skate. I was also at the NHL Officiating Combine in August so I feel prepared,” Barone says.

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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.

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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”.

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Den oändliga historien

I

Det jag kommer att berätta är en sann historia, det vet jag nu. Men inte i början. Ingen vet i början av en historia att den redan har börjat.

Jag var nämligen upptagen av att springa på löpbandet och hade du sett mig då skulle du förstått att jag inte hade mycket energi över för någonting annat. Som till exempel att titta på folk nere på plan 2 i Sollentuna Centrum. Jag var ingen löpare, jag var frilansskribent.

Och jag var där för att bli av med skrivkrampen som hade förföljt mig länge. (Om du undrar om man kan springa ifrån ett sådant spöke så är svaret nej, men någonting måste man ju försöka och jag hade försökt allt annat).

Nu är jag där igen, går runt i cirklar när jag borde komma till saken.

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A Letter to a Very Special High School Graduate

Son,

School’s out and it’s time for me to give you some fatherly piece of advice, but as you know, I’m not much of a speaker. Besides, all the most profound things have already been said by others before me.

And those others were two American Bobs, namely Gale and Zemeckis, who wrote the screenplay for the best movie ever made: Back to the Future (Part I).

(Who said ¡Three Amigos!?)

It just so happens that the main character in the movie is a kid about your age, about to leave school, stuck in a period between the past and the future, something we call present. It also just so happens that I saw the movie for the first time when I was your age, about to graduate from high school, not knowing at all what I wanted to do.

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