CALGARY – No hockey player in the world has represented his country more often than Raimo Helminen.
The 47-year-old played 331 games for the Finnish men’s national team between 1983 and 2002 including six Olympic Winter Games and eleven IIHF World Championships.
Helminen already knows the Saddledome from the 1988 Calgary Olympics where he led Finland in scoring with two goals and eight assists. Helminen ended up with a silver medal—the first ever Olympic medal for Finland--that was followed by two Olympic bronze medals and eight medals at the IIHF World Championship – including the first ever world title for Finland in 1995.
“From my player career, I always remember the World Championships and the Olympics. At an older age it’s nice to look back and think about these things,” Helminen said.
Except of a three-year stint in North America with the New York Rangers and the New York Islanders, and their farm teams in the AHL, Helminen spent his whole career in Europe.
He played in Finland’s top league for his hometown club Ilves Tampere for 16 years before ending his player career in 2008 at age 44, plus seven seasons for Swedish club Malmö in between.
“Now I’m back in hockey business as a coach, so I don’t think too much about my past,” said Helminen. “I’m working with younger players and don’t think too much about the old days. But it’s part of my life.”
“For one year I didn’t do much. I was watching hockey games of course,” Helminen looked back to the point he hung up his skates. “But at some point I started to miss hockey. I went to coach young guys and now I’m here, coaching almost full-time.”
After his one-year break he became an assistant coach with Ilves Tampere and the Finnish U20 national team. Now he’s in his third year as a coach, this time as the head coach at the 2012 IIHF World Junior Championship.
“I guess that’s why they made me head coach this year,” Helminen said after the 4-0 blanking of the Czech Republic on New Year’s Eve in Edmonton.
“It’s nice to be here. They’re good guys. I want to help them where I can. We are four guys in the coaching staff, so I’m not doing everything alone. They also help me a lot,” the former centre said.
His debut as a head coach in World Junior play didn’t look good. His team lost to Canada 8-1 in the opening game, but Helminen is 3-0 since then.
“We have good players here. In the game against Canada they didn’t play as bad as the result looked like. We were the underdogs, but we have grown together since,” Helminen said. “The players played well and executed well in the last few games.”
Now he’s back in Calgary, almost 24 years after playing the Olympics here.
Today he wants to lead the Finnish juniors to a semi-final clash against Nordic rival Sweden. But first they need to overcome Slovakia, who surprised many pundits by ousting Switzerland in Group A to play in the final round for only the second time in eight years.
“Slovakia is a good team. We played an exhibition game against them,” Helminen added.
The Finns won that exhibition contest 3-0, and they’re expected to be almost at full strength today.
Only defenceman Olli Määttä, who had been sidelined with concussion symptoms, might miss the game.
“It looks like he’s out, but let’s see what’s going to happen,” Helminen said, not ruling him out for the rest of the event.
If Finland reaches the semi-finals it will be the first time since 2006, when Suomi took home the bronze medal.
Finland is 6-3-1 against Slovakia at the U20 World Championship. Last year the Finns won the head-to-head game in the preliminary round 6-0, but suffered a shootout loss in the second-last encounter in the 2009 event.
“We have a chance to make the semi-finals,” Helminen said. “It’s one game, everything can happen. They have to be ready for that game. It’s going to be a tough game. We have to believe in us.”