Oh yes, Oulu is back

Kärpät back on the throne after five-year dry spell

02.05.2014
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Kärpät Oulu’s Mika Pyörälä and Lasse Kukkonen carry their golden coach Lauri Marjamäki. Photo: Sampo Anttila

OULU, Finland – Sometimes the stars are aligned just perfectly, and the great stories we all love in sports get the fairy tale ending we yearn. That’s what happened in Oulu when Game Seven of the Finnish final went into overtime.

That’s the dream kids dream, and depending on where they live on this planet, it’s their teams that score the winning goal. These days even kids in Finland, Sweden, and Germany may dream about getting the Stanley Cup clinching goal for a team in Southern Florida, but for most kids, the first heroes are always the ones that are the closest.

So when Juhamatti Aaltonen got the puck on the Kärpät blueline after a faceoff with 12:43 remaining in the first overtime period and accelerated through the neutral zone, he was a man on a mission. He was already the leading goal scorer in the playoffs with seven in fifteen games, but with the game on the line, and the next goal winning it all, he needed one more.

Three seconds later, he crossed the Tappara Tampere blueline, and went around the Tappara defenceman, and released a wrister from the face-off circle. The shot beat Juha Metsola on the blocker side. Aaltonen had flown by the Tappara defence and scored the championship goal just five seconds after he had got the puck, and if that was impressive, even more impressive was the speed he skated around the Tappara net and then all the way back to the Kärpät zone, throwing his gloves and helmet with the entire team trying to keep up with him.

For Juhamatti Aaltonen - who came up through the Kärpät system and had already won the Finnish title with Kärpät three times - the championship goal was a dream come true. To score the only goal of the game, in a Game 7, for the team you’ve played for most of your life.

“It had been a long game so I just hoped that somebody would score the goal and end it. Of course it was great that the somebody was me,” Aaltonen told Oulu newspaper Kaleva.

“It was an unbelievable feeling to see the puck go in. Scoring goals is always fun, but I’ve never scored a championship winning goal, so this one’s special, for sure,” he added.

Tappara Tampere led the final series 3-1, but Kärpät managed to win three straight to win the title, a feat that no other team had managed to do in the Finnish league before them.

“That shows the character of this team,” Aaltonen said.

Character was a big part of the strategy that Kärpät had when they built the team. Kärpät played in the Finnish final six times in seven years between 2003 and 2009, won four of them, and even has a 2006 bronze medal that kept the seven-year long medal streak alive. Since then, the team has finished outside of the medals, and both the management and the fans were getting nervous.

For this season, Kärpät signed a two-year contract with coach Lauri Marjamäki, 36, who’s also a member of the national team’s coaching staff, and had two silver medals as an assistant coach at Espoo Blues. In addition, they signed experienced players from Oulu: Lasse Kukkonen, Mika Pyörälä and Ari Vallin.

It paid off.

“This is a dream come true for me, to win this championship at home in the Raksila rink. It’s been my dream since I was a kid,” said Kukkonen, who was on the Finnish Olympic team that won bronze medals in Sochi.

“This is my home rink, all my friends are here,” he added.

Mid-season, Kärpät added Esa Pirnes from AIK Stockholm. He left Oulu during Kärpät’s time in the second-tier league, and had never played a Finnish league game for Kärpät. This season, he played eleven games in the regular season, and added another 16 in the playoffs. Pirnes, who scored the championship clinching goal for Tappara in 2003, still refers to himself as “a guy from Oulu”.

“This feels a little different [from the 2003 championship]. This was a dream come true. I haven’t been a part of such a professional organization in a while. Kärpät is the best team in Finland this year without a doubt,” he said.

After the game, Juha Junno, the club CEO and GM, wore his traditional golden tie, which he had put on after the third period.

“This was one of the greatest finals ever. All seven games were just one-goal games. The coaching staff has done a great job, and everybody believed in himself,” he said.

“We had the seven-year medal streak and then nothing for four years, so this year, we wanted to be better as a team and an entire organization. This is marvellous for the team, our partners, and our fans. For a Finnish team, winning the Finnish title feels simply fantastic,” he added.

RISTO PAKARINEN

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