INNSBRUCK – On Sunday afternoon, Finland’s men’s team will go up against Russia to decide who will claim the first gold medal in the history of the Youth Olympic Games ice hockey competition. One of the players that helped the Finns get to the final was Otto Nieminen, who scored the opening goal and assisted on the game-winner of Finland’s semi-final victory against Canada.
Nieminen’s love for hockey grew at an early age, more specifically, about the time he began to walk.
“I remember as soon as they (Otto and brother Niilo) learned to walk they went on the ice. We had skates and helmets ready,” recalls eldest brother Aku Nieminen. “We would get those sticks with the straight blade and see which one they picked. Niilo chose right, Otto chose left. Since then Otto would pretty much be hitting a puck every day.”
Otto’s road to the Youth Olympics began in his hometown of Somero, Finland, a farming community with a population just over 9,000.
“We say it’s in the middle of everything but in the middle of nowhere,” said Aku. “Helsinki, Turku, and Tampere are all about an hour away. It’s a big area but the downtown is basically one street. People from other towns tend to say that there’s more pigs than people.”
“It’s a small town, everybody knows everyone else,” said Otto, whose family owns a photography and optics store in Somero. “People would drop by the store, and it was nice to get congratulations from people for making the Olympic team, since not too many hockey player come out of Somero.”
Right next to the Nieminen household, there is a grass field that has a few trees and a couple of trenches with water. During the Finnish winters when the temperature goes below zero, the trenches freeze over. Since he first learned to skate, Otto would put the skates on and carry a net to one of these trenches, along with his stick and a few pucks, and practise shooting and dekes.
“A couple of nicknames we have given to Otto is 'Monttu' which means 'a trench' and 'Montun Mies' which means 'the man of the trench',” said Aku. “He would carry his stick to those trenches and shoot for hours, now whenever my wife and I follow Otto on the internet and he plays well, we say, ‘the man of the trench did not let us down’.”
Hockey runs deep in Nieminen’s family, his father and grandfather have been hockey fans for as long as both can remember. Since Otto first started playing hockey, his father has been driving him to games and practices. When Otto was selected to play on TPS Turku’s hockey team, Kari, his father, would drive his son 90 km each way from Somero six times a week. In all, he drove about 60, 000 km last season.
“Dad did a lot of the driving, but mom had to tolerate the fact that there were three guys constantly playing hockey indoors and breaking stuff,” said Aku. ”Mom also works more in the store, allowing my dad to drive Otto around.”
He was described by his family as having a sometimes wild personality, but that he was always focused on improving himself as a hockey player, which helped his older brother out sometimes when he had to baby sit.
“Even when he was younger he always had that temperament. Let’s say, when he didn’t want to brush his teeth before bed, we’d say 'a good hockey player brushes his teeth' and he would brush,” said Aku. “So sometimes we’d fool him. If we had to leave for practice in five minutes and he wouldn’t want to, we’d say 'a good hockey player would leave in five minutes' and he’d get up.”
Otto’s maturity helped him adjust quickly to playing above his age, playing with TuTo, he got a chance to tray himself out against Finland’s bigger clubs.
“When I continued to play with guys two years older than me, I gained confidence,” said Otto. “Once we played a series against TPS Turku, we lost both games 10-5 and 8-5, but I scored a hat trick in both games.”
Turku took notice, signing Otto to its U16 squad in 2009. He was sent to a lower division in his first season, and responded by scoring 19 points in 15 games. Going back to the top team in the next season, he had 20 points in 19 games, and the following year a 16-point campaign in eight games has landed him on TPS’ U18 squad. Not bad for a 15-year-old.
“He showed skill at such a young age that I knew he had the possibility to be a great player,” said Otto’s father Kari. “His development has been so straight, the focus has been very good all the time. There are no ups and downs in his play, just a steady rise in his ability that I think has been good for his attitude.”
Aku, Otto’s eldest brother (29), also played hockey in his youth, going up against Finnish NHL stars like Mikko Koivu and Tuomo Ruutu. He moved to Canada in his teens, hoping to play hockey in British Columbia. But unluckily for him, the province had just recently passed a law that forbade non-Canadians from participating in rep hockey.
“Before the league started there was an exhibition tournament, and I was told that I couldn’t play. I remember going outside the arena and breaking my stick in frustration, and sat on my back and cried for a good fifteen minutes. It was the end of serious hockey for me.”
Now Aku works as a Sport Administration Coordinator for the IIHF, and credits his experience in Canada as an important stepping stone to his current job.
“Looking back on it, I never thought I would have become a professional player,” he said. “I had an opportunity to stay there and learn English, and develop my language skills, which helped me get the job at the IIHF and staying involved in hockey.”
His IIHF position has required him to take a somewhat neutral stance towards Otto’s participation at the Youth Olympics. In the semi-final game against Canada, Nieminen sat stone-faced following Otto’s goal, while his family jumped up and down in celebration next to him.
Aku’s experiences have also given him a chance to help his father in managing Otto’s development. “We talk a lot, almost on a daily basis, discussing Otto,” said Kari. “We get to share hockey through Otto’s progress and discuss it, with phone calls and sharing e-mails to keep him up to date.”
When Otto got excited after being approached by an agent at the beginning of this season, big brother stepped in.
“I said 'absolutely not',” said Aku. “He was too young and we explained to him that if he hired an agent he would become an employer, and whether it was necessary for a 15-year-old to employ someone, I didn’t think so.”
“Once we’re talking about proper, professional contracts - that’s where you need someone with experience to help guide you, but if it comes to that, and we’re not taking this for granted, I’ll spend lots of time finding someone who is a good agent and has his best interests in mind.”
When it comes to role models, Otto, Aku, and their father all pointed to the Nieminen patriarch Antero “Taata” Nieminen, aged 88. A big sports fan, Antero did not get the opportunity to play in his youth. At just 17 years old, he joined the army in 1939 when the Soviet Union invaded Finland, two months after the beginning of the World War II.
“He’s one of the nicest, most hardworking people I know,” said Aku. “He’s gone through a lot and he is a big role model for us.”
“His experiences in the war put things in perspective,” he said. “I’m not picky about what I eat nowadays as I used to be, after he explained to me how they were without food for a week, then they found some flour, but as they were in the danger zone and could not stop to eat they had to wait another day before they finally made pancakes.”
Antero, know as “Taata” to the family, is an avid hockey fan, and has been a source of moral and financial support for his grandsons’ hockey careers.
“My sister bought him and iPad and he’s learned to use it to follow Otto’s games. He’s so into it and I think it keeps him going,” said Kari.
“Taata” will be following the live statistics feed on Sunday afternoon from Finland, as his grandson will play for the first ever gold medal game at a Winter Youth Olympic Games.
Following the Olympics, Otto will return for his last year of schooling in Somero, and will likely move to Turku next season, having signed a contract to join the club’s hockey academy.
Aku will return to Zurich with his wife Linda. The couple are expecting a baby boy on May 7.
When the boy visits Somero, soon-to-be grandpa Kari will have skates and a plastic stick ready.
Just in case...