TAMPERE, Finland – Raimo Helminen announced last fall that this season would be his last, that he would retire at the end of the 2007-08 season. There was no press conference, no red carpets, teary-eyed statements, or hoards of reporters wrestling for space.
In fact, maybe it was Helminen who told the press about his decision, maybe it was the team coach, or their manager. All we know that somehow, somewhere, somebody got Helminen to tell him that he would retire. It was probably a sentence with a few reservations, like, "It kind of feels like this might be the last season for me." Or something along those lines.
Helminen has never been the one to beg for the spotlight. On the contrary. Like the time in 1995 when the World Championship team was invited to the Finnish President's annual Independence Day ball and got a good share of media attention. At one point, the camera crew went to the hockey heroes. First, there were three couples, and then the camera zoomed on team captain Timo Jutila during his interview. When the camera zoomed back, Helminen had just slid off-camera, ever so slightly. Still there, just not on camera.
But he's been the one the spotlight has seeked. A star. That's what you are when you dominate a sport a nation loves, you do it for 25 years, you win medals in the World Championships, three in the Olympics, play in six Olympics, and only represent one club in your entire your career.
What makes Helminen a superstar is his quiet charisma that oozes inner strength, focus, and calmness which hides a winning instinct beyond normal that, within the game, sometimes makes his blood boil, his eyes dart small lightning bolts, and his mouth spew judgment.
Players learned it was foolish to make Helminen angry. What ever short-term benefit their team might get in the short run, it would come back and bite them in the behind in the long-term. He might turn on the magic and create four, five scoring chances in his next shift. And the one after that. And the one after that.
Then he will shake hands with the opponent, walk off the ice, talk with the media, and say: "I think the team played really well tonight."
"What about yourself? How would you describe your own performance tonight?" a reporter will ask. "It was OK. It's great to play with such talented scorers." And he means it.
Helminen's last games of the regular season in the Finnish league became a long farewell tour as each home team honoured him, giving him presents, flowers and memorabilia on his last visit in each city.
While the attention must have bothered Helminen, it also had another effect on him, according to teammate Arto Tukio. "I think he was playing even better than usual in the games he was celebrated. He's always good, but the focus has made him take his game to another level," he says. Helminen didn't want to let the fans down.
The tour reached its climax on Tuesday, when Helminen played his last regular season game at home, against Lukko Rauma. The house was packed and Helminen memorabilia was all around. Teenaged girls walked around the arena with "Raipe", and "Ipa", nicknames for Helminen and Ilves, drawn on their cheeks.
This was it. The teams were on the bluelines, the announcer screaming at the top of his lungs, the people on their feet, clapping, for minutes before the maestro stepped on the ice. This time, there was no escaping the spotlight. After about ten minutes of standing ovations, presents, and highlights,. There was a ceremonial face-off dropped by Ilves-legend, Lasse Oksanen, a former generation's star who, like Helminen, was an Ilves star and had most games on the national team (282) before Helminen took over and had most points on the national team until Helminen took that, too.
But Oksanen has his 14 on the rafters of the arena, a number Helminen had early in his career but had to give up when the club retired it to honour Oksanen.
The Hakametsa Arena has seen them all, all the best. Gretzky, Kurri, Tikkanen, Naslund, Gustafsson. Tretyak, Harlamov, Mikhailov, Martinec, Oksanen, Wiitala, Selanne, Jutila, Numminen, Lumme, Hasek, Fleury, Nylander, Waltin, Holmqvist, Ylonen, Valtonen, Dzurilla, Holecek.
On Tueday, Hakametsa belonged to Helminen, who stayed on the ice for almost 15 minutes after the game, wearing his sweater from 1985, another present he received, (1985 was the last time Ilves won the Finnish title), having a moment earlier donated his last game jersey to the Finnish Hockey Museum.
Nobody left the building. Everybody was on their feet, honouring a living legend when something unexpected happened. Helminen toured the rink, thanking everybody, and then he stopped in front of the Ilves fans, shook his fingers to indicate a coming wave, and raised his arms. The crowd answered with the same, and the salute went on, and around the arena.
Helminen had grabbed the spotlight. Then he walked off the ice, hugged the coaches, and stepped into the corridor to the dressing rooms.
Thirteen visiting teams had celebrated him, his own club had done it now, and with his last hurrah with the national team, Helminen had gone through fifteen farewell games.
"I think we're done with the celebrating now," he said, smiling, got changed, and walked into the cold and dark Tampere night. Outside the arena, a dozen, maybe two dozen, fans were waiting for him. Among the teenagers was an older gentleman who wanted Helminen to sign his leather jacket.
Then he shook Helminen's hand, and said: "Well, thank you, and good luck with everything."
"Thank you," replied Helminen, hopped in a car and drove away. Of course, he will be back. The playoffs begin on Friday.
- Erik Hamalainen, Lukko Rauma, became the first player to reach the 1,000-game milestone in the Finnish League. Hamalainen, a world champion in 1995, played his first game in the Finnish league in 1982.
- Karpat Oulu won the regular season. The Espoo Blues finished second, and Jokerit Helsinki, third.
- Janne Pesonen, Karpat, won the scoring title with 78 points in 56 games. Ville Leino, Jokerit, was second with 77 points in 55 games.