SOTKAMO, Finland – With almost 75,000 registered players, with recreational league players taking over the 250 rinks in the country every night, with two World Juniors titles in the last three years, and two men’s World Championship titles, you might think hockey is Finland’s national sport.
But you’d be wrong.
The national sport is, instead, a baseball-like sport called pesapallo, developed in Finland in the late 1910s, and the first official Finnish champion was crowned in 1922. Hockey hadn’t made its way to the country yet.
Almost 100 years later, hockey has surpassed pesapallo in number of players, and spectators, but in Sotkamo, a seven-hour drive north from Helsinki, pesapallo is the number one sport. The local team, Jymy, has won 18 Finnish championships in history, won five in a row between 2011 and 2015, and has played in the final nine times out of the last ten.
In Sotkamo, it’s hockey that has to do something special to attract the kids.
Like arrange a World Girls’ Ice Hockey Weekend event.
“In addition to young girls, we wanted to attract even women in the hopes that we could have more players on our women’s team. Here at Sotkamon Kiekko, we only have half a dozen hockey-playing girls, and at the moment, they play in the boys’ teams,” says Minna Ylisirnio, the women’s team’s manager.
They got what they wished for.
On Sunday, ten girls showed up at the Vuokatti jaahalli – the site of Teemu Selanne’s annual hockey school – to get acquainted with the coolest game on earth.
“The youngest one was seven months old, she was out on the ice on her knees,” Ylisirnio says with a laugh.
“We had ten girls, between the ages of four and ten, on the ice. They did different kinds of skating exercises, a few stick-handling drills, and then we rounded up our hour of hockey with a short scrimmage,” she adds.
Afterwards, they all got diplomas and a cold drink.
Sotkamon Kiekko hasn’t arranged a Girls Hockey Day in the last few years. Getting almost a dozen girls to an event was a pleasant surprise, says Ylisirnio.
The girls who want to continue playing hockey will be directed to the age-appropriate team, but according to Ylisirnio, there’s a chance the club may arrange special girls’ activities for all the girls in the club.
“Since we can see that there was demand for this event, we’re wondering whether we could arrange something, maybe a few practices each month,” she says.
“It feels like it’s about the best we can do. This year, we were the only Girls Hockey Day event in our region, and we have advertised it in the neighbouring towns, Kajaani and Kuhmo,” she adds.
Kajaani is the big centre of the region with its population of 35,000 while Kuhmo, 60 kilometers east of Sotkamo and right on the Finnish-Russian border, is a slightly smaller municipality at least by population. Kuhmo is the 11th largest Finnish municipality by area even if its population is only 8,500.
Sotkamon Kiekko also had a special guest star on the ice. Isa Kihlstrom returned to Sotkamo to inspire the next generation of players. Last year, her Kuhmo team won the women’s second-tier league last season, but was discontinued this season, and Kihlstrom transferred to another team.
“There’s potential here, but I think the clubs have to work together to promote girls’ and women’s hockey,” Ylisirnio concludes.
Icing a true girls’ team would be a homerun – as they say in pesapallo.