Liiga goes on export

Finland's top division stages match in Estonia

28.01.2018
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Lahtis’s Kimi Koivisto is followed by HPK’s Markus Niemelainen during the Finnish league game in Estonia. Photo: Hendrik Soots

Finland’s Liiga breaks new ground across the Gulf of Finland as HPK Hameenlinna gets the better of the Pelicans Lahti in Estonia's capital of Tallinn.

A crowd of 5,003 inside Tallinn's Tondiraba Ice Hall was kept on the edge of their seats until the very end as HPK Hameenlinna edged Pelicans Lahti after penalty shots. 18-year-old in-form prospect Kristian Vesalainen became the hero of the night as his game-winning penalty shot sees HPK Hameenlinna prevail 4-3 in a historic night for both Finnish and Estonian hockey.

“The event was great. 5,000 spectators witnessed a great regular time hockey plus overtime and then penalty shots. In other words, the game script was written by a perfect writer,” said Rauno Parras, President of the Estonian Ice Hockey Association, after the game.

Trailing 0-2 and appearing down and out, three unanswered goals by Ville Viitaluoma, Joonas Lehtivuori and Teemu Turunen turned the game into HPK Hameenlinna’s favour. Despite Jesse Saarinen equalising for the Pelicans Lahti with just 2:34 left of the game, HPK avoided a third straight defeat against their local rivals this season thanks to the prowess of Winnipeg Jets first-round draft pick Vesalainen. With two points secured HPK moves up to 11th in the Liiga standings as their fine run of form continues in their hunt for a play-off spot. The Pelicans Lahti stay in ninth place.

“We did a fine comeback in the end, but it was unfortunately only enough to get us a point. In overtime, there was an opportunity to convert but this time around this is how it ended,” said the Pelicans Lahti’s Jesse Mankinen, who despite only winning one point lavished praise on the playing at the Tondiraba Ice Hall. “The event itself was great and we should have more of these. The crowd followed the game with enthusiasm and there was a great atmosphere inside the arena throughout the evening,” he continued.

As the high-octane encounter in Tallinn was a fine example of, plenty is at stake when the Pelicans Lahti and HPK Hameenlinna lock horns with each other. Both part of a historical region of Southern Finland, the Hame Province, their matches often turn into dramatic affairs and full of excitement. In short, an ideal match to showcase to a wider audience.

“Ice hockey is one of the finest export products in Finland. The Pelicans want to be an innovative pioneer in its operations and for that reason, the Pelicans wanted to be the first team to bring a home game to a foreign country. The idea of Tallinn was born together with our cooperation partners last winter and the idea was received with excitement in Finland as nothing similar has been done in the past,” said Pelicans Lahti CEO Tomi-Pekka Kolu.

An estimated 1,500 fans had expected to travel from Lahti to Tallinn, which marked another eventful chapter in the history of the Pelicans. Originally formed in Vyborg in what today is Russia, the club was forced to relocate 210 kilometres west and become Reipas Lahti after Vyborg was lost during World War II.

The Lahti-based club also became the frontrunner in nurturing Finnish-Estonian relations out on the ice. When fielding blueliner Vjatseslav Kulpin during four games during the 1993/94 season, they became the first Finnish top division team to ice an Estonian national team player. It’s a cooperation encompassing the Gulf of Finland, which Pelicans Lahti now wishes to develop further.

“With this match [played in Tallinn], we hope to market ice hockey, Liiga and of course also our own club Pelicans in Estonia. Hopefully, this will also help the development of Estonian ice hockey,” said Kolu as the club announced right after this weekend’s encounter that plans were already in place for a return next season.

While last season saw Latvia’s Dinamo Riga successfully play two KHL games at the very same venue, Tondiraba Ice Hall, the Estonian Ice Hockey Association now hopes that this season’s introduction of Liiga hockey can get even more teams to take note of Tallinn as a potential venue. With the Estonian hockey’s poster boy, 24-year-old Robert Rooba skating for Champions Hockey League finalists JYP Jyvaskyla, perhaps he could be next in line for a temporary return home to showcase his skills?

“We are more than happy to host top-level ice hockey events in Tallinn every season. Adding a few KHL, Liiga or SHL [Swedish Hockey League] matches into the local ice hockey calendar on an annual basis would be great for the Estonian hockey,” said Rauno Parras, President of the Estonian Ice Hockey Association.

HENRIK MANNINEN

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