RAUMA, Finland – If anyone needed more proof of hockey’s global reach, one of the best cases can be found in Finland, in the small city of Rauma. With four players from Denmark on the Rauma Lukko SM-liiga team, the city has turned itself into a hub for Danish hockey.
The first one there was goaltender Simon Nielsen, in his second season with Lukko. Nielsen had originally come to Finland to play with SaPKo Savonlinna in Mestis a couple of years ago, when Pekka Tirkkonen, a former Team Finland player, took him to SaPKo’s where he was coaching. The two of them had been teammates in Herning a few years earlier.
When the NHL locked out its players in the ongoing labor dispute, Lukko asked Simon if his brother, Frans, a forward with the New York Islanders, would be interested in joining him in Lukko.
“I’d never played with him, besides in the Danish national team, so it was a great opportunity for us to spend some time together, and to play together,” Frans Nielsen told IIHF.com.
Around the same time, Nielsen got a phone call from Philip Larsen, the Dallas Stars defenceman. He, too, had got an offer from Finland.
“Philip wanted to see if it was the same team, and it was,” said Nielsen. “Then we thought it’d be fun if we all went to Rauma.”
That “all” also included the Phoenix Coyotes forward Mikkel Bødker who has the same agent as Larsen. Suddenly the number of Danes in Rauma had increased by about three hundred percent (apologies to possible other Danes in the area: in 2009, 520, or 1.3 percent of the population of the town were non-Finns living in the town, and 51 percent of them were Russians, Estonians, Poles or Swedes).
“It has been a lot of fun. I don’t see Philip and Mikkel that much during an NHL season because they play in the West and I’m in the East,” Larsen says.
For Lukko, having a Danish colony in the locker room has been a jackpot. When the trio arrived in Rauma, the team was last in the standings, with just one win in seven games. Since then, the team has won five of their last nine games and has climbed to a playoff spot.
Frans Nielsen missed a game due to a lower body injury - Lukko lost the game - and he has eight assists in eight games. Bødker has seven goals and ten points in nine games, and Larsen six points in nine games.
“All three of them want to make their skill sets work for the entire team. They give feedback to others, and lead by example,” Lukko assistant coach Juha Vuori said on the club’s website.
Even if the NHLers are in Rauma “for now”, they have quickly become the team’s backbone.
“It’s been surprisingly easy for us to find our place on the team. We’re having a lot of fun with all the players, it’s a great group of guys,” Nielsen said.
“Even if we know that we might not play here the entire season, once you’re on the ice, you don’t think about the situation. We still care about the team, and we want to win,” he added.
Lukko won SM-liiga bronze in 2011 and added two bronze medals in the 1990s, but it has only played in the SM-liiga final once (1988), and the club’s only Finnish championship is from 1963, the pre-SM-liiga era. But the city lives for hockey.
“It is a small town, but you can see the people’s passion for hockey everywhere,” Nielsen said.
Besides Tirkkonen, Nielsen has crossed paths with many other Finns during his days in the game. Teppo Kivelä, Tirkkonen’s teammate on the 1987 World Junior Championship team, also played in Henring, and he says the former Islander Sean Bergenheim is a good friend. Tirkkonen, incidentally, is now the head coach of SaiPa in SM-liiga.
In other words, Nielsen knew there’d be good players in the Finnish league even before he arrived in Rauma.
“I shouldn’t say I was surprised at the level of play here, because I knew that, so I’ll say it is a very good league. The rinks are a little smaller [than in other European leagues] so the games are faster and more intense. And, there are some really good players here,” he said.
And then there’s the added bonus of getting to not just play, but also spend time with his brother.
“It has been a lot of fun. We haven’t really seen each other with me playing in the NHL, and Simon spending big parts of the summer in Finland with his teams, so it’s been a rare opportunity for us to spend time together,” Frans Nielsen said.
The lockout continues, but when it ends, Lukko’s Danes will be ready.
And if it wipes out the whole season?
“I’ll be here all season,” Frans Nielsen said.
Teemu Ramstedt of the Espoo Blues, is having a career season. The 24-year-old center leads the league in scoring with 24 points in 17 games. His record for points in one season is 43 in 58 games with HIFK in 2010. Juha-Pekka Haataja leads the league in goals scoring with 12 goals in 16 games. Ramstedt’s linemate Teemu Rinkinen is second, with ten goals in 17 games.
Ottawa Senators defenceman Erik Karlsson leads the league in plus/minus, with plus-10 in eleven games. The Norris Trophy winner has a clause in his contract with Jokerit that gives him an opportunity to renew the contract a month at a time. He recently renewed it for the next 30 days.
Patrick O’Sullivan has left HIFK. The former NHLer scored one goal and four points in his eight games with the Helsinki team.