OULU, Finland – When Kärpät Oulu forward Saija Tarkki hits the ice on Friday, in her team’s first game in the European Women’s Champions Cup, her focus will be on her game, her team’s game, and on Modo, their opponent.
That sounds like business as usual, but for the past few weeks, the Kärpät defender has also doubled as a member of the tournament organisation, drafting up team schedules, doing hotel arrangements, and staying in touch with the three visiting teams: MODO Örnsköldsvik, Tornado Moscow Region and the ZSC Lions Zurich.
“I originally just wanted to help my father, who’s our team manager, with the semifinal tournament arrangements in December. He’s busy with his real job and since I’m at home with our two-year-old son, I had some time to work with the tournament,” says Tarkki, who’s played in three Olympics and seven World Championships as Saija Sirviö, before she married Tuomas Tarkki, the JYP Jyväskylä goaltender.
“I’m a woman of action, so my role got a little bigger than I intended,” she says.
Kärpät qualified to the final tournament by finishing second in the preliminary tournament, when they beat Aisulu Almaty from Kazakhstan in the last game of the tournament 4-3 with a late third-period goal. The club immediately voiced its wish to organise the final tournament as well.
“This is a great opportunity for us to show high-class women’s hockey to people in northern Finland where we don’t usually have international games. We also want to show that Oulu can put together great events, and third, it’s a lot cheaper for us to play the tournament at home,” says Tarkki.
A week before the tournament, she turns on her player-only mode, with full focus on the action on the ice. This week was busier than normal, as Kärpät is also in the middle of a playoff run in the Finnish league. They played their first two quarterfinal games on Tuesday and Wednesday, will squeeze in the EWCC, and continue their quarterfinal series next Tuesday.
“A player just loves to play,” Tarkki says, laughing. “That’s the best.”
Kärpät needs a focused Tarkki on the ice. In the Finnish league, the 30-year-old defenceman finished fourth in scoring with 21 goals and 53 points in 27 games. Last year, when Kärpät won the Finnish title, she scored 21 points in 23 games, and added three points in eight playoff games.
In December, she was selected Player of the Month.
“She’s been consistently excellent, and has also made a strong comeback to the national team,” said Mika Pieniniemi, a jury member, and the head coach of Team Finland.
Tarkki knows what to expect in the EWCC, having played in MODO before the birth of her son, and having just played against Tornado in December.
“It’s a much faster-paced game than in our league. You can tell that Tornado has a lot of Russian national team players. The Swedish league is a good one, and Russia is on the upswing, thanks to a push for Sochi. They’re practically pro players,” she says.
That said, Kärpät too has international experience on their roster. Four players played in the four nations tournament at the beginning of February, and five others played in the under-18 World Championships earlier this season.
“We have to play well, but I was really pleasantly surprised at how well those younger players played in the preliminary tournament. I think international games like these really give them a push on their careers,” says Tarkki.
In December, the games attracted good crowds in Oulu, and Tarkki hopes and thinks even more fans will find their way to the arena this weekend.
But enough of that. Now she’s all player.
“I expect us to get a medal,” she says.