LAHTI, Finnland – The city skyline is dominated by giant ski jump ramps, and the annual Salpausselka winter sports competition is an established part of the Nordic skiing calendar, but in the shadows of the ski jumps, hockey has always been a part of the city’s identity.
The city that is some 100 kilometres north of Helsinki has always been somewhat in a no-man’s land. Not really a part of the Helsinki region, but still close enough for people to commute there to work, it has had several incarnations as a city. Back in the 1960s and 1970s, it was known as “Finland’s Chicago”, partly because of the high murder rates in the city. Back in the 1980s the city changed its own marketing slogan to “Business City”.
Just the same way, the city’s hockey team has undergone several incarnations form the beginning.
Originally, Reipas, the original Lahti team, was founded when Reipas Viipuri moved from what became a part of the Soviet Union after the war between Finland and its eastern neighbour. Reipas Viipuri had won the first Finnish Championship in 1928 – still the only championship in the club’s history.
After the relocation, the club was called Reipas Lahti, won the Finnish Cup in hockey in 1966, and was a part of the Finnish hockey elite until the 1990s when the team went bankrupt.
They changed the name, and then went bankrupt again. In 1996, the name was changed to Pelicans. And in 2004, the club was close to going bankrupt again, but managed to raise enough capital to stay afloat.
Who knew that the Phoenix firebird was a pelican?
Inside the rink, the story has been similar. The team commuted between the SM-Liiga and the Division I until in 1999, it bounced back and secured it spot in the SM-Liiga through expansion, when the league went from 12 teams to 13.
This season, the Pelicans are flying high. They finished sixth in the regular season, and impressed with their mature and fast play. In the playoffs, the Pelicans took on Jokerit Helsinki, one of the leading clubs in Finnish hockey but have seen their season finished on Friday.
After the latest reorganisation of the club, with former NHLer Pasi Nurminen as one of the major investors, the club has worked hard to build a solid foundation, based on realistic expectations. The ISKU Areena where they play their home games is smallish, with a capacity of only 4900, but when the Pelicans are flying, like this season, the turquoise flags and banners the fans wave in the stands seem to propel the team to great feats.
Head coach Hannu Aravirta and his staff have done a great job in
nurturing young players, such as Vili Sopanen, Matias Loppi, and
goalie Antti Niemi, while also attracting former Lahti profiles, like
Marko Jantunen, Henri Laurila, and Toni Koivunen back home. There are
currently 12 Lahti-born players on the team.
Aravirta’s building project continues at least next season, and with this year’s success, Pelicans have become an attractive club to play for, instead of just an end station for former Helsinki stars. Still, for Pelicans, this season is just one step forward.
Right now, the Pelicans are still on their way, they’re still testing their wings. But with Aravirta, the experienced players, and the support of their fans, maybe one day, and maybe one day soon, the entire city can sing the Bryan Adams song that gets played every time the Pelicans score a goal – and mean it.
We’re gonna win
Dont wanna be a loser - gonna win
Cuz winnin really is the only thing
Get out of the way were comin’ in
If ya wanna fight just step inside the ring
Does anybody wanna take a swing?
It’s gotta be all or nothing
Oh we’re gonna be the champions
Ya we’re goin all the way - we’re gonna win!
Until then, the tune is more like the one they played in one of the playoffs games recently, when a Tom Petty song was blasted off the speakers during the first intermission.
“I’m learning to fly but I ain’t got wings/Comin’ down is the hardest thing.”
That much the Pelicans already know, they have learned it the hard way. So, while they had only a short fight in the playoffs, they’re not going to go for broke this time.
Coming down is so hard.
- Petri Varis, Jokerit, became the all-time leading goal scorer in the playoffs when he scored his 39th playoffs goal in a game against Pelicans.
- The Espoo Blues became the first team to advance to the semifinals when it finished off HIFK Helsinki 4-1 in games. HIFK won the first game, but Espoo steamrolled over them and took four wins in a row. All four best-seeded teams – Karpat, Espoo, Jokerit and Tappara - advanced to the semi-finals.
- Jokerit Helsinki hosts the Pittsburgh Penguins in an exhibition game in October. The game is a part of the Penguins’ preparation for their regular season opener against the Ottawa Senators in Stockholm, Sweden.