HELSINKI – The Helsinki Olympic Stadium is one of the great landmarks of the Finnish capital. Built for the 1940 Olympics that were cancelled due to World War II, the stadium was the pride of a nation in 1952 when Helsinki finally did get to host the summer Olympics and Paavo Nurmi, a nine-time Olympic gold medallist, entered the stadium running, carrying the torch.
Its white, majestic tower rises 72 metres high, and outside, a bronze Paavo Nurmi keeps on running.
But hockey has kept its home a few hundred metres northwest of the Olympic Stadium, at the arena that was built in 1966. Until last year when the two Helsinki teams, HIFK and Jokerit, played the first-ever outdoor SM-liiga game in front of 36,644 spectators, a new Nordic attendance record.
This year, the Finns went a step further when first HIFK and Jokerit played their second outdoor game - attendance 34,264 - last Saturday, and then five days later, Finland played a Euro Hockey Tour match against Russia outdoors, in front of 25,036 hockey fans.
It was the first time since November 1969 that the Finnish national team played an official game outdoors. On November 26, 1969 the Finns played against the Soviet Union in Turku, and lost 3-2.
And the national team had only played once before in the Olympic Stadium. In 1941, during a 15-month peace time between two wars between Finland and the Soviet Union, Finland played a hockey game against the Swedes, and lost 11-0. Attendance was 1,182.
Last night, the national team returned to the Olympic Stadium, as the Finns took the game back to its roots. Or, closer to the roots, or at least outside. It’s not that long ago the Finnish teams still played outdoors, and many of the arenas are still in use in the SM-liiga, all the way to the first indoor arena in Finland, the Tampere rink in Hakametsä, built in 1965. A big arena boom came in the early 1970s.
But it was still a bit before the current players’ time, and playing in front of a big crowd, outdoors, under the bright lights, even in minus-15 centigrade, was certainly a thrill.
“I liked playing outdoors, it was a great idea,” said Yevgeni Kuznetsov.
And as much as a hockey game, it was an event, a celebration of hockey with the Hockey Bird, the mascot of the 2012 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship, cheerleaders, fireworks, and fun and games. Before the game, the Finnish players were escorted to the ice by a junior player from each player’s original youth club.
“It was great, and it wasn’t even too cold, we were a little worried about that. But everything was perfect – except our scoring,” said Finland’s Petri Kontiola after the game that Russia won 2-0, leaving Finland still without a goal in its two outdoor games at the Olympic Stadium.
“A great night, and a fantastic atmosphere. I enjoyed every second,” added Marko Anttila, Finland’s best player in the game.
That said, many of the players would have surely been happy to play just one period.
“It’s nice to get back inside for the rest of the tournament,” said Janne Niskala.
The rest of the event will be played in Stockholm on Saturday and Sunday at the Ericsson Globe, Stockholm’s venue for the 2012 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship. Host Sweden started the tournament yesterday with a 2-1 loss in shootout against the Czech Republic.
- Lahti Pelicans’ Jan Latvala played his 1000th SM-liiga game last Saturday. The 39-year-old defenceman debuted in the Finnish top league in 1992, and has since then won two silver medals, with Jokerit Helsinki. He’s currently second on the all-time list, but will pass Erik Hämäläinen’s 1001 games on Saturday, February 18. Latvala recently signed a one-year extension with Pelicans.
- JYP Jyväskylä’s goaltender Riku Helenius is having a comeback year in Finland, after a few less than impressive seasons in Sweden and North America. Helenius leads the league in both save percentage (93.86) and goals against average (1.52 in 25 games). His six shutouts are also most in the league, tied with Jokerit’s Eero Kilpeläinen.
Bird's eye view of the Helsinki Olympic Stadium before the game. Photo: Marko Hannula / FIHA