In fact, Neman Grodno’s Finnish quartet are the only players in the league who were not born in the area of the former Soviet Union since most players in the league come from Belarus or Russia. One was born in Estonia, one Kazakhstan and one in Ukraine.
And then there is the Finnish Four in Grodno, the league’s westernmost city close to the borders with Lithuania and Poland and one of the biggest cities in the country. Big enough that the team was able to fly directly from Grodno to Vojens’ small airport with a chartered plane.
Grodno’s Finnish “colony” consists of one forward, Timo Hiltunen, and three defencemen: Valtteri Hietanen, Joonas Hurri and Sami Jekunen.
Hietanen moved straight from the Finnish top league, from Jukurit Mikkeli to, Grodno. The other two defenceman played last season in the Danish Metal Ligaen and have been at Vojens’ Fros Arena as visiting team before while Hiltunen spent last season with the Vienna Capitals’ farm team.
“First it was just one guy, Timo, then two more guys and I was the last one. It’s good for us. It’s easier for us when there are other Finns,” said Valtteri Hietanen. “But we know that we have to play well there as imports and help the team.”
While the others have had between one and three seasons abroad, Hurri even two years in China and Japan, it’s the first season abroad for Hietanen after eight pro seasons with JYP Jyvaskyla and Jukurit Mikkeli back home.
“It’s a good city, one of the biggest in Belarus. It’s been nice to live there, we have a good apartment, we have four Finnish players, so we can spend time with each other,” said Hurri, who played for Kunlun Red Star’s farm team in Russia’s second-tier league VHL before spending last season with Japanese club Nikko Ice Bucks in the Asia League and helped at the end of the season Rungsted become Danish champion.
And while there may be things import players usually miss from their home country, they certainly don’t have to miss the most typical Finnish invention: the sauna.
“We have a Finnish sauna in the arena! Usually we go there once a week as a team, it’s nice to have it there,” said Hietanen.
The Finnish Four often hang out together. “Many players have families in our team and many don’t speak so well English, so it’s naturally. But we all have our own apartments,” he said.
“We have a really good team, a good atmosphere. We have good guys in our team. I like it. We practise hard, play hard. It’s been a good season so far but the most important games are coming,” said Hurri.
“This tournament is a really big one for us. It’s hopefully going the right way and it looks like we’re doing the right thing,” he said after the first game.
While Neman takes a break from chasing Yunost Minsk back home, the Belarusian club has the chance to win the Continental Cup for the second time in club history and earn a ticket to next season’s Champions Hockey League.
Yesterday’s overtime loss against the Danish host SonderjyskE Vojens was a setback but Neman still has the chance to win the tournament if SonderjyskE loses points against Cracovia Krakow.
“It was a tough game. Both teams had chances. We should have won the game but they scored and used the momentum better,” said Hietanen.
No matter what the result will be, Neman Grodno will take home a medal and whether it will be more than bronze will be in their own hands as they meet the Nottingham Panthers in the evening game. After that the delegation will travel back to chase another gold medal in the Belarusian Extraliga A.