Legends Lunch evokes great memories
by Lucas AYKROYD|26 MAY 2023
Team Finland posing on the ice with their bronze medals.
Champagne glasses were raised both literally and metaphorically when great Finnish players of the past convened for Saturday's Legends Lunch at Tampere Hall.

Finland currently reigns as Olympic champions in men’s hockey, and also won the bronze medal in women’s hockey in Beijing. Yet that kind of success wouldn’t have materialized without groundbreaking contributions from the likes of Riikka Sallinen, Saku Koivu, Raimo Helminen, Jyrki Lumme, and Emma Terho (nee Laaksonen).

Sallinen is an all-time icon of the women’s game. The gifted and durable centre won the scoring title at the inaugural 1998 Olympic women’s hockey tournament and concluded her decorated IIHF career on home ice with an historic silver medal at the 2019 Women’s Worlds in Espoo. Last year, Sallinen became the first European woman inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto.

Asked who she envisions being the next Finnish woman to enter the Hockey Hall of Fame, Sallinen touted the current 36-year-old captain of Naisleijonat: “Jenni Hiirikoski for sure, but I think we'll have to wait a couple of years. She's a real iron lady! You can see she's still on top of the world. I think she's going to continue playing a few more years. I was 45 when I retired, and I don't see any obstacles for Jenni to do the same.”

Koivu played until age 39, including four Olympics, the historic 1995 World Championship gold medal run in Stockholm, and 18 NHL seasons with Montreal and Anaheim. At the Worlds, the never-say-die playmaking centre totalled a remarkable 56 points in 51 games. Koivu had tremendous role models that set the template for Leijonat success when he was still a teenager.

“1993 and 1994 were my first two years,” Koivu recalled about his national team days. “My local team [TPS Turku] had Hannu Virta, Esa Keskinen, and Timo Jutila on the national team. So for me, they represented that more experienced, older group of guys. When I joined the team, they really took our young guys under their wings and showed the way in terms of leadership about what it really means to play for your country.”

Helminen shares the all-time record for most Olympics by a hockey player with Teemu Selanne. The legendary Tampere-born centre played six Winter Games from 1984 to 2002. When prompted, he cites Selanne, Kurri, and Mikko Makela as three players who come to mind as top talents that he played alongside. Helminen also treasures his memories of the 1988 Olympics as a chance to meet other elite athletes from around the world.

“The Calgary Olympics was great,” Helminen said. “Almost everybody was together. Not the cross-country skiers, but almost everybody else was there. It was a nice Olympic Village. You met a lot of big names. There was Katarina Witt, who was already in Sarajevo in 1984. And Eddie the Eagle [the British ski jumper]! That guy was special.”

Lumme, the third highest-scoring Finnish defenceman in NHL history (468 points), also has an eye for special talent. The three-time Olympian from Tampere, who made his Winter Games debut on the historic 1988 silver medal squad, cites Esa Tikkanen as the life of the old-school national team locker room with his energy and humorous antics. But today, Lumme is most impressed with fellow blueliner Miro Heiskanen.

At 23, Heiskanen owns a Worlds gold medal from 2022 and just recorded a career-best 73-point season with the Dallas Stars. And if the Texas franchise cracks the Stanley Cup final for the first time since 2020, it’ll surely be due to the miraculous play of this HIFK Helsinki-trained defenceman, who is logging upwards of 28 minutes a night in the post-season.

“Heiskanen will be the number one legend if he keeps going the way he is,” Lumme said. “He'll be the number one Finnish defenseman ever, if he isn’t already. He’s amazing! It's just so effortless, the minutes he's playing, the way he comes up with the pucks. There are some other great players as well, but I think he's as close to the perfect player as anybody. He’s defending well, he's active with the stick, and his skating is more than outstanding. It’s unbelievable, to keep that pace up with all those minutes.”

Terho has also maintained a remarkable pace in her post-playing career. The longtime Naisleijonat captain appeared at five Olympics, an all-time record she shares with five other women’s hockey stars, including Canada’s Hayley Wickenheiser.

Today, Terho works as the chair of the IOC Athletes’ Commission to improve the physical and mental well-being of Olympic athletes, to help them find work and educational opportunities, and to create the best possible environment for them at the Games.

Terho also loves keeping tabs on the progress of current and former Naisleijonat stalwarts. And that’s why she’s excited to see their exploits in North American pro hockey.

Next season, Venla Hovi will coach the Metropolitan Riveters of the Premier Hockey Federation (PHF) for the second straight year, with both returning defender Minttu Tuominen and newly signed goalie Noora Raty on board.

“I think it's an awesome thing that Venla has taken the path of going to coach there,” said Terho. “We're not where the North Americans are when it when it comes to coaching. We have our first-ever female coach in the national team with [assistant coach] Saara [Niemi], and then we have a head coach for the U18 team [in Mira Kuisma]. But I think it’s a very great move to have somebody in North America, leading the way, having that courage, being able to have coaching as a profession. And obviously I think having a league where all the best players from the world would be something important for the next step, to have players from different countries competing with one another day in and day out.”

From the elite women’s game to the Stanley Cup finals to the IIHF World Championship, you don’t have to strain your eyes to see new Finnish hockey legends in the making. There will surely be more toasts raised at the next Legends Lunch whenever the Worlds return to Suomi.