Champs against all odds
by Risto Pakarinen|07 MAY 2019
The new Finnish champions HPK Hameenlinna celebrates.
photo: Jussi Maatta / Liiga
To call HPK Hameenlinna underdogs in the Finnish league is no understatement. Nobody predicted that they would celebrate winning the Finnish championship, and when we say nobody, we mean nobody. Of the ten experts that gave their predictions in the annual preview issue of Jaakiekkolehti, a Finnish hockey magazine, one predicted they’d finished sixth in the regular season, another had them eighth. The rest had the pegged finishing between 11th and 13th. (Out of 15). 

But here they are, as Finnish champions 2019. 

“Hockey is a team sport, and this here is a huge team, a band of brothers. This is the result of people, both players and coaches, moving forward, developing, and maturing. That, and hard work, which is boring at times, but these players have put in the hours. And now they get their reward for it,” coach Antti Pennanen said just minutes after Markus Nenonen had scored the championship-winning goal in the first OT of Game 7 against Karpat Oulu. 

HPK finished fifth in the regular season, 38 points behind regular season winner, Karpat, and while their leading scorer, Teemu Turunen, finished third in the league scoring, none of their players dominated any of the stats categories (while Karpat, for example, had the top goalie in Veini Vehvilainen, the best penalty kill, and again, a 29 lead over the runner-up in the regular season standings). 

But what HPK had was grit. 

To call the entire a team a group of outcasts would be going too far, but the club had managed to breathe new life into several players’ careers. 

Filip Riska was prepared to take a paycut to stay in Vaasa Sport, his hometown team, but didn’t get a deal. Instead, Riska signed with HPK as their fourth line center and was instrumental as a penalty killer and at the faceoff dot, winning 56 percent of more than 200 faceoffs he took in the playoffs. 

The team’s 22-year-old goaltender Emil Larmi tweeted a picture of an old email, in which HPK informed the then 15-year-old Lahti Pelicans player that he didn’t get a spot on their under-16 tryout camp. Larmi accompanied the screenshot with a “no hard feelings” comment. 

He posted a 93.2 save percentage and a 1.71 GAA in 18 playoff games. 

Arto Laatikainen may have won his third Finnish title (one with Karpat, another with Jyp Jyvaskyla) but when he signed a one-year contract with HPK in the summer, the Hameenlinna team may have been the only one to believe that the 2008 Best Defenseman still had what it takes. He scored six points in 40 games with Ilves last season – and three goals and seven points in this year’s playoffs. 

Valtteri Puustinen, 19, left KalPa Kuopio for Hameenlinna a few years ago when the Kuopio team didn’t see a future for him. Last weekend, Puustinen set up Laatikainen for the 1-1 goal that sent the game into overtime. 

And then, with the less than five minutes remaining in the first overtime, Laatikainen sent the puck from the blueline to Lucenius in the corner. He found markus Nenonen in the slot, and Nenonen’s onetime beat Vehvilainen in the Karpat net. 

“This is a resilient team, and a fantastic story. We were never favorites, in any of our series, but the team has taken bug steps over the course of the season and what’s great about sports is that even the underdogs always has a chance to win,” Laatikainen told Finnish YLE. 

“This club gave me an opportunity to play in the Finnish league this season, and this title means a lot to me,” he added. 

Another sign of how tight a group HPK was is the fact that the third person to hoist the trophy was their physiotherapist Juha Sulin. 

“I’ve watched the handing out of the trophy on TV every season, it feels unbelievable that I got to hoist it now,” said HPK captain Otto Paajanen who was also named playoffs MVP. 

“We’ve been a closeknit group of hungry players who have been willing to put in the work that coach Antti Pennanen has laid out for us. We’ve never given up,” he says.