“It was pretty amazing,” said defenceman Niklas Friman, who has been named the new team captain. “Before the season, I don’t think anybody expected us to contend for the title, but we improved a lot. We had great players, great coaching, and the atmosphere we had in Hameenlinna was special. Every game during the spring... I still get goosebumps when I think about it.”
It was quite a storybook ending, winning the seventh game in overtime on the road against Karpat Oulu, the team that finished first in the regular season and was heavily favoured to win the series.
“We had a power play and Niclas Lucenius got the puck in the corner and I was in the middle, always ready to shoot,” goal scorer Marcus Nenonen recounted. “He passed to me and I shot, just trying to hit the net, and it was in. Wonderful.”
Nenonen added: “The next five or so minutes after that are a complete blackout. I don’t remember anything.”
Friman missed seeing the goal.
“Actually, I was in the medial room getting stitches,” he laughed. “I wasn’t even sure which team scored, but I heard the sound while the needle was up around my eye. So we stopped and went to the ice to see what happened.”
“We won game seven in overtime in Oulu, then we flew back and there were five or six thousand people waiting for us at Market Square downtown – they’d been watching the game on the big screen and they waited for us until we arrived at around 1 a.m.,” said Canadian defenceman Philippe Cornet, who is on his second tour of duty with HPK. “Then the next day we had the official parade where 12 or 13 thousand people came out. That’s when you realize how nice it is to win, especially for a small town like that.”
“It was amazing when we arrived back to Hameenlinna and the whole city went crazy for a couple days,” said Friman. “For the whole community it was a very big thing.”
Head coach Antti Pennanen didn’t have much time to celebrate. He was an assistant coach for the Finnish national team and the start of the World Championship in Slovakia was less than a week away. Of course, Finland went on to win the gold medal, and the similarities between HPK’s Liiga title and Finland’s World Championship title are noticeable.
“Both of those championships are good examples that this is a team game,” said Pennanen. “Both with HPK and with the national team last season, we had not the most talented teams but great groups of guys that worked well together.”
The head coach of the Finnish national team was Jukka Jalonen, who coached HPK from 2001 to 2007, leading the club to its first national title in 2006 – its only before 2019.
“He is a legend, of course,” Pennanen said of his mentor Jalonen. “One of the biggest people in the history of HPK. Everyone in Hameenlinna respects him a lot. He’s a very good coach and he’s helped me a lot.”
Hameenlinna is a municipality of 67,000, one of the smallest to be home to a team in Finland’s top league. Yet its location in the south-central area of the country makes trips to many of the league’s other cities manageable, so HPK gets considerable support at both home and away games.
“There’s definitely a connection between the city and the team, and obviously winning last year helps with that, but we felt that the whole season,” said Cornet. “The fans were proud of how we were playing and what we were trying to accomplish. When the playoffs started, I could just sense that everyone in the city was behind us, and we fed off that.”
There were a couple of hometown Hameenlinna boys on the championship team who grew up cheering for HPK and remember the title of 2006 – defenceman Petteri Nikkila and forward Jere Innala.
“It means a lot,” said Nikkila, 27, who was a 13-year-old youth player in the club in 2006. “There’s not a lot of guys who’ve played here 15 years, so it was awesome.”
“He’s one of our key players, of course,” Pennanen said of Nikkila. “He’s one of our leaders. He was born in Hameenlinna so it’s a big thing for the people of the city that he’s playing for HPK. I think he’s going to be one of the legends of the club after he retires.”
Nikkila, who wears an “A” on the front of his jersey, called it “pretty weird” to now be one of the team’s veteran players. “But they’re good young kids so it’s fun to play with them.”
One of those young kids is Innala, 21, who’s coming off a season where he was second in team scoring with 45 points.
“We played well, I played on a good line and got many scoring chances,” Innala said about last season. “It was a good year for HPK and for me.”
“He’s young but he’s a very talented player,” said Pennanen. “He has great speed, he had a great year last year and he’s getting better and better all the time. I think he could play in the NHL someday.”
When told about his coach’s words, Innala said: “It feels good, the idea, but of course it requires a lot of work. That is my dream, though.”
Innala was eight years old when HPK won the title in 2006.
“Yeah, I remember a little bit,” he said. “I watched in the town square in the audience. This year was way better because I got to play and celebrate with the team.”
By winning their league, HPK qualified for the Champions Hockey League for the first time this season.
“We’re so proud to be part of the CHL,” Pennanen said after the team’s first game. “It’s a big thing for us, for HPK and Hameenlinna, and all of our fans. These are very demanding games and we didn’t understand that at first.”
The CHL turned out to be very unforgiving for HPK. In their first game in Plzen, Czech Republic, the Finnish champs had leads of 2-0, 3-1 and 4-2 but lost 5-4 in overtime. They then won in a shootout in Zug, Switzerland before going home to play the same two teams. After another overtime loss to HC Plzen and a 3-2 regulation-time loss to EV Zug, they’ve already been eliminated from playoff contention with two group-stage games to play against Danish champion Rungsted IK.
“The style that these Central European teams play is a little different than in our own league, so it’s a good learning experience for us,” said Friman, who had previous CHL experience while playing with TPS Turku and JYP Jyvaskyla.
Now that the team’s dreams of a European title are over, it’s time to focus on the domestic league, which began on 12 September with a 3-2 loss to Karpat in a rematch of last year’s finals followed by another loss by the same score to JYP the following day. As the champion, the players all know that everybody will be out for them all season.
“I think we’re in a similar situation as last year,” said Friman. “We’re considered underdogs again, I think, so we’ve just got to keep working hard. We know the media is going to concentrate on us because we’re the champions and other teams are going to be ready to play us, but this year is a new story, a new team, and we’ve just got to be ready and play our best.”
The make-up of the team is slightly different. Gone are starting goaltender Emil Larmi – the 22-year-old will attend the training camp of the Pittsburgh Penguins – and top scorer Teemu Turunen, who’s gone to league rival IFK Helsinki.
“These kinds of things happen when you win the championship. Everyone wants your players,” Pennanen smiled. “But we’re one of the smallest clubs in the Finnish Liiga and one of the smallest budgets, so we have to sign young players and work with the players we have to improve them and get the most out of them.”
“That’s hockey,” said Nenonen. “Every year you lose some players and get some new ones, but I think we’ve got a good team again. Our game isn’t quite ready yet, but we’ll get better.”
“We have high expectations, of course, because we won last year,” said Pennanen. On whether or not HPK can repeat, he said: “Of course that’s our dream, but there are so many good teams in the league. First, we’ll worry about making the playoffs, then we’ll see what happens. Mainly, we want to improve our players, our systems, our culture… If we do that, we give ourselves the best chance.”