Hockey in the time of bubble
by Risto Pakarinen|07 NOV 2020
The Swedish team enters the arena from the bus. All four teams live in a bubble containing a hotel and the arena.
photo: Reija Poutanen
This year’s Karjala Tournament has been played under special circumstances for reasons everyone is well aware of. The Covid-19 pandemic dictates that the four participating teams as well as the spectators have to go about their business in a safe manner, if the tournament was to be played at all.

And that’s why the event in Helsinki is taking place while many other tournaments during the November International Break had to be cancelled.

Finland has had, if not the lowest, then some of the lowest Covid-19 case numbers in Europe since March, and the country still has travel restrictions in place, which was the first issue the Finnish Ice Hockey Association (FIHA) had to tackle. 

“Once the football association was allowed to arrange a Nations League match against Wales, and there had been some athletics events in Finland, we decided to apply for an exemption of the travel restrictions from the border authorities,” says Henna Malmberg, communications director at the FIHA. 

The exemption application outlined the plans for the bubble now in use in Helsinki. It included a plan for the players arrival in Finland, their resting for Covid-19, their accommodation, shuttles between the hotel and the arena, and how the teams would exit Finland.

The border authorities, in consultation with the Ministry of the Interior and the Ministry of Education and Culture approved the plan and the FIHA could move forward together with local authorities. 

All three teams arrived in Finland on charter planes with each player having been tested negative for Covid-19 before departure. Upon arrival in Helsinki, the teams used the airport’s private VIP entrance and were tested again, some at the airport, and others – like Team Sweden – were bussed straight to the hotel and tested there. The players waited in their rooms until the results were delivered, making sure they hadn’t been in contact with the other teams.

The Finnish national team checked in late on Monday night, got tested, and got their results when they woke up the next morning.

All tests came back negative after two Czech players’ initial inconclusive tests later showed antibodies. The players had gone through Covid-19 earlier but are healthy and safe now.

“There are no other guests in the hotel, and each team has the whole floor to themselves,” says Malmberg.
The Czech players arrive at the hotel exclusively reserved for the four teams.
photo: Reija Poutanen
“Since we have our own floor and we mostly use the stairs, and have separate dining spaces – I don’t actually even knew where the other teams eat – we haven’t basically seen them at the hotel,” forward Finnish Jukka Peltola told

Masks are obligatory in either Finland or Sweden, that’s the one constant reminder of special times, says Peltola. 

“The bubble has worked well, and it’s almost easy to forget we’re inside one, except for the mask which is a little special for us Finns,” he says. 

“The mask is the hardest thing, it doesn’t feel good to have it on,” Swedish forward Jonathan Dahlen told news agency TT. 

The players are only allowed to be at the hotel and at the arena always with a mask on. Only the dressing room – which was disinfected on Monday – is a mask-free area where the players can behave almost as usual.

Well, the warming up area is different. Smaller, designated to each team as are the stationary bikes that Malmberg says, should only be used by one team during the tournament.

And the teams are happy with the way things have been organized.
Don’t touch these bikes – unless you’re from the Russian team.
photo: Reija Poutanen
“These are different times but I think everything’s been very well taken care of and well planned by the Finnish organizers. Everything has been running smoothly,” Swedish head coach Johan Garpenlov said. 

It’s pretty much life as usual in the dressing room and on the ice, says Peltola. 

Except for one other thing. The Karjala Tournament games are usually sold out, with 13,000 people in the stands at Hartwall Arena. The new, socially distanced capacity of the arena is 4,500 plus the guests in the luxury boxes. At the Deutschland Cup going on in Krefeld they even have to play without fans due to the epidemiological situation and restrictions in Germany, same as in the upcoming 2021 IIHF World Junior Championship in Edmonton, Canada.

“To avoid creating big crowds, fans can only buy tickets in advance and each section has its own entrance into the arena. Once inside, the spectators are masked and restricted to their section, but each section has food and beverages, and bathrooms,” Malmberg says. 

In Finland, there’s also a tracking app, which the organizers are hoping the Karjala Tournament spectators also have downloaded and use. 
Zones for the teams are strictly separated and marked.
photo: Reija Poutanen
It’s a different era. But who knows, maybe some of the new practices are so good that they’ll be implemented in the future as well, virus or no virus. Malmberg wouldn’t be surprised to see media take advantage of the video interview possibilities even when it’s safe to return to the locker room. 

As for players, Peltola says the first few days went by quickly with practices and games, and movies and video games – and age-old shooting the breeze – at the hotel. 

“But I bet this would get old already after a couple of weeks. There’s only so much ping pong a guy can play,” he says, with a chuckle. 

Russia (6-2 vs. Finland) and the Czech Republic (3-1 vs. Sweden) started the tournament victorious, which will continue with games today and on Sunday.