Robert Rooba did that eleven years ago.
Today, the JYP Jyvaskyla forward is a Finnish Liiga veteran who leads his team in scoring and whose 26 goals in 55 games are second in the league behind Assat Pori’s Sebastian Wannstrom.
It’s a journey that began when Rooba was 14 and former Finnish national team forward Hannu Jarvenpaa coached the Estonian under-18 national team with Robert’s dad, Juri. While Robert wasn’t eligible to pay for Jarvenpaa’s team as an underaged player, the Finn recognized Rooba’s talent and got him invited to a Kiekko-Espoo tryout camp in Finland. He would’ve made that team had he not been invited to try out for the tougher Espoo Blues team.
He made that team.
“We didn’t have a big plan before that, and then we just made a decision as a family, that dad and I would move to Finland and that I’d play for the Blues,” Rooba told IIHF.com.
Juri took a job as a cab driver while Robert played hockey and went to school back in Estonia.
“I was so young that it was best to have my father with me,” Rooba says. “Mom had a great job back home so she stayed, and we travelled back and forth as often as we could.”
Robert came up the Blues system, winning the under-18 and under-20 Finnish championships. He made his Liiga debut in 2014 and plied his trade in Espoo until the team was relegated from Liiga in 2016. Juri had returned to Estonia in 2015 and got a job at the Estonian federation.
Rooba has been in Jyvaskyla since 2016 and his trend has been upward all the time. His goals totals have been in the double digits the last four seasons, and his 37 points this season is a new personal record.
“There’s no special explanation, unless hard work is one. I’ve got a bigger role on the team this season, and with more ice time and great linemates, I’ve got more chances,” he says.
“I’ve always believed in my potential and known that I can be a goal scorer. It’s taken me this long to get there and while it may be a surprise to others, it’s not a surprise to me.”
Rooba’s confidence is also at an all-time high, which only keeps the good circle spinning.
“The three of us (in his family) have always had faith in my career. It motivated my parents to make big sacrifices so that I could move to Finland and play hockey. It hasn’t always been easy, but that’s pro hockey,” he says.
“There haven’t been many Estonians in the big European leagues since Toivo Suursoo, who had a long career in Finland, Sweden, Russia, and Denmark. There are several Estonians in the second-tier leagues in Europe, but few in the top leagues,” he says.
Estonia is a country of eleven indoor rinks and about 120 male senior players. The Estonian league has four teams.
“I played in the men’s league by the time I was 14, so if I wanted to make a career in hockey, leaving Estonia was inevitable,” he says.
Just like Norwegian and Danish players have found a hockey home in Sweden, several Estonian players have found it in Finland, a country just a two-hour ferry ride across the Gulf of Finland and related by language.
Of the 22 players on the Estonian under-20 team in 2019/20, twelve played in Finland, and only two in Estonia.
“I’ve got my early hockey training, the foundation, in Estonia, and I’m proud to be an Estonian hockey player. I know hockey is growing in the country and I’ll be happy to help the best I can.
“I want to show young players back home that if you’re willing to work hard and make tough, but right choices, even an Estonian player can make a career in hockey,” he says.
The Finnish Liiga season may get cut short which would also cut Rooba’s chase in the goal scoring race short. But he’s fine with that.
“We’ve joked in the dressing room that to have an Estonian player win the goal scoring title would be a perfect finish to this topsy-turvy season, but I don’t think about it that much. I just want to keep getting better. I think I’m just hitting my prime,” he says.