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An American hockey fan in Finland: The WJC adventure story

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It's only taken like a month and a half but finally: here is the epic tale of our trip to the WJC!

If you watched the USA-Canada WJC game on December 26 this year, a game in which America decisively beat the pants off a much weaker Canadian team, you may have seen some goofballs in USA gear waving a flag around and jumping up and down, etc. You may also have seen this article.

Yep, my friends and I went to Finland for the games, and it was a great time. Here’s the story.

We’d been planning this trip for two years.

We, in this case, was myself, my best friend Andrea, and my roommate Josh. We’d traveled to Canada together for a few weekend trips, but neither of them had ever left North America, and I was itching to go again.

"We should go to Finland for World Juniors."

It was perfect, really. I would turn 30 on January 1, 2016; Josh had about nine billion airline miles saved to pay for our flights across the Atlantic and back, and if we played our cards right, we’d be able to visit a few different countries in the process. Those countries turned out to be Sweden, England, and Switzerland in addition to Finland. Over the course of two years we progressively got more and more excited, and in Summer 2015, we bought our WJC tickets for one day worth of games: USA-Canada and Sweden-Switzerland on December 26.

We were a bit disappointed that USA-Canada was on Boxing day instead of the recently-traditional New Years Eve; that was okay, we figured - none of us were super attached to celebrating Christmas, so we’d fly out of New York Christmas Eve, spend a quiet Christmas Day in Helsinki, and then it’d be go time.

So we did. We packed all our things, bussed to New York, got ourselves to JFK in 60-degree weather, flew across the ocean, and landed in Helsinki at 9am. The airline lost one of my bags. Sidenote: if you’re traveling for a sporting event, BRING YOUR GAME DAY APPAREL IN YOUR CARRY ON JUST IN CASE. My bag didn’t show up at our AirBNB until the 27th at night; I would have been screwed if I hadn’t planned ahead. Upon landing at the Helsinki Airport, we acquired cookies and beer at 8am. Merry damn Christmas.

We went to bed fairly early then got up the next day, hyped as hell.

GO TIME.

The arena, Helsingin Jäähalli (or "Helsinki Ice Hall" to we english-speaking plebes) was a half-hour-ish walk from our place, so we went and got coffee and then ventured over, planning to look for a sports bar at which to watch the 2pm game that was taking place across town at the Hartwall Arena, which was Czech vs. Russia I believe. On the way, we checked out bits of Helsinki; what blew my mind was just exactly how high the sun does NOT get in the winter there. You always hear about the shortened days, of course; what people tend to forget about, I think, is the fact that shortened days come with the beauty of near-constant golden hour sunlight. It was pretty cool, and I ended up taking about 50 photos of my own shadow over the few days we were there.

We arrived at the arena, looked to our left, and oh hey look - that place is literally called "Sportbar Töölö. Time to watch hockey. In we went.

The place was covered in HIFK paraphernalia, NHL jerseys and pennants, some Kimi Raikkonen and Mika Hakkinen memorabilia (I’m a big racing fan, so that was a highlight). It was here, too, that we learned about the Finnish beer system - apparently beer in Finland is taxed based on the alcohol content. There are levels, I through IV. III is really common; it’s pretty much on the level of Yuengling or similar. IV is way tastier, but more expensive. I had multiple Finns straight-up tell me that Finns drink for quantity, not quality. Great. So we started drinking. And Canadians started arriving. There was a guy in a Team Canada Corey Perry jersey, another guy in a Carey Price black ice jersey….perfect trash talk victims. I dissed the Price jersey guy’s team, chosen player, actual jersey, country, city, and beer of choice - and then he bought me a beer.

Canada, man.

Immediately after that happened, a bunch of Swedes poured into the bar for the first game of the day, we made friends with a few of them and a few Finns, and after telling a Finn I was cheering for his country over Sweden this tournament, this happened:

What even.

What I didn’t realize was that the entire bar experience - friendly shit-talk with Canadians, a little bit of weird political trashtalk from Europeans, and a lot of beer - was exactly how the rest of the day was going to go.

We went into the arena after half-watching the Czechs against Russia - it was time for the first game of the day: Sweden vs. Switzerland. Time to get excited about Jakob Forsbacka-Karlsson. The arena had a weird beer policy; you could only drink on the concourse (which I soon came to realize was more of an all-European thing than just an Icehall thing) which meant after one period of the Swedes curbstomping the Swiss and that questionable hit on William Nylander, Josh and I went out to get beers and make friends.

This was the view from our seats:

We ended up watching the rest of the game from the concourse with a plethora of new friends, mostly Canadian; we found the guys in the gold lame shorts that were sitting behind the goalie all tournament and took photos with them, and basically made it our mission to get selfies with all the most ridiculously dressed fans in attendance.

I don’t even know.

It turns out that there are a ton of privately run tour groups that leave out of cities like Halifax and Calgary and all sorts of other places - they organize flights and tickets and lodging and transport to and from the hotels within the WJC city of that year, and so many of these Canadian fans had been doing this same tour package type thing for years and years. There were Canadians of all ages - from elderly couples to families with kids to rowdy 20-somethings, all hanging out together in these groups. So many of them told cool stories about going to the games in Malmo in 2014 and other tournaments beforehand. It was awesome and fun and ridiculous and running through them all with my American flag over my head before that game was pretty much one of the most fun things ever. They all also kept trying to get me to put Canadian things on my outfit, which - NOT TODAY, SATAN.

Here is Josh and a new friend

So before we knew it the first game was over...then the two hour wait between games was over...and then it was time.

The first period was nailbiting; both teams had good chances and we went back to continue hanging out with our new friends between periods, the score still 0-0. Somewhere along the way we’d also accumulated some Swedes, still hanging around after their victory, along with a couple Finns and one very drunk, very lost Russian; this one Swedish guy (both pictured below) kept yelling "why are you in Finland? There’s no oil here!" at us. We ended up hanging out with him and his friends for the rest of the night.

Canada scored first in the second period, at which point we all three of us in USA gear got worried and a little bit resentful; there were SO MANY CANADIANS in the building. At one point, they got a giant Canadian flag out, NHL arena style, and started passing it from section to section. They go hard, I’ll give them that.

But so do we. (Here we are, mad off line after the first goal.)

American Hero Colin White popped in a beautiful backhand rebound at 3:27 and it was all tied up going into the third. AMAZING. So back we went for one more round of beers and banter; we found two other USA fans - from Boston, and people I happened to know! - took selfies, made bets with some Canadians on the outcome of the game (one beer for the winner at a bar we’d all agreed to go to after together - I’m not kidding when I say we made FRIENDS) and it was time for the third period.

With 12:38 to go in the game, things got even more ridiculous. USA scored on a powerplay, an absurd thing that trickled in from the point, and we went nuts. Canada tied it up a few minutes later, so back we went to nailbiting until there were about three minutes left in the game.

USA scored, Born in the USA played, AMERICA WAS WINNING. We were all the way past the point of caring what we looked like, so out came the flag, on went the eagle mask and the Uncle Sam hat.

And then my twitter blew up.

A minute later, Auston Matthews stuck a dagger in it, USA was up 4-2, and as the game clock counted down, we just kept dancing with our flag; lots of sad Canadians around us were grumbling about it, probably, but who cares. We got to see a USA victory over Canada! Live and in person in Europe! What a weird and amazing experience!!

WE SANG THE NATIONAL ANTHEM AT THE TOP OF OUR LUNGS.

And then we went out drinking. I’ll spare the details of the rest of the night, but suffice it to say we got home at 5am, none of us Americans paid for more than one drink all night, I added like six people on facebook and I remember about half of them, and my one regret is taking a cab from the arena to the bar - it had started snowing during the break between games, and apparently the Canadians, Swedes, and Finns had a massive snowball fight on the way to the bar.

Because that’s just how it is. World Juniors, man.

The rest of our trip was a blast. We rented a car and drove up to Tampere to catch a Finnish league game, Ilves Tampere vs. Karpat Oulu; Hannu Toivonen was the Tampere goalie! Blake Kessel was on defense for Tampere as well! It was a super cool atmosphere. We all three of us wore our Bruins jerseys, and a couple Finnish guys actually recognized us as being the crazy Americans from the USA/Canada game, somehow; another Finnish guy sitting in front of us, realizing we were American, shared his salmiakki with us and started telling us stories about the Sm-liiga. One of his friends was supporting Karpat, which was also pretty entertaining - especially when they won in a shootout. 3-on-3 overtime on Olympic-sized ice is crazy, by the way.

We also went to the Finnish Ice Hockey Museum, which is in Tampere as well; there are some crazy old goalie masks from the Finnish League that it's really a shame we don't see more photos of over here. Very cool experience.

This one was my favorite:

We left Finland ready as HELL to do Sweden things, but our WJC experience wasn’t over - two of the Canadians we’d met and spent all day with were actually in Stockholm while we were, so we met up with them and raucously cheered against them as Sweden beat Canada on New Year’s Eve. They showed up at the bar in full gear and got teased by SO many Swedes. It was beautiful.

Stockholm was awesome; at midnight, we got to drink champagne and watch people light fireworks in a churchyard as others sent paper lanterns into the sky, with the church bells ringing raucously above us; the next day we went to a Boston-themed bar at Stockholm Central Station to watch the Bruins lose miserably to the Habs in the Winter Classic, and a couple from Charlestown bought us fireball shots; the next day I flew alone to London, and got to watch Arsenal beat Newcastle 1-0 in the pouring rain. We explored London, then traveled to Zurich for a day, and before we knew it we were on our flight back to New York, a bus back to Boston and - that was it.

I came home incredibly appreciative of everyone who travels overseas for World Juniors; the whole time there I encountered exactly one antagonistic Canadian, and his compatriots were quick to shout him down. It’s friendly rivalry at it’s best, and it’s not something that can easily be captured in a story - you really do have to experience it for yourself at some point. It was such a stark contrast from watching on TV and exchanging barbs with the other side over Twitter or other social media. The tournament returns overseas in 2020 - in Prague - and you’re damn right I’ll be there, eagle mask and flag leggings on, ready to cheer the USA on once again.