As my time in Helsinki begins to wind-down, I’m realizing just how much fun I’ve had here. The city itself is beautiful, the food isn’t nearly as bad as it was at the beginning of my trip, and having the opportunity work the tournament has been a great experience.
When I first arrived, I was skeptical as to what I had gotten myself into. I didn’t like any of the food I had tried, I was freezing cold most of the time and I had voluntarily signed myself up to stand next to sweaty, smelly hockey players that had just finished playing a game or a practice. At first, the part of the city I had explored wasn’t overly pretty, didn’t feature any of the sights I had researched. It was unlike any experienced in Europe i had ever had before. The trip wasn’t getting off on a good foot. But, then things started to turn around.
While I’ve spent much of my time here working, I’ve had time to venture out into different parts of the city, and the surrounding area. I got to see the infamous Rock Church (a Lutheran Church built inside of a rock), Helsinki Cathedral and Senate Square, where the biggest New Year’s Eve celebration in the city takes place. I walked the Esplanade in the city’s downtown core, and I finally found restaurants the served food I didn’t have to force myself to eat. My favourite part of this city would have to be the City Centre. Upon entering the area, it seems like any downtown core. Lights, big buildings, stores, and restaurants. But, when you walk further in, you get to the esplanade. The esplanade has more upscale designer stores and restaurants but, the atmosphere is what really attracts most people. They hang chandeliers in side streets and have lights in trees down the centre median. The roads are cobblestone. This area of the city is so typically European.
We spent one afternoon at the Helsinki market. It seemed like a tourist dominated area but, the views the Sea gave a sunset were so gorgeous. I thought that being in a city that gets a maximum of 6 hours of sunlight a day would bother me but, it really doesn’t anymore. My body’s fully adjusted to the time change, although I’m a little worried it’ll take even longer readapting once I get home.
One evening that we had off, we went to Espoo to watch a Liiga game (Finnish Pro hockey League). The standard of professional hockey is so significantly lower than that of, even the lesser pro leagues in North America that I realized just how good the players we get the opportunity to watch night-in and night-out at home is. Not only is pace of the game slower but, the strategy behind the plays didn’t completely make sense. One thing I consistently noticed were when teams would change. It seemed as though they would always change lines as soon as they established some pressure in the offensive zone.
The atmosphere the fans created is what made the 45 minute trek out to area worth it. From what I’ve been told, the Espoo Blues are in serious financial trouble, and have had to trade away most of their stronger players in order to be able to keep the team but, even that may not be enough to save the organization. I wasn’t expecting there to be a huge crowd out that night since Finland had a World Juniors game at Hartwall Arena but, still nearly 3000 fans were there to cheer on their team. I had noticed that European hockey fans will generally spend the entire game on their feet chanting and clapping, just making noise trying to motivate their team, and this game was no different. It made it very distracting, trying to watch a hockey game while listening to their cheers for 60 minutes but, it created an atmosphere that we don’t have in North America.
The food I had when I first arrived made me want to go home alone. I couldn’t find anything that didn’t make my stomach turn, until we started going to restaurants that had been recommended by Helsinki foodies. My favourite meal was one we had before the Canada-Denmark game. We ordered reindeer and Finnish meatballs. Both dishes came with mashed potatoes prepared differently. Besides my mother’s mashed potatoes, they’re among the best I’ve ever had. Another night, we sampled the most popular dishes at a restaurant called Grotesk (this was an oxymoron because the food was anything but). The drinks they served us had “Halu” in them (I’m convinced it’s a Finnish way of saying tequila because that was all I could taste). Halu’s “a liquor most Finnish people will tell you to never try but you must have at least 2 shots of it, no more than three”, as one of our many bartenders for the past week and a half described it to us. We only had one shot, and that was more than enough for us. We had some other really good meals but those were our favourites. We noticed that there’s a very popular fast-food chain here, Hesburger. It’s essentially the exact same thing as McDonald’s – I’m not sure they use real meat. But we tried it regardless and neither of us got sick from it, so that’s a major plus in my books.
I’m very proud of myself though, because I’ve only had two lattes this week, and one came from Starbucks. We tried the Finnish version of Starbucks, Robert’s, and it was just as good as my regular order from Starbucks. As a Starbucks addict, being in a city with only a few locations has been less painful than I imagined but I’m looking forward to going back to having two Starbucks locations within just a few kilometers.
All that I’ve been able to see and do here has made it less painful watching a Canadian team that’s struggled to really find their identity, and work as a cohesive group. I’ve listened through enough post-game scrums to know that the players know what to say to the media but, what they say and what they actually do are two totally different things. After last night’s game, Dylan Strome said “Finland should be afraid to play us” and, based on the looks on the faces of the media surrounding me, not many believe that. I’m not even sure the players believe that. They aren’t a difficult team to play against because they’re playing a very undisciplined game. They take bad penalties at key times and can’t recover. It looks like most of the lines have very chemistry, and the line that does have chemistry isn’t going to be the line that wins you games. Canada needed their younger stars to step up this tournament due to the lack of returnees from last year but they haven’t found their step yet. Even the returnees haven’t been that great. Joe Hicketts has probably had the biggest impact out of all four players who won gold in Toronto last year. I don’t know what the team’s leaders are saying in the room but, it isn’t working. I don’t think that Finland is worried about playing Canada but, I do think Canada should be worried about playing Finland.