OULU, Finland – Sometimes the things we decide to call ourselves more than defines us. Even when we don’t choose the name because it reflects exactly what we are right now, or even our aspirations, it sometimes make us what we are. Take, for example, Karpat Oulu, a 70-year-old hockey club from Finland.
Karpat, Finnish plural for “ermine”, also called stoat, or short-tailed weasel, or even Bonaparte weasel, is a northern weasel species that lives in the northern hemisphere, but in Finland, for example, is known as a northern creature. They’re fast, they’re fierce, and their fur was considered so fine, kings wanted to have it on their mantels.
Oulu is a northern city, and a fierce and fast - albeit small - animal is always a good symbol for a sports team, so why would ermine be any worse than a panther, a shark, or a bruin? Besides, ermine happened to be on the coat of arms of the province of Oulu and before that, the province of Ostrobothnia, where Oulu was one of the major cities.
But back in 1946 when three student buddies decided that Oulu needed a new sports club, they chose the name mostly because they copied the new club’s rules from Karpat Pori’s documents and all they had to do was change the name of the city.
These days, Karpat is probably the first thing most Finns think about when they think about Oulu, and vice versa. And the name turned out to be perfect for the club that added hockey onto its program in 1947 (and played its first games in 1949). All through the years, Karpat has always been known for its quick and skilled players, and their fast style that’s got its foundation in great skating. That’s true for most Karpat teams from the 1981 Finnish championship team with Reijo Ruotsalainen to the current team with World Junior heroes Sebastian Aho and Jesse Puljujarvi.
For decades, Karpat has been the lone SM-liiga team north of Kuopio, and like the Montreal Canadiens is the preferred club of the French-Canadians in Quebec, Karpat, too, has historically been the destination for aspiring hockey players all around northern Finland, and the club’s success in the 21st century surely hasn’t made it less attractive.
On the current team, that’s preparing for Tuesday’s Champions Hockey League final against Sweden’s Frolunda Gothenburg, and sits currently third in the Liiga standings, there are 13 players who were born in either Oulu or within 100 kilometres from the city. (And that’s excluding Puljujarvi, who was born in Sweden, but moved to Tornio, two hours north of Oulu, when he was four.)
Karpat is the alma mater of so many players - especially if you consider their youth team to be the one they played for at 16 - that several good players would be left outside looking in on a Karpat all-time All-Star team. There’s Kari Jalonen, the Finnish national team’s head coach and SM-liiga single season points record holder. There’s Hannu Jarvenpaa, World Championship leading goal scorer in 1985. There’s Ruotsalainen, a two-time Stanley Cup champion. There’s Aho and Puljujarvi. There’s Niko Mikkola. There are Juhamatti Aaltonen, Janne Niinimaa, Pekka Rinne, Mikael Granlund, Mikko Lehtonen, Markus Granlund, Lasse Kukkonen, Ilkka Mikkola, Mika Pyorala, Jari Viuhkola, Esa Pirnes, and, if we go all the way back to the 1960s, we’ll find, for example, Esa Peltonen, a Finnish Hall of Famer.
And there’s Joni Pitkanen, 32, who’s been sidelined since April 2013 when he suffered a foot injury in a race to get an iced puck. After years of pain and rehab, he was recently learned to play professional hockey again, and he signed with Karpat, his alma mater.
“Three years is a long time since I’ve been a part of a team since I was a kid. I’ve enjoyed every practice [since his return],” Pitkanen told Finnish Kaleva
“I absolutely want to play in the CHL final, that’s the goal. But we’ll see how it goes in a real game. There are still some question marks,” he added before his first game in Liiga.
He played over 20 minutes in his return.
“I’m excited to get this opportunity, and to be able to play for Karpat again,” Pitkanen said.
The feeling is surely mutual.
RISTO PAKARINEN For more information on the Champions Hockey League and broadcasters and streaming of the final on Tuesday at 17:30 local time (16:30 CET) visit www.championshockeyleague.net. For our feature on the other team, Frolunda Gothenburg, click here.