Puckarinen Hits A Post
by Puckarinen on 11/09/11 at 11:27 AM ET
This Sunday is Father’s Day in Sweden and Finland, and a good way to celebrate that is to take your father to a hockey game. And since it’s Father’s Day, it must also be time for the first international break in the European leagues. Fans can put their club replica sweaters away for a week, and focus on supporting their national teams. In Helsinki, Finland, there’s the first Euro Hockey Tour tournament for Finland, Sweden, Russia, and the Czech Republic while Germany hosts Slovakia, Switzerland and the US in the Deutschland Cup in Munich.
The national team games have different vibes, of course, especially the ones with the host team playing because the crowd is fully behind one of the teams. This weekend, all Finns will wave the blue and white flag of Finland. And there will be lots of them.
The Euro Hockey Tour, the four tournament series of the four big hockey nations, gives their coaches a chance to try out new players, and work with the system because for the European teams, these tournaments function as preparation for the World Championships. None of the teams will ever get all their best NHL players to the Worlds. Finland, for example, won the World Championship in Bratislava with 20 players of their 22+3 players coming from the European leagues. Sweden, the team Finland beat in the final, had 16 players from European leagues.
And for the players from USA and Canada - Team Canada played in the Deutschland Cup last year, and will ice a team in the year-end Spengler Cup as always - these tournaments present a rare opportunity to represent their country. Last year Lee Goren led Team Canada in the Deutschland Cup scoring.
One of my biggest idols growing up was Frank Neal, a Canadian defenseman who played in the Finnish SM-liiga. He was a fantastic skater, he had supernatural vision, his stickhandling was amazing, and he did all that playing with a stick that was 5 feet, 6 inches tall - and to a small kid like me, most importantly - just like the man himself. According to local legend, that’s how he measured his sticks, off the top of his head.
I often wondered about that when I tried to shoot socks into the laundry basket in the house. I only used the stick nside because I didn’t want to break one that had “NEAL” printed on it, and socks because Mom wouldn’t let me shoot anything harder inside the house.
Frank was the first non-Finn to make the SM-liiga All-Star team, and he also won the Finnish championship with Helsinki IFK in 1980, then played fo Färjestad in Sweden for a couple of years, with Håkan Loob and Thomas Rundqvist, now Färjestad’s CEO and GM, respectively.
Frank is also one of the nicest and funniest guys you’ll ever meet.
Ten years after watching Frank’s every move from the Helsinki arena stands, I got an internship at Tackla Canada’s newly opened - and then closed - factory in Orillia, Ontario. On my first day, I sat quietly in my chair in my cubicle, waiting for the boss man to get in and give me orders, when I noticed some photos on the wall behind me.
There were notebooks on the desk, and some Tackla pants on the floor behind the chair, but I was only interested in the posters because one of them was an IFK team photo. Just above it, there was a Färjestad team photo, and next to that one, a poster of Frank Neal in an IFK sweater, celebrating a goal.
And then there was a newspaper clipping.
Of one Frank Neal playing for Team Canada.
Yes, it was Frank’s desk, as I learned a few minutes later when I heard a litany of Finnish words - including “makkara”, meaning “sausage” - from behind me.
He told me that he’d only played a couple of games for Canada, in one of those European tournaments. Except Frank didn’t say “only”. Team Canada is always Team Canada.
I still have that Koho 221. It’s special because it’s Frank’s. And because my Dad gave it to me.
Risto Pakarinen, a Finnish freelance writer, still wears a Tackla hockey belt with his jeans. You can follow him on Twitter as Puckarinen.
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About Puckarinen Hits A Post
Risto Pakarinen is a Finnish freelance writer, based in Stockholm, Sweden.
That's right, he's deep behind the enemy lines. He's also a regular contributor to IIHF.com, NHL.com, The Hockey News, and several publications in Finland and Sweden. He's also covered four World Championships and the 2010 Vancouver Olympics for the IIHF.
And since he foolishly hoisted the Stanley Cup in his twenties, he wakes up every morning knowing he will never be able to win it.