Two countries, two hosts, two experiences - Ice Hockey World Cup 2012 in Stockholm and Helsinki, part 2
18.05.2012 - 21.05.2012 24 °C
We were prepared for last patches of snow after the winter, low temperatures and brief spells of torrential rain. We got sunburn instead. And following our Stockholm experience we were also prepared for a somewhat sub-optimal ice hockey World Cup organisation, extortionate prices and distinct lack of fans in the streets. We were wrong once again. Except the extortionate prices, that is. These we did get and they were even higher than anticipated. But on the other two accounts, we happily realised that unlike Stockholm, Finland was ready for ice hockey fans and ice hockey fans were certainly ready for Finland.
The bitter taste of disappointment which we imported from Sweden started to disappear soon upon our arrival in Helsinki, where we were enthusiastically greeted by an Ice Hockey World Cup information booth (albeit in Russian – obviously Czech and German fans were a bit of a rarity even in Helsinki) informing us of the facilities set-up in town, how to get around and where we can get tickets for one of the upcoming matches. And it got better.
With every step closer to the town centre, we were met with steadily increasing numbers of ice hockey fans, promising good atmosphere at the stadium or even in any of the many public houses. Banners were proudly announcing that this was the territory of the Nordic ice hockey stars and billboards kept instructing the native Suomi team to ‘break the spell’. ‘The spell’, as we soon found out, referred to the ongoing failure of the Finns to secure a single medal during any of the many world cups hosted on home soil. It pains me to say that the Finns didn’t manage to ‘break the spell’ this time either, courtesy of my team (Czechs), which pocketed a bronze medal at the expense of the locals. Ahemp…
Unlike other European towns organically forming from tiny settlements around rivers, lakes and commercially important locations into the blooming metropolises they are today, Helsinki has a refreshingly different story to tell. Whilst the Helsinki of today is a desirable place to live, five hundred years ago it was apparently not the case. This didn’t stop the Swedish king Vasa, who fancied a settlement at the Baltic Sea to compete with the commercially prominent Tallinn, to harass three innocent towns into packing-up and moving to where Helsinki can be found today.
Set at the mouth of the Vantaanjoki river and on a number of islands on the coast of the Baltic Sea, Helsinki doesn’t feel like any average European town. Traditional cobble stoned streets and dark alleys are nowhere to be seen. Instead, the centre of Helsinki is distinct by its imperially wide streets and magnificent houses, many of which are decorated by Greek architectural styles, like the imposing white Helsinki Cathedral.
Arriving mid Friday afternoon, we slowly made our way to the hotel. With neither of us being to Helsinki before, we decided to spend the rest of the day by taking a stroll through the streets, finding our bearings and checking out some of the places we might want to see in the upcoming couple of days, subject to the ice hockey schedule, of course.
As far as the ice hockey world was concerned, Saturday was the day not to be missed. The locals were particularly interested in their afternoon feat against Russia, which despite everyone non-Russian supporting the Finnish didn’t quite turn out as everyone hoped. It did, however, turn out as most expected, and Russia victoriously secured a place in the next day’s final. Although we made our way to the stadium, it soon became obvious that our pocket money didn’t quite go long enough way towards the ticket prices and so we found a prime spot in the neighbouring beer tent and joined the hundreds of fans who wanted to enjoy the atmosphere but without the price tag.
Dressed in our Czech support gear, we were ready for the evening match Czech against Slovakia and after enjoying the break between the matches in the sun outside of the Hartwall arena, we decided to walk to the main flow of people to see if we can befriend a ticket tout and lure a couple of reasonably priced tickets out of him. But before we could do that, we were ambushed by a Finish fan that happened to have a couple of tickets which he sold us for less than the price of one. We were ecstatic and didn’t waist any time before making our way inside.
Despite the disappointing (and very much surprising) result for the Czechs, we enjoyed the game and it felt good to see the underdog Slovaks being genuinely overcome by emotions at this victory. Truth to be told, loosing against Slovakia feels like helping our little brother out so none of us was that bothered. Instead, the focus started to shift towards our game for bronze against Finland and Slovakia’s major milestone of playing for gold against Russia. At least that is how I felt after the game. This changed little bit on Sunday when we encountered numbers of Slovaks proudly shouting out their support for Finland, which to me was rather disappointing, as Czech and Slovakia through the similarities of cultures, languages and history are very close and from our side, Slovakia is always our second team of choice after Czech. I shall give them the benefit of a doubt for now …
The Duke on the other hand wasn’t quite ready to think about the bronze medal match - his mind was firmly set on finding a good pub and watching the Bayern vs Chelsea European Championship football final. Knowing that he is a life long Bayern supporter, I was willing to come along. I thought the game was mildly interesting, but the Duke was seriously depressed following a game where Bayern totally dominated normal play, but still only finished with a 1:1 draw, missed a penalty in overtime and then lost the match in a penalty shootout when the last Bayern shot hit the woodwork. Germans loosing to the English in a penalty shootout – whatever next, Jamaicans starting to play ice hockey?
With Sunday being once again busy with two ice hockey matches, we spent the day doing some mild sightseeing, before settling in the Ice Hockey House at the edge of Esplanade to support the Czechs for bronze. Given that we were the only two Czech fans in there, we decided to ‘go visible’. The Duke skilfully located a railing just behind our table and within seconds our flag was greeting all newcomers into the bar.As we soon learnt, this railing served to mark the area where a celebrity speaker (apparently a known Finish goal keeper of the past) was frequently giving his insights into the run of the game, which made us even happier as everyone had to look in the direction of the flag even if they didn’t want to. Fortunately for us, the Finns are a sociable bunch and so not once did we feel under threat, even though the level of energy went down a notch with every received goal and the frequency of side glances in our direction increased with every cheer and chant coming from our table.
Although we enjoyed this experience, we concluded that it would be better to watch the battle for gold in a place where we are not the only two people cheering for Slovakia. Next destination – the Hartwall arena. Unfortunately, our budget didn’t quite stretch (read: willing to pay nowhere near as much as the asking prices) to cover the last two tickets of the championship and so we found ourselves a couple of chairs right in front of the big screen in the beer tent and watched the game from there. In line with all expectations, Russia won the long-awaited gold, although Slovakia was the team of the hearts with its underdog status and noisily cheerful fans.
When we had booked the return flight months earlier, we intentionally got the late afternoon one so that we could squeeze in some last day sightseeing. This proved to be a good move as Monday was by far the busiest day when we also saw the most, starting with a walk through the town centre and past a number of great old buildings leading to an impressive, albeit closed, Russian Orthodox church with golden cupolas, through to a Market Square offering temptingly looking fish dishes and local crafts. Needless to say the fish dishes were too tempting to leave untried. All was topped by a relaxing boat trip around Helsinki’s beautiful island-filled landscape, where the Duke against all odds being so far north managed to get sunburned. What a way to finish the day. We didn’t even mind that our ‘just in time’ arrival at the airport was greeted with an announcement of an hour delay of our flight. Time for a glass of wine and a bit of blog writing…